In a few short, horrifying moments, our country changed in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Three shots from a high-powered rifle, according to the Warren Commission report, were all it took to tear down the veil of perception. And Americans bore witness to a vulnerable country.
The John F. Kennedy assassination sent global shockwaves. The advent of televised media brought the grisly details into homes where families huddled reverently, piecing together that day at Dealey Plaza. For many, that day was crystallized in vivid memory.
“I was in elementary school,” said Joe Melusky, a professor of political science at St. Francis University. “Our teacher was called out into the hallway. When she came back in, she was upset. She told us to close our books and listen – that she had some very bad news. ... We were all stunned. We prayed.”
Melusky said he recalls a tumult of emotion – fear, confusion and sadness. He said when he came home that afternoon, the TV was on. His father had returned early from work.
“They were sad and confused too, but I also remember how angry they were,” he said. “How could this happen to our president?”
Melusky said he gave his students an assignment to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death: Reach out to the older relatives and ask for their recollections of that day. So far, he said, the experiences they’ve reported seem to mirror his own.
When he discusses events that affect political orientations with his students, he said he relates Kennedy’s assassination to Pearl Harbor or Sept. 11.
“It stays with you,” he said. “It’s a lasting emotional impact. ... It’s unthinkable and it so shakes your feeling of security.”
For many, broadcast news reports seemed to be able to provide the answers Americans were desperate for.
Jerry Samples, director of engineering technology at Pitt-Johnstown, said the persistent coverage was unlike anything the media had presented to the American public before – and everyone was watching.
“Everybody in the country watched it for three or four days – the whole thing was played out right in front of us,” he said. “This was the first time mass media was being used for something like that.”
Samples said he was 16, in high school. He and his peers were just beginning to understand government and the political realm. They were old enough to know the rules of succession in the event of an assassination, but they never thought they would see it implemented.
“I think it was a time for all of us when we weren’t expecting anything to happen,” he said. “We were in this Cold War kind of time. ... Then ‘bang,’ he’s gone.”
Samples said there was an air of charisma surrounding the Kennedys. The seemingly enchanted life of the president and first lady in the White House was captured through a series of photos that appeared in Time and Life magazines. The extended Kennedy family firmly held the public eye and the political stage for years.
“I certainly remember the picture of Jack and Bobby on the wall at home, like a lot of families had,” said U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus. Rothfus delivered a speech on the House floor Thursday inspired by the late president's goals – like putting a man on the moon.
“I think it has an impact on everybody who came after him,” he said. “The idealism and the call to public service. ... You read his speeches and very often, you’ll find timeless themes in them. His first inaugural address (‘Ask not what your country can do for you...’) is, I think, a classic American speech.”
Samples said the World Trade Centers were a target on Sept. 11 because they were a “monument to the strength of the country.”
Rothfus said the one thing he thinks people should take away from Kennedy’s legacy is a sense of optimism about what our country is capable of achieving.
“I think it’s important for our country to reflect on our leaders,” he said. “I think it’s important to look at those who’ve gone before us and to take those ideals and try to incorporate them into a new generation.”
Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/JustinDennis.