McGrath: After 50 years, still processing JFK assassination
The presidency of John F. Kennedy was a time of elation, confusion and transfiguration for my generation.
It was 1960 when my father came home with JFK campaign literature, bumper stickers reading “Kennedy for President” and colorful buttons with slogans like “New Leadership for the 60s.”
I was only 11, so my old man endorsing a politician was an alien concept that I could only extrapolate to sports, as with his unrequited love for the Chicago Cardinals, the football team that abandoned him for St. Louis. Or his baseball obsession, which had him never miss a TV or radio broadcast of the White Sox, who the year before had captured the American League pennant but lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.
So it was an unquestioned rite of birth for me to be a fan of Kennedy. I pinned a red-white-and-blue button to my tan school uniform shirt and another to my dark brown tie. I taped two bumper stickers to the glossy covers of my math and religion books.
Because I had no doubt that my teachers and classmates at St. Bernadette School in Evergreen Park would all be united in wanting to “back Jack” for president, I was shocked and a little hurt when I saw classmates sporting “Nixon’s the One” buttons and other heretical propaganda.
Such betrayal was even worse than if they had rooted for the Dodgers because Nixon was a Quaker, and voting for him might technically qualify as a mortal sin.
Sister Mary Carol had given us more than one breathless lecture on the historical wonderment of Kennedy possibly becoming the first Catholic president. This was yet another shock to me, one I kept quiet about, shattering my assumption that all great Americans, including Lincoln and Washington and John Wayne had been Catholics.
Kennedy eventually thrashed Nixon in the presidential debates and the election, and I was confident in the next year or two that I had grown less naïve about religion and politics (admittedly a low bar to surpass).
When I started high school and began to read more than the funnies in the Chicago Daily News, I tracked the first family’s doings like baseball’s daily box score.
While I dutifully struggled through stories involving Cuba and inflation and nuclear proliferation, I hungrily pored over newspaper and magazine photos of Jack, John-John and Caroline at the beach or Oval Office and of the entire Kennedy clan playing football at the family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass.
Dwight Eisenhower had been the only other president I was aware of. I could neither spell his surname nor understand the purpose of the game of golf to which he was so dedicated. But the TV newsreels of JFK sailing the high seas with his family felt prosaically perfect for the leader of the free world.
On Nov. 22, 1963, I sat in study hall at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Westmont playing a solitary, made-up game of desktop baseball (with pens and pencils and a tiny ball of aluminum foil) when the announcement came over the intercom that the president of the United States had been shot.
The principal (rector) let the radio play next to the microphone in the main office so that the clipped, dramatic declarations of the broadcaster repeated, confirmed, elucidated, left no doubt that the first living hero of mine had been violently killed.
When the school bell rang, I walked through a hallway of stunned, speechless students to get to history class. Father McConnel acknowledged the shooting in a single sentence and then said, “I know we all want to mourn, but life must go on.” He then told us to open our books to where we last left off.
I do not remember if at age 14 I understood the irony of our being led away from the subject of the president being assassinated for a chapter review on the Louisiana Purchase. In hindsight, McConnel was likely devastated and at a loss for what to say.
What I do recall are the feelings I walked around with for several days — loss, loneliness and depression.
And of the ever-so-slowly creeping awareness over the next thousand days that the world was more cold, uncaring and inscrutable than my father or Sister Mary Carol could have known.
David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.