Today marks the 50th anniversary of a moment in American history that is considered by many to be one of the most awful days in the history of this country. President John F. Kennedy’s assignation by Lee Harvey Oswald is remembered by locals as a time of lost innocence, where time stood still and reality was peppered with disbelief.
“I remember we had just had our first baby,” said Betty Bass. “I was around 21 years old and my baby was only 18 months old.” Bass was living close to Dunn at the time and she had planned for her brother and his wife to come stay for the weekend. Life was moving along swiftly for their new family.
“I sat in my living room, watching the parade on the news,” said Bass in an interview Tuesday in Newton Grove. ” I was looking at the parade when it happened.” A teary Bass recalled that the only word she could use to describe that fateful day was disbelief.
“It was all we did that weekend. We watched it over and over,” Bass said. “Stuff like that back then didn’t happen a lot.” She said it was a shock of a lifetime for her.
“The most amazing thing I will never forget is when John Jr. saluted his father’s casket. He was only 3 years old. I thought I would die. It was something else,” said Bass.
Others in the community were still children when Kennedy was shot, but the memories are still vivid.
Partnership for Children executive director Victoria Byrd remembers being in elementary school at the time of the assassination. She was in the fifth grade.
“I remember someone came to the door of our classroom,” said Byrd, recalling the woman pulling her teacher aside and whispering something in her ear. Her teacher, she said, began crying, then she composed herself and told the class that an announcement was going to be made. Byrd felt the class intuitively knew something important was going to be delivered to the class. The principal came over the intercom shortly thereafter and told the youngsters that the president had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas.
Byrd said as a fifth-grader she was just becoming aware of politics and really old enough to remember. This was one of the first events in the lives of her and her classmates, she said, having an almost tangible personal meaning to them.
“This event was a death of innocence, a death of innocence of living in a world that is safe,” said Byrd. This brought forth the realization that there is danger in the world. Before, even when they practiced Cold War exercises to duck and cover under their desks, it never made them realize the dangerous world they lived in, she pointed out. While the regular nuclear drills didn’t get their attention, regarding any lack of safety, the assassination certainly did. It was a very personal thing for each of them, she stressed.
Byrd said that this event is what caused her to become involved in politics. One of her favorite quotes comes from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, she said. “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” That quote is what drove her to public service.
“Kennedy was the catalyst that captured my imagination on I could give back,” said Byrd. She said that she has such an unusual clarity of that day. She remembers it being cold.
“Occasionally if I walk back into an old school, the smell of old wood will bring back that day,” she said emotionally. Kennedy said ‘a man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. An idea has endurance without death.’ Those words, Byrd said have stuck with her.
“This is a life-changing movement in time,” she said. “You just don’t forget it.” Her school was cancelled and they stayed out of school for the funeral, and she remembers it all being a sad, sad time. Yet with all this sadness Byrd remembers Kennedy with a great fondness for his charismatic approach to people.
“He blazed trails politically,” she said. “He took on different issues.”
Byrd used to have a box of clippings and pictures from that fateful week. She said the box was lost in a move as a child. She said that Life Magazine did a full spread on the John F. Kennedy, and she remembers holding on to that. Everyone at the school wore black cloth armbands for a week after his passing. At one point Byrd remembers visiting his grave with the Eternal Flame in Arlington. She said it felt surreal to stand beside his grave. She, too, remembers news clippings during the time of mourning, and the one that is most indelible in her memory was Walter Cronkite’s announcement which interrupted the regular broadcast of “As the World Turns.”
Emily M. Hobbs can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 122 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org