Milledgeville resident and local historian Dr. Bob Wilson vividly remembers the traumatic day of Pres. John F. Kennedy’s assassination 50 years ago when he was an 18-year old college student.
“I was starting college at Youngstown State University in Ohio and I was commuting. I didn’t have class until later in the day, so that morning I was taking a leisurely bath at my parents’ home, and my grandmother knocked on the door and said that the president had been shot in Dallas,” Wilson recalled. “When I got dressed, I went into the room where my grandmother and mother were watching the news, and I remember the confusion. We were being told that he had been shot in the arm and that he would be OK. Walter Cronkite came on the CBS news and confirmed that the president was dead.”
For the next several weeks, Wilson, his family and the rest of the nation and the world stayed glued to the television.
“Pres. Kennedy was really getting the handle of the job; he was doing better and better. I think if he would’ve lived and certainly reelected, he would’ve done an excellent job,” Wilson said. “The youth and charisma he had was so inspiring to us. Before him, there were old guys and now here was somebody cool with a good wry sense of humor; we related to him so much.”
Miles away from Ohio on another college campus, former Milledgeville Mayor Floyd Griffin remembers the sorrow-filled crowd at Tuskegee University when the news came.
“It was an awful time. I was 19 years old and I was coming out of class at Tuskegee University when Pres. Kennedy was assassinated. People were upset and crying. It was just a terrible time for America and my fellow students,” Griffin said. “My wife, [Nathalie], and I were talking about it [Thursday] morning and she remembered going to the dining hall at Tuskegee and it was so quite; she never knew it to be that quite.”
Griffin said he felt confused, shocked and sad as to what was to become of the country.
“I was in ROTC at the time, so my thought process was if we were going to get drafted for active duty,” Griffin said. “We didn’t know at the time who assassinated him, so I didn’t know if we were going to go to war or how the country was going to pull together.”
Wilson also recalled the rare opportunity he got to personally see Pres. Kennedy in Niles, Ohio in 1960.
“He came during the election campaigning in a motorcade and he was standing up in the car in the main street,” he said. “I remember this guy with sandy brown hair who looked so healthy and young; I was impressed. He represented hope and renewal and kind of a new beginning. We really, really liked him.”
The 35th U.S. president was shot and killed by a sniper while riding in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas at 12:30 p.m. Nov. 22, 1963. Kennedy was in the city to mend a feud within the Texas Democratic Party and to rally support for his reelection bid.
Both Griffin and Wilson urged other generations to reflect on this period in the nation’s history and the lessons it unveiled — lessons that apply still today.
“I would encourage young people to make sure they go back and revisit history to get a better understanding of what happened in this country since it became a country. It was a different timeframe when certain events that took place changed society, the culture and political frame of the country,” Griffin said. “During that same era, Pres. Kennedy’s brother [Robert F. Kennedy] was assassinated and then Martin Luther King Jr. and the Vietnam crisis were all going on at that time.”
To mark the 50th anniversary, the JFK Library and Museum in Boston will open a small exhibit of never-before-displayed items from Kennedy’s state funeral and host a musical tribute that will be closed to the public. In Washington, Pres. Barack Obama will meet privately at the White House with leaders and volunteers from the Kennedy-established Peace Corps program.
“President Kennedy got people excited about serving and sacrificing for the country. He said, ‘ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country;’ that really worked,” Wilson said. “For his inspiration and call to the most important thing, we can, as students particularly, be actively engaged in the republic because if you don’t get politically engaged you’ll lose your freedom.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.