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 | In November 1963 I was 16 years old and a junior in high school in East Lansing, Michigan. Duffy Daugherty’s Michigan State University Spartan football team was ranked nationally in the top 10 and we were looking forward to the big game with Illinois that was scheduled for November 23. In neighboring Lansing, the Oldsmobile Division of General Motors was in high gear cranking out the big beautiful cars that America loved. It was the high point in automobile manufacturing in Michigan. Life was good and the future was bright.
In 1963, East Lansing had three major components to its demographic. There were the academics, the professors and students of the university, white collar employees of the state government and General Motors in neighboring Lansing, and finally, blue collar workers of the support staff of the university and others who managed to find a way to live in the community. East Lansing was known for having the best public schools in the area and being the “in” place to live. It was the chic suburb of Lansing. The division in our community demographic manifested itself as clicks in the high school. In general the kids hung out in groups according to their socioeconomic status. The kids in the clicks didn’t mix much but they did have some things in common; a school, a community, and a President.
For me and most of the kids attending East Lansing High School, regardless of their socioeconomic status, JFK was a rock star. During the 1960 campaign he gave a speech on the campus of Michigan State. One of my friends and I rode our bikes over to the university to listen. I was only 13 at the time. The speech was given on the steps of the university’s student union building. It was the first time in my life that I had any interest in politics and I remember thinking that I was witnessing a special and historic moment. For my friends and me, JFK was a visionary leader who challenged Americans to be their best. To this day, I often think of his inaugural address with the now famous line, “ask not what your country can do for you but rather what you can do for your country” and thinking to myself “Yes, I need to do something for my country.” I suppose that these days that sort of statement from a president would be considered offensively conservative but it those days it was challenging and exciting.
JFK’s assassination caught all in our community by surprise. It happened on a Thursday, school was closed and we were sent home where we watched events unfold on TV. Everything became so quiet.
A dark, cold rainy weekend followed. The big game with Illinois game was postponed until Thanksgiving Day. Michigan State lost that game and a trip to the Rose Bowl but no one I knew seemed to care much. As a community, despite our class differences, we were united in feeling a great sense of sorrow at our collective loss that our visionary light had been extinguished.