Ramapo Community Remembers JFK’s Death

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald on Nov. 22, 1963. Now, 50 years later, we asked Ramapo faculty and staff members to reflect on that fateful day in history.

“I was a sophomore at River Dell High School and sitting in class when our principal very somberly announced over the PA system that President Kennedy had been shot and school was immediately being dismissed. Every day after school, I walked home with four of my girlfriends, and we would talk non-stop, but on that day, we walked home in total silence. When I arrived home, I found my mother in the kitchen crying; my father joined her when we got home from work. It was a very upsetting and sad time for everyone in the country.”

– Elaine Harm, Human Resources administrative assistant

“On Nov. 22, 1963, I was a graduate student at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now Polytechnic Institute of New York University, or NYU-Poly). The first election for which I was registered to vote was the presidential election of 1960. Young people were immediately drawn to John F. Kennedy. His speeches and enthusiasm for the future captured our imaginations as no other politician before him. We were excited at the founding of the Peace Corps during his term in office. He also seemed to understand the central role that science and scientists would play in the future. 

I was working in the lab on my thesis project when the report came over the radio that he was shot in Dallas (radio played a major role in communications in those days). Most of the graduate students huddled around the radio when we heard the report that President Kennedy was dead. I felt angry and cheated. The assassination was a major topic of conversation among students and faculty. After his burial, a group of us went to Arlington National Cemetery to pay our final respects. A few months later, when I completed the writing of my PhD thesis, I chose to dedicate it to his memory.”

– Arthur M. Felix, TAS professor emeritus

“It was a rainy Friday, and I was a freshman at DePauw University in Indiana. Rumors heard by word of mouth (not Twitter), then confirmation via radio and TV. Then a die-hard Republican, I was less fazed than JFK lovers, but struck that some students drove all night for the funeral procession in Washington. Assassin Oswald’s killing on live TV was shocking and brought constant media coverage into a new era.

My questions since haven’t gone to the conspiracy theories, but in assessing JFK’s legacy: (1) He was slow to question the rising civil rights movement, (2) He was protected by media from his philandering, (3) The huge question was whether he would have stopped escalation in Vietnam leading to the mass tragedies brought by LBJ and dragged out by Nixon, (4) He had sense not to start nuclear war over the Cuban missile crisis so we are all here today, and (5) Beginning the Peace Corps may be his largest legacy.”

– Barrie Alan Peterson, adjunct professor of First Year Experience

“Fifty years ago, I was a first-year teacher at Bradford High School in Starke, Florida, teaching Spanish in grades 7 to 12. This was a very isolated, small town outside of Gainesville where my husband was starting his PhD in physics at the University of Florida. On Nov. 22 of that year, I was helping my eighth grade class with a writing assignment when the intercom came on. There was no announcement by the principal, but instead the radio had been put on for us to hear the news. There was some talk about the president and Dallas and a hospital, and finally we pieced together the information to come to understand that the unthinkable had happened-President Kennedy had been shot.

I went home and turned on the TV to see a disheveled Walter Cronkite verify with visual footage what I had heard on the intercom. The next few days, we slept-walked through what we had to do while watching TV every minute we were home. What was especially upsetting to me was that almost all of the people I talked to in Starke were not sorry that President Kennedy had been killed. He was a northerner, a liberal to them and a Catholic, and they never liked him in the first place.

When 9/11 happened, I was in the classroom in Ramsey, New Jersey, having to teach two classes as if nothing had happened while relatives came to get students whose parents worked in the city. It took me right back to Nov. 22, 1963.”

– Sandra Hancock Martin, adjunct professor of Spanish

“President Kennedy’s assassination to my generation is what 9/11 is to younger people. The day President Kennedy was shot, I was in seventh grade in Bergen County. A call came over the school’s public address system for all teachers to report to the principal’s office. Our teacher returned looking uncharacteristically glum. Even stranger was that he didn’t reprimand us for catching us out of our seats horsing around. He said, ‘President Kennedy has been assassinated.’ The word ‘assassinated’ was almost incomprehensible. It was supposed to be something that happened only long ago, like in Lincoln’s time. School closed early that day; this was a treat for us kids. But outside, as we boarded school busses, I saw groups of teachers crying. Some were consoling a classmate who had become hysterical. These were things seventh graders did not normally see. The next day, the signs on stores all over town were draped in black bunting. On Sunday, my family returned from church to learn that Oswald had been killed. That’s when I became a little hysterical myself. What seemed to be all wrapped up with Oswald’s arrest was now torn open; the world no longer was ordered and safe.”

– Bob Krumm, George T. Potter librarian

“The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a terrible shock. I experienced it in the Rutgers University history department while listening to the radio. ‘Shot in the head’ sounded terrible! I hoped those reports were in error. But Walter Cronkite was such a trusted newscaster that I feared it had to be true. Doesn’t a shot in the head mean death, or even worse-‘a living death’? Then, the horrible news came through: ‘The President is dead.’

My recollection is that the history department chairman-later the acting president of Rutgers and the president of the University of Cincinnati-came out of his office denouncing Southern racists as the murderers in the strongest terms. While sharing his outrage, I thought: ‘How could he know? It’s too early to know who is responsible, even though it is likely correct.’ A crowd listened with rapt attention. I then wandered through the building looking for someone to commiserate with to somehow lessen the pain of the loss through the process of sharing. I ended up in the graduate student office, where two very conservative ancient history students were making snide remarks about Kennedy and implying it would have been better if he died earlier. I glowered at them with a look that could kill and went to visit a German-born sociology professor friend who had been an anti-Hitler activist who survived the Dachau concentration camp. In a shaky voice, Paul Massing spoke of the dozen failed assassination plots against the Nazi leader and the one plot that killed JFK.

JFK had won my enthusiastic support in 1960. I loved his wonderful ability to turn a phrase and promise of a better future. Subsequently, I would come to realize that his accomplishments were quite limited in his thousand days in office and that his failures in the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis were extremely dangerous: his policies had brought us to the brink of thermal-nuclear destruction. This realization helped me to see the dangers of idealizing presidents and immunized me against the myth of his presidency as Camelot. This shaped my work as a presidential psychobiographer and the 38 articles and book chapters I’ve published on the subject.”

– Paul H. Elovitz, founding faculty member and history professor 

“As a person who was 12 and in seventh grade when the president was shot, now, 50 years later, I still remember that day so clearly, like other momentous times in our lives, mostly joyous but some tragic. I liken it to Sept. 11, when the world and everyone in it changed in an instant.”

– Linda Reppert, George T. Potter Library unit secretary

“As my journalism students recently studied the newspaper front pages of the 9/11 attacks at a news museum in Washington, D.C., I relived my own childhood at the JFK exhibit across the hall. The media may have changed, but the images of those tragedies marked a place and time in our memories. My students saw the horror of the towers collapse in color on high speed Internet. I experienced the collective shock of a nation on a grainy, black-and-white TV with rabbit ears antenna. The museum’s images of JFK slumped in the limousine, the video of Walter Cronkite announcing in a halting voice that the president was dead, the sound of thumping drums that led a horse-drawn casket and Americans crying everywhere brought back those eerie days. For days in 1963, America grieved, but did not understand why this happened. And then came the shooting of suspect Lee Harvey Oswald live on television, adding a surreal sense of disbelief. What did America just witness? Television had brought me into a tragic story whether I liked it or not, much the way the Internet’s global grasp of the crumbling towers in 2001 signaled that the world as we knew it would never be the same.”

– Edna Negron, professor of journalism