JFK: A Community Remembers

JFK: A Community Remembers

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Fifty years ago this month, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. While the media is exhaustively revisiting the events of that fateful day, members of the university community are replaying memories that seem quite fresh, despite the intervening years.

For traditional-age students at UNH, the anniversary may hold little resonance.

"Students in my American Presidency course are as far away from JFK as their contemporaries in 1963 were from Teddy Roosevelt," says political science professor Dante Scala. "He's a distant figure to them, closer to FDR and Truman than Reagan."

But faculty and staff who were old enough to be conscious of events remember the day well. Many can tell you where they were, how they heard the news, and what they felt.

Only a handful of events in the last 50 years have had that kind of large-scale emotional impact: the space shuttle Challenger disaster, the Oklahoma City bombing, and 9/11 are among them.

American history professor Ellen Fitzpatrick has studied responses to JFK's assassination through the letters Americans wrote to Jacqueline Kennedy. Of the 1.5 million letters posted, 15,000 are preserved in the Kennedy Library, a trove that Fitzpatrick painstakingly reviewed. The results of Fitzpatrick's research can be found in her book Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation (Ecco, 2010). Letters to Jackie, a documentary film based on the book, premieres later this month.

According to Fitzpatrick, the letters sent to the White House reveal that many Americans experienced JFK's death as a painful and personal loss. It's a response found in the recollections of UNH community members, as well.

"Such deeply felt grief reflected, in part, John F. Kennedy's unique status as the nation's first 'television president,' who lived in the White House during a brief interval when the president enjoyed many of the benefits and few of the downsides of electronic media coverage" says Fitzpatrick. "His appealing manner and vivacious family were on full display."

Moreover, notes Fitzpatrick, Kennedy was televised frequently. He held over 60 press conferences during his short presidency that a whopping 75% of Americans watched. Kennedy's approval rating was over 70%, a figure not matched since by a U.S. president.

"Authors of the condolence letters often invoked the vivid images of President Kennedy and his young family that had reached so many Americans in their living rooms," says Fitzpatrick. "Some of the most moving letters were written by Americans of modest backgrounds who strongly identified with Kennedy out of a sense of shared experiences as World War II veterans, as parents, or as young people striving to move past an older generation."

That strong sense of identification led many Americans to express the loss of the president in terms of family, says Fitzpatrick—as if a brother, father, or uncle had died.

The letters reveal in both volume and authorship how deeply affected Americans were from every walk of life. The sorrow crossed boundaries of age, education, religion, race, ethnicity, politics, and geography.

Since 1963, the nation has peeked behind the curtain of the Kennedy presidency and seen the personal indiscretions and political missteps. Assassination conspiracy theories have fueled concerns about government involvement. But despite the historical revisions and persistent questions, those who lived through JFK's assassination were profoundly affected by the experience and retain vivid memories. For some at UNH who have shared their recollections, the loss was nothing short of a turning point.

The movie about President John F. Kennedy based on the book "Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation" by Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of history at UNH, premiered nationwide on TLC Nov. 17, 2013. The film includes many A-list actors such as Kirsten Dunst, Anne Hathaway, Laura Linney, and Betty White

By Susan Dumais. First published in The College Letter