Tom Jones was in the library of the Art & Architecture building when he heard the news coming through the window from a transistor radio on the street outside. Richard Nelson was in Lawrence Hall, listening to a song by an unknown band called The Beatles.
George McGaughey was sitting in chemistry class, waiting for the professor, who was unaccountably late.
"As we were getting up to leave, the door to the classroom burst open. A very excited student stepped into the room and shouted, 'The President's been shot!'
"I turned to the fellow next to me and said, 'Now, who in God's name would shoot Kingman Brewster?' We looked at each other and said, 'Holy Christ! He means President Kennedy!'"
It was 50 years ago this month: November 22, 1963, the Friday of what was supposed to be our first Harvard weekend.
As George walked down the hill back to the Old Campus, he saw cars stopped randomly up and down the street. "Not just in traffic lanes but helter-skelter all over the roadway, with doors and windows open and their radios turned way up. I could follow the news reports coming over their radios as I walked back to the Old Campus, all trying to determine whether the President was dead or alive. We soon learned the horrible truth."
Tom Judson was on the freshman football team, playing against their Harvard counterparts. "The people in the stands had known but didn't tell us until the game was over," he says. "I remember walking back to the locker room next to Tim Weigel, who was weeping."
Chuck Lidz was in his Poly Sci 30 class, taught by the great Karl Deutch. "He walked in a couple of minutes late and announced that the President had died. Then he lectured passionately about how we needed to stand behind President Johnson against what he firmly believed was the first step in a fascist coup. I heard that it took him almost a week to stop worrying about it. Apparently, having lived in Germany in the '30s had a significant impact."
Tom Maynard loved President Kennedy. "I grew up in a close Irish Catholic family, and John Kennedy was for all of us more than the President. He was the fourth member of the Holy Trinity. The shock when his death was announced was like losing a family member. Worse."
Bob Leahy loved him, too. "When he died, it felt like something inside me died. Jim Manor and I got together in my room in Bingham Hall and proceeded to get drunk on gin. It was the first time I had ever gotten drunk. Manor and I listened to the 'Camelot' album and tried to sing along. To this day I can't stand the smell of gin, but I still like Manor."
The grief crossed partisan lines. "Some of us were great admirers of the President; others, including myself at the time, were less so," says John Lungstrum. "But that was not the point. This kind of thing just didn't happen in America!"
It was evening when Sten Lofgren heard the news in his native Sweden. "I stood on the balcony looking up at the stars and clutching a portable radio. Slowly, I moved the pointer from one end of the dial to the other, tuning in every major radio station in Europe. Everywhere there was somber music interrupted by solemn announcers speaking many different languages, most of which I could not identify, let alone comprehend. What was instantly clear, though, was that they all used the words 'John F. Kennedy' and 'Dallas, Texas.' All of Europe, and probably most of the world, was in mourning in spite of whatever political differences they might otherwise have had."
Sefik Buyukyuksel was living in his native Turkey when he heard the news. But his future wife, concert pianist Idil Biret, was in Boston that day, about to make her American debut with the Boston Symphony. After announcing the news of the President's death to the audience, Henry B. Cabot, president of the orchestra's board of trustees, declared that the show would go on. It was the only concert in the country that wasn't cancelled that day.
"And so we played Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto for a Boston audience that was in shock," she recalls. "Some of the cellos came in too early before I started the cadenza between the second and third movement. It was probably due to emotion. You can feel the heavy atmosphere in the recording that was made during the concert." (You can hear that recording, including Cabot's speech, on Sefik and Idil's website, idilbiret.eu/en?p+318/)
Some classmates, like Carl Williams, spent the day praying and weeping in Dwight Hall Chapel. Others, including Ray Rahn and Ken Kusterer, hitchhiked to Washington for the funeral. "Chuck Schumer (no relation to the Senator) and I put on our suits and went out to stand on I-95," says Ken. "Before even putting out our thumbs, a large Puerto Rican family picked us up, knowing from our suits that we were going where they were. In D.C. we spent the night sitting on our curb spot, and from there we saw the funeral procession the next day. We got a ride hone from a fellow curb-sitter and joined the throng of cars headed back north."
Randy Alfred, a native Bostonian, was only 12 when he met JFK in person. Randy's junior high class was on a field trip to Washington, D.C. in 1958, and one of their stops was a visit with their state's junior senator. Kennedy spoke briefly to the group and then asked for questions, no doubt expecting the how-does-a-bill-become-a-law variety. Instead, Randy, being Randy, asked a sophisticated question about reciprocal trade agreements.
Kennedy threw his head back and laughed, in the manner we all knew so well, and said, "That's a mighty big question from a little boy!" Then he proceeded to give Randy a serious answer to his question.
"Ever since that trip I'd tried to get a copy of the group photo we took with him, but the teacher had misplaced the only copy, and inquiries to the Senate and the White House had proved fruitless," says Randy. "But a few days after the assassination my mom telephoned me with news that the teacher was rummaging through his attic and finally located the original. As I was the only one who'd ever inquired about it, he mailed it to me. When it arrived, I discovered that Kennedy had autographed it. I hung it on my wall. It's still on my wall."
And for Barry Golson, the Kennedy connection went back to before he was born. "In 1940 my Boston-born mother was at Regis, a small Catholic women's college. There was a mixer, and Mom, who was a babe back in the day, was asked to dance by a skinny guy from Harvard. Jack Kennedy and my mother danced together the rest of the evening and hit it off. They had a couple of dates more and wrote each other letters. It was a very brief romance, and I never inquired about the details. (This is my mother we're talking about.)
"So Jack Kennedy was someone familiar to me as I grew up. In 1956, Mom called me over to the TV set during the Democratic convention, when an absurdly young JFK made a run for VP. 'Watch that man,' Mom said. 'He'll be president someday.' At Exeter, I stayed up all night listening to the election returns of 1960, which was more than JFK himself did. In November 1963, as a freshman like the rest of you, I heard the terrible news in Bingham. It was the first death of anyone I 'knew,' as well as the death of a President. I never really got over it.
"P.S. When Mom got back from her honeymoon in 1943 with my dad, whom she also met at a dance, she returned home while my Navy dad went back to sea. She looked in her bedside table, where she kept things that mattered to her. The handwritten letters from JFK were gone. Crestfallen, Mom asked her mother where the letters were. 'A proper wife never keeps letters from her former beaus,' said my Boston battleaxe of a grandmother. 'I threw them out.'"