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Remembering JFK

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50 years after assassination of president, locals remember the aftermath

By Leslie Moore

 

Had he lived, they say America might have been different.

But on a sunny afternoon in Dallas, the nation's excitement for the New Frontier and hopes of changing the world were suddenly replaced with feelings of intense grief, confusion and fear.

In the second year of his first presidential term, John F. Kennedy was shot and killed on Nov. 22, 1963.

Friday marked the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination.

Local historian Betty Jane Gorin-Smith was teaching history at Lafayette High School in Lexington when a fellow teacher knocked on her door and informed her the president had been shot. Gorin-Smith said she and her students were anxious to know if he would survive. When the news came that he was dead, chaos ensued.

Gorin-Smith said teachers and students were crying, and she remembers watching Maria, an exchange student from Peru, overcome with grief. In her home country, Kennedy was loved and admired for his Alliance for Progress Program aimed toward developing a stronger relationship with Latin America.

"Most high school students carry pictures of their friends, but she had a picture of Kennedy in her billfold, and I thought that was unusual," Gorin-Smith said. "But that's how much he meant to her."

On the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis and in the middle of the Cold War, Kennedy's death led to fears of Russia plotting to take over the country or the possibility of a nuclear attack.

Gorin-Smith said uncertainty as to the whereabouts of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson fueled the worry.

"We thought it was Russia, we assumed it was some kind of communist plot," Gorin-Smith said. "We were relieved to finally see Johnson. We were happy to know that Johnson was alive."

Meanwhile in Tennessee, Campbellsville resident Lillian Clark was headed to Peabody Library at Vanderbilt University in Nashville to work on research for a graduate studies class.

"When I first heard it, I was getting ready to go in the door and people were standing around crying, and I asked somebody what was wrong," Clark said. "And they said President Kennedy has just been shot."

While she and her late husband, Robert, voted for Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, Clark said they weren't very political-minded at the time. With the responsibilities of being a pastor's wife, mother of four and a full-time student, Clark said she rarely watched television or read newspapers and didn't know much about what was going on in the world.

But she said everyone talked about Kennedy's death for quite some time, and she was frequently asked, "Well, what'd you think about Kennedy being shot?"

"And we all wondered why the man shot him," Clark said. "Why in the world did he shoot him?"

In the days that followed, the grief-stricken nation stayed close to the television, hoping for answers. They learned of the identification of Lee Harvey Oswald as the suspected sniper, and watched as Oswald was shot and killed by Jack Ruby on live television two days later.

"Then, that afternoon, we watched the funeral procession and wept," Gorin-Smith said. "There was this state of disbelief even when we knew it was true. How could this happen to our president?"

Campbellsville resident Dr. Jerry Kibbons was a graduate student at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg, Mo., at the time of Kennedy's assassination.

Having a strong interest in politics, Kibbons said he remembers many "what-ifs" running through his mind. And also disbelief that Kennedy wasn't better protected.

But he said he never bought into the conspiracy theories that ran rampant in the aftermath.

"I think [Lee Harvey Oswald] was a disturbed young man. I think his time spent in Russia warped his outlook," Kibbons said.

A Baptist minister, Kibbons said he was initially concerned about Kennedy being Catholic. But he said Kennedy never let his religious beliefs dictate his decisions as president.

"He was a person who could learn from his mistakes and admit when he was wrong," Kibbons said. "If he had lived longer, his contributions would have been greater."

As for what those contributions might have been, Gorin-Smith said even those closest to Kennedy are uncertain. Kennedy's younger brother, Robert, once said in an interview that he thought his brother wouldn't have wanted to lose in Vietnam.

But Kibbons doesn't believe so.

"I don't think he would have ever led us into the kind of problems in Vietnam that Johnson led us into," Kibbons said. "I think he had learned a lesson with the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and so his approach to foreign affairs was significantly different."

Gorin-Smith has a special interest in Kennedy because her father, David Hiestand Mitchell, who graduated from Harvard University with Kennedy in 1940.

She said Kennedy received strong support from the nation's young people, especially with his establishment of the Peace Corps. Although Peace Corps workers were paid small wages, Gorin-Smith said there was a sense of self-sacrifice.

"There was the idea that we would sacrifice that to make the world a better place," Smith said.

She said the expense of education forces most young people today to focus on getting high-paying careers in order to pay off their loans.

"It was a different time," Gorin-Smith said. "University education was less expensive, therefore being able to serve in the Peace Crops was a great opportunity and it wouldn't involve too much economical sacrifice."

Clark said there was a lot of racial discrimination in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, and she respects Kennedy for being one of the first public figures to address it. She said the Kennedys were the most glamorous presidential couple that she knows of.

"He would get out and walk in crowds and shake hands, and Jackie was just as personable as he was. Everybody loved her," Clark said.

Even though Kennedy's assassination happened 50 years ago, Kibbons said it's still important for those who weren't alive then to learn about Kennedy's presidency.

"I think there was statesmanship displayed on both parties in that period of time. There was a sense that compromise was not a dirty word like it is now," Kibbons said. "I just think that young people need to have an interest in seeing that democracy really works instead of all of this politicized kind of activity that's going on at the present time."