After spending much of November 22, 1963 in the Tabor College library working on some long-forgotten term paper, I went to my freshman Psychology class.   The professor walked in, looking very sad, and asked if anyone had something urgent that needed to be addressed immediately. “Otherwise,” he continued, “in view of what happened today, I just don’t feel like teaching.”  When nobody said anything, he picked up his papers and walked out.  Stunned, I turned to another student and asked what had happened.  He told me that President Kennedy had been shot.  When I asked if the President was going to be okay, my colleague responded, “No, Kennedy is dead.”

It felt like the whole world had stopped.  It was beyond comprehension.  It couldn’t be true, I thought.  This couldn’t be happening in the United States of America!

My parents had cast two of the very few votes Kennedy received in my community.  They allowed me to skip school so that we could watch Kennedy’s inauguration at the home of relatives since we didn’t have TV. I was absolutely mesmerized by Kennedy’s speech, particularly by his bold statement: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  Later, when he introduced the Peace Corps concept, I was ready to go—completely taken by his call to change the world.  I wanted to help!

And then it ended.

Yesterday afternoon on the 50th anniversary of his death, Priscilla and I visited Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery.  It felt like hallowed ground.  People stood near his grave in total silence.  Some brought flowers; others placed medals, berets, letters and Peace Corps memorabilia by the grave stone.  Those standing in the front of the crowd would linger for a while and then give up their places to others waiting patiently behind them. I saw people kneel to pray; others stood quietly and took pictures.  Some wiped away tears as they left the memorial. Although people kept coming and going, there was hardly a sound except for the occasional whisper as people left the area.

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Today, of course, we are much more cynical about politics than we were back in the day, and more aware of Kennedy’s personal flaws.  However, for that brief shining moment of Camelot, we as a nation were filled with tremendous optimism and hope for the future.  And then it was gone.

As we reflect on this tragedy, I hope that our nation will again dare to dream.   Though we mourn for all that was lost that day, it’s time to set aside our differences and work together in creating a new and better future for all of humankind.  That’s what President Kennedy asked us to do in his inaugural address—and what I was thinking about as I stood by his grave on the anniversary of his death.


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