Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, Yahoo is publishing first-person accounts from Americans who remember the tragedy and recall the era: What life was like in November 1963 in their communities? How did the president’s death reflect their hopes and anxieties? Here’s one story.
FIRST PERSON | 1963 in Pittsburg, Kan., was, by today’s standards, a small (population 18,000+) college town (home to then Kansas State College), rural like Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri in his classic American novels. In retrospect, it was the perfect fit for a small, female foreign student from a third-world country.
Dean Alvin Procter, along with his wife, picked me up at Kansas City Airport and drove me back to Pittsburg (five hours, round trip), just to make sure I was safely delivered at the dorm. Even then, I knew this was an incredibly kind gesture. I don’t think deans do this elsewhere.
Three months into the school year, then President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I remember exactly what I was doing when I heard the news: having lunch in the cafeteria of the Student Union. A buzz spread from the Student Lounge where the television set was on. Then a young man darted into the dining room, making the startling announcement.
I wasn’t sure if I heard right; I wanted the announcement to be wrong. I wanted Walter Cronkite to reassure everyone that by some miracle – The Secret Service took the bullet for him! The doctors performed radical surgery and the President is expected to recover fully! – the President was safe. But at the dorm, residents were glued to the TV, their expressions ranging from disbelief, confusion and finally, grief.
Classes were suspended. Through Thanksgiving week, I watched the TV, sharing in the nation’s sorrow at the funeral, shock at the assassin’s on-camera shooting, gratitude for the outpouring of support from across the globe, and pride in the young widow’s soft-spoken courage. I wondered: How will I – how will this nation survive?
Classes resumed as scheduled. Kansans, steeped in Midwestern values, know to focus on what needs to be done, and then do it. People got up, went to work, did their jobs.
2013 Pittsburg is still small by some standards (population 20,000+) but enrollment at KSC, now Pittsburg State University, has more than tripled, from 2,000+ in the ’60s to 7,000+ this year. PSU recently completed the Kansas Technology Center, with 70 technical laboratories featuring the latest equipment.
Out of the blue and from more than a thousand miles away, I emailed the PSU Webmaster, requesting permission to use a photo of the Technology Center. A couple of brief exchanges and his positive response came within hours. Pittsburg folks remain incredibly kind.