Barry Mills: JFK, History and Family

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For Barry Mills, the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is about recalling a national tragedy as well as the people around him who mattered most.

tv-cronkiteAs we all know by now, tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. For at least some of our current students, 9/11 was a day they will remember forever—only “some,” because, as hard as it is to believe, our first-year students were only five or six years old in 2001. Time flies by and, in addition to 9/11, those of us from the baby boomer generation will also always remember November 22, 1963. We will remember that day because of the national tragedy and also because it is one of those days in our lives that is forever etched in our personal recollection of family.

I was thirteen in 1963 and was in homeroom that afternoon at Aldrich Junior High School in Warwick, Rhode Island. Like tomorrow, it was also a Friday. I was sitting in the back row of the classroom when over the PA system (remember those?) it was announced that President Kennedy had been shot. I remember hurrying home and seeing the replay of Walter Cronkite working to maintain his composure as he announced to the nation that the president was dead. These days, I am swiftly reminded of my own “maturity” when I see a replay of Cronkite’s announcement on the History Channel.

President Kennedy was the first president I paid attention to as a young person. I remember the famous televised debates with Richard Nixon and then deciding to pay closer attention after I read Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage. I obviously wasn’t able to vote at that age, and I honestly can’t remember which of the candidates impressed me more. What I do remember is how those days of “Camelot” affected everyone, even those of us living far away and in pretty different circumstances in suburban Rhode Island.

Today our students study the events of that long weekend in history books and see the images in countless documentaries. For my generation, it all remains vivid: the violence at Dealey Plaza; the fear and uncertainty about what had been done and by whom; Lyndon Johnson taking the oath aboard Air Force One; and, of course, the Kennedy family gathering to bury JFK at Arlington. But it was the televised murder of Lee Oswald that will forever be imprinted in my memory. I was sitting in our living room on Squantum Drive with my parents that Sunday, watching a small television, when we saw Jack Ruby shoot Oswald on live TV. These days, with reality TV, all of this would probably seem less shocking, especially given the horrors we experience in our national and international media on a daily basis. But, back in 1963, that weekend of horrible events and national sorrow profoundly affected us all. There were only three major television networks then (ABC, CBS, and NBC), and so we all shared pretty much the same narration, the same pictures, and the same sense of shock and grief.

It was a family experience to sit and talk to one another and to try to make sense out of what had happened.

I’m sure everyone of my vintage has personal memories of being with their families and of watching and experiencing that dark weekend together. In most homes there was only one way to watch: the family TV. It was a family experience to sit and talk to one another and to try to make sense out of what had happened. My recollection of that experience is very different from the way we have lived through more recent and equally horrible national tragedies, with multiple media outlets and modern social media allowing us to experience these events on a much more individual basis. Back then, it was very different and, for many of us, that weekend a half-century ago reminds us of family. It also reminds us that many of the people with us then are now gone.

None of this is to suggest that the past is better or worse than the present, but only to express my memory of how those tragic days in November 1963 profoundly affected a generation of Americans. As I find myself bombarded by the media with the history of 50 years ago, I can’t help but remember living through it or thinking about the people and places that meant so much to me.

Of course, all of this happened just days before Thanksgiving and, as we gathered to count our blessings on November 28, 1963, America was very much in mourning. This year, fifty years later, I wish everyone a very happy Thanksgiving and a day with family and friends that will bring only the memory of good things fifty years hence.

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In this column, I will continue to offer my thoughts on subjects interesting to me or of importance to the College, but I want to hear your ideas too. If there is a subject you’d like me to address, send me an e-mail at mills@bowdoin.edu

Previous Bowdoin Daily Sun columns by President Barry Mills are available here or on the Bowdoin website.

Comments

  1. Dorothy DeSimone says:

    Nicely said, Barry. I was 10, home from school with a fever, and watching soap operas. I was the one to summon my mother to the TV with the shocking news. An interesting fact, related to the “maturity” of “Uncle Walter”: He was only 6 months older than JFK, which even today I find hard to believe. Thank you for your columns, and your leadership. Wishing you and your family a happy Thanksgiving.

  2. Dave McDowell, '64 says:

    A perspective from campus that day: I was in my room (I was a proctor) at the south end of Appleton, window open, when I heard voices outside relaying the news from Dallas. I and many others hurried over to Moulton Union where we heard the Cronkhite announcement, in shocked disbelief. Later that afternoon as darkness fell many of us gathered at the Congregational Church where people from town and campus had come together. The five days that followed until the Thanksgiving recess began, including the shooting of Jack Ruby and the Kennedy funeral, were not only a turning point for the nation but especially for a cohort of college students who had been so connected to this inspirational young president.

    Thank you, Barry, for sharing your remembrance.

  3. Ray Brearey says:

    Barry, On that tragic day I was escorting the # 1 or 2 ranking officer in
    the US Army Judge Advocates General Corps at a tour of the Pebble Beach golf
    course in Monterey Calif. We were walking through the “posh” Del Monte lodge
    area when a woman with a slight European accent ran out of one of the shops and
    yelled out “your president has just been killed!” It was a shocking story and the Colonel and I will never forget returning to Ft Ord with several tanks and armed soldiers greeting us at the central gate at Ft Ord! Ray Brearey ’58

  4. Glenn RIchards '60 says:

    Thank you, Barry, for your solid comments about a very significant time 50 years ago. I was in the Army then (after ROTC at Bowdoin) in Europe; and I cannot help remember the expressions of sympathy and friendship from French and German friends there. It was most moving and helpful. I took leave that Christmas and flew home for the holidays and was most impressed by all the flags at half mast when I arrived in the USA. The American Church in Paris which I attended while on active duty had more Americans in attendance for the JFK memorial service than at Christmas or Easter. One simply cannot forget all that. GLENN

  5. Eduardo A. Wiesner says:

    President Mills,

    Reading your column reminds me of why it is that I so admire your country and its institutions. Thank you for enriching us with your commentary and perspective on events which shaped you then, shape us now and motivate us to be better human beings.

  6. Charlie Bridge '61 says:

    By 1963 I was serving in the United States Navy Pacific Fleet with a small unit that was testing some classified communications gear. I was at home at Pearl Harbor when a call came to report ASAP to my aircraft at NAS Barbers Point and be prepared to launch immediately. At base operations we were quickly briefed on the assassination and told that we were to fly to a point about 300 miles south west of Hawaii to standby.

    I recall that we were all very quiet sitting there feet up, seats back orbiting the aircraft with the autopilot while waiting, One of the test engineers came up to the cockpit and told us that the communications equipment was up and operating and intercepting some traffic from an Air Force 707 north of Okinawa headed eastbound with the Secretary of State and a large party of diplomats onboard. We began monitoring and told them we could relay if needed.

    What was stunning was the complete disarray and wild speculation going back and forth with some in a preemptive mode arguing to launch missiles, others just confused from the reports coming out of Dallas, others seeming paralyzed. Most of what we heard that day and what our government was using to make decisions later turned out to have been mostly false. This twenty four year old recent Bowdoin grad learned a valuable lesson that sad day.

  7. This is the day for me to write to Bowdoin college : that was the place where I was on nov.22nd 1963.
    A Young teaching fellow in French language at that time . I remember being walking back to college when I saw a flag at half mast on top of a college building shortly before 2 PM , moments after I had been told President JFK had been shot . I felt extremely sad because I knew WE -AMERICAN PEOPLE and HUMANITY- had lost a great great men .
    I spent the 2 or 3 days next watching TV with my Zeta Psy Fraternity colleagues in deep sorrow . No one could believed what happened . As a French host to Bowdoin College and Fullbright scholar I wrote a condolences letter to President (of the College) Coles and later I wrote a letter to a Portland newspaper . What could I, we do ? This is a day of remenbrance , as every nov 22 nd has been for me since .
    Best wishes to all Bowdoin College people . Great school, I hope I’ll visit again before I die .

  8. David Humphrey '61 says:

    A very moving piece, Barry. Thank you.I did not experience the sad occasion at home with my family in America – though it would have been similar – for I was on the “front lines” commanding an Infantry Company in Europe. I have a vague recollection of the best we could do was muster a 21 gun salute to our fallen leader on the parade field. What I do vividly recall, however, is the response of the heart and soul of the people of Germany: for a time virtually every German home put an illuminated candle in the window.

  9. David Humphrey '61 says:

    A very moving piece, Barry. Thank you. I did not experience the sad occasion at home with my family in America – though it would have been similar – for I was on the “front lines” commanding an Infantry Company in Germany. I have a vague recollection of the best we could do was muster a 21 gun salute to our fallen leader on our parade field. What I do vividly recall, however, is the response of the heart and soul of the people of Germany: for a time virtually every German home placed an illuminated candle in the window.

  10. William Bilcheck says:

    Thanks for summarizing the feelings of many who lived through such a tragic event. I was in first grade and recall our school’s principal coming on to the P.A. system telling us that President Kennedy had died. She did not go into details. She instructed the children that school was immediately dismissed and that we should walk directly home. We were not to speak or fool around. Our parents would talk to us about what had happened. My teacher, Priscilla Roderick from Maine, told us to go quietly and directly home. We lined up for dismissal and walked out of the school knowing that something terrible had occurred. As a five year old, death was an event that we were sheltered from. Over the next three days, we learned by way of black and white TV bits and pieces how our President had been assassinated. As five year olds, many of us witnessed our first funeral. We were not allowed to go outside and play. The funeral was treated as very solemn occasion by my parents and the nation as a whole. We were positioned in front of the TV to watch his body lie in State; the funeral service; the funeral procession; and his burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Being young, I had many innocent questions about the whole event (Why were the drums muffled? Why did the horse, that was ahead of the caisson carry the President’s coffin, have a black boot facing backwards? How did they keep the eternal flame lit?) My parents had no answers. One of the Greatest Generation’s own had been taken from them. They sat there watching in stunned disbelief. The TV coverage was the first national event that unfolded in real time before us. Our youthful innocence had been taken from us. Within a few years, the Vietnam War, MLK’s and RFK’s assassinations would unfold, as well, on TV. The age of innocence would be lost to many of us Baby Boomers. President Kennedy challenged the Nation to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade but it took our Nation a decade to heal from assassinations, riots in the streets and the Vietnam War. However, as a Nation we move forward and hopefully learn from history.

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