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Kennedy’s unexpected death staggered proud nation

AP file photo Seen through the foreground convertible’s windshield, President John F. Kennedy’s hand reaches toward his head within seconds of being fatally shot, as first lady Jacqueline Kennedy holds his forearm, as the motorcade proceeds along Elm Street past the Texas School Book Depository, Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas.

Editor’s note: This column was first published in November 2018. It includes updates.

Sixty years ago, our nation was in disbelief and mourning. President John F. Kennedy Jr., less than 48 hours earlier, had been assassinated while riding in a motorcade in Dallas.

Those who were alive on that day remember where they were and what they were doing when they learned of the horrible news. Even today, the event remains one of the biggest to the Baby Boomers — many of whom heard about the event while at school since it happened around 2 p.m. Others, however, were at work.

For authors Barbara O’Shea and William R. Parks, both of whom were raised in Dunkirk, it is something they or their friends will never forget.

In 2017, the writers put together a book “We Remember the Day of President Kennedy’s Assassination” that focuses on the memories of many Western New Yorkers on that sad day.

Parks was teaching math and science at an area Catholic school when he learned the news after receiving a phone call from the main campus. He then proceeded to share the information with others in the building who were in the midst of teaching students.

“I walked across the hall to a nun’s religion class,” he recalls, “and knocked on the door and told her the sad news. She made a brief, sad exclamation, closed the door and before I had the chance to leave, the sister asked her entire class to pray and I heard them praying out loud.”

O’Shea, a retired Binghamton teacher, noted the “shock swept through the building like a bolt of lightning,” when her school learned of the incident.

Marrying into an Irish family gave her additional insight. “During this week, however, I was immersed in Irish culture, values, and learned a great deal about the entire Kennedy family from those around me.”

What the book does not share was the turmoil and chaos caused by Kennedy’s death that led the country to a conflicted downward spiral. For all intents and purposes, Kennedy was loved by many Americans. He had a charisma and leadership ability that is not displayed in Washington, D.C., today.

On the sporting fields days after the shooting, controversy was evident. Competing football leagues — the American and National — were not on the same page when it came to playing Sunday’s contests.

Led by Commissioner Pete Rozelle, the National Football League made sure the games went on, which brought a melancholy response. American Football League owners, including Buffalo’s Ralph C. Wilson, thought it better to cancel the events.

U.S. citizens, that Sunday, sided with the choice by the less popular AFL.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had huge shoes to fill, was always consistently a step behind the times while looking publicly overwhelmed. America’s mourning for Kennedy seemed ongoing for years as the country entered an unpopular Vietnam War and divisive era in the later 1960s that continued through the shortened presidency of Richard Nixon.

We got back on our feet in the 1980s, but was Kennedy’s sudden death something America could not come to terms with for almost 20 years?

For those interested, the book is available at https://www.amazon.com/Remember-Day-President-Kennedys-Assassination/dp/0884930378

John D’Agostino is the editor of the Times Observer, The Post-Journal and OBSERVER in Dunkirk, N.Y. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 716-487-1111, ext. 253.

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