Where were you when JFK was assassinated?

Like 9/11, the London bombings and the death of Princess Diana, people across the world remember where they were when they heard President Kennedy had been assassinated. Fifty years on, we asked our readers to share their memories, as well as those of their families.

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“JFK’s nieces were in my school”

I was in class. A nun came in to tell us the news, and we had all, very quietly and discreetly, to go off to chapel to pray.

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You see, JFK’s nieces were in our school, and they had to be told separately.

It was all very frightening, as it felt as if we had personally been touched by the tragedy.

Diana Patterson from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She formerly lived in Washington, DC

“The world changed forever”

As a child my family spent some years in the US, and JFK had been our junior senator when we lived in Massachusetts. My father had always said: “Mark my words, he’ll be president one day!”

Having moved back to England, I was on my way to youth club the night we got the news of the assassination. My friends were all shocked, but I was particularly upset.

It was a loss of innocence for me – I realised the world was not the safe place it had seemed to me growing up. I think I wept much of the weekend.

That Saturday morning there was a very peculiar atmosphere when I went to do the shopping; Carshalton was nearly empty, just small groups of people standing about talking quietly, not the usual buzz.

Over the subsequent days we were glued to the TV: the horrific Zapruder tape [a home video taken by citizen Abraham Zapruder, which unexpectedly captured the President’s assassination], the murder of Oswald [the man who, according to four government investigations, assassinated JFK], the funeral, shocking and moving events played out in our living rooms.

As details unfolded I think I realised the world had changed forever. Even after 50 years I still feel a great sense of sadness when I see the footage again, despite the unsavoury accusations about the family that the media was so eager to publish.

How might the world have turned out had things been different?

From Sue Heath, who lives in Sussex but grew up in New Jersey and Massachusetts

“My classmates laughed, thinking it was a joke”

For your American readers this was truly a traumatic event. Literally the unthinkable happening.

I was just 14, changing classes in my first year at Ramsey High School in Ramsey, New Jersey, a small town about 20 miles north-west of New York City.

Around 1.30–2pm eastern time, I was just going between Mrs Parvin’s math class and my biology class. I had on a blue Oxford style shirt and orange plaid skirt.

Rumours were rampant in the hall.  With a schoolgirl crush on Kennedy, I was devastated.

My classmates at first couldn’t believe it. Some even laughed, thinking it was a joke. We soon learned otherwise.

We were dismissed early from school to go home to stunned parents (mostly mothers at that hour). I was glued to the TV for the next four days.

Karen Lubieniecki from Laurel, Maryland

“We expected the outbreak of World War Three”

It was a Friday afternoon. Mum had met me from school, and we had gone Christmas shopping in Bexleyheath Broadway. I was 12 years old at the time.

When we got home, mum went into the kitchen and started preparing tea.  I went into the living room and switched the television on.

I was standing in front of the TV. The BBC early evening news was just starting, and the newsreader was saying that reports were coming in from America that shots had been fired at President Kennedy, and that he had been wounded.

I shouted out “Mum, President Kennedy’s been shot – they say they think he’s still alive”.

In those days the newsreader had to rely on telephone calls, and had a telephone on the desk next to him.  There were no live pictures from the US.  They did their best to find out what was going on.

Mum and I were glued to the television, and so was dad when he came in. There was a lot of speculation about who had done it. We thought it was probably the USSR.

Eventually they said that it had just been announced that President Kennedy was dead.  All programmes stopped and the screen went over to the BBC globe of the world, which we watched revolving for the rest of the evening (or certainly until I went to bed), accompanied by solemn music.

We stared at it, waiting in fear for an announcement that the US had launched intercontinental ballistics missiles at the USSR. I could imagine them speeding overhead, and Soviet ones coming back the other way.

We truly were expecting World War III to break out, which would have meant curtains for all of us.  Reading this, you may think that we were silly, but in those days we lived in daily fear of a nuclear holocaust.

Janice Betson from Littlehampton, west Sussex

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© Alamy

“I awakened my parents with the news”

It was a sunny, Fall day in Memphis. I was in 6th grade, in class, when one of the school janitors came to the room’s outside window and knocked.

Our teacher opened the window and he told her the president had been shot in Dallas. Most of the class heard what the janitor said and we had questions for her, which she handled very well.

She told us she did not know any details and did not know how badly hurt the president might be. I went home an hour or so later and my mother told me the president was dead.

I remember watching TV a couple of days later when I saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. I ran to my parents’ room and awakened them with the news.

At first they didn’t believe me, but my father came into the family room and watched TV with me and confirmed what I had told him.

I recall the funeral, the solemnity, the caisson being pulled by horses, and the Kennedy family trying their best to control their emotions.

Forty years later I returned to Memphis for a class reunion and went to my old elementary school, and pointed out to my wife the room where I first heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination.

Tom Shreve

“Kennedy was part of our generation”

I was sharing a flat with other students in the (now) rather upmarket area of Tachbrook Street in Pimlico/Westminster. In those days flats were available at reasonable cost in areas where it would now be prohibitive.

I had just come in and walked downstairs into the kitchen to join the others. Someone said Kennedy had been shot. “Dead?” I said. “They don’t know yet.”

I was very shocked. We had grown up in a world ruled by old men, Churchill, MacMillan, and finally here was a man who we felt was part of our generation.

It was a Saturday. Later I heard that he had died. I went to a party, I danced with a pretty girl, she excused herself to go to the WC. She never came back.

Not a good day.

Rodney Harris from Norfolk

“He was my mother’s hero”

Sitting in front of the television at just eight years old, the programme was interrupted: John F Kennedy had been shot.

Not aware of the significance, but knowing it was very important (only the most serious occurrences were subjected to a News Flash) I ran to tell my mother.
“No, oh no” was her reply and the tears trickled from her eyes.

Little did I realise the impact that the Cold War had in Suffolk.  With many USAF bases in the vicinity, the fear of nuclear war, especially during the Cuban Crisis, was a perceived persistent threat.  JFK in solving the Cuban Crisis was my mother’s hero.

Geraldine Barker from Suffolk

“An assassination seemed remote and distant”

I was a 16-year-old schoolboy in Bristol in November 1963. I first heard of the assassination when I was playing a table tennis match at the local youth club.

I went home shortly afterwards and remember being subdued and shocked rather than grief-stricken. Unlike many Americans, I did not weep that weekend.

Unlike 9/11, I could not go home and sit glued to the television for continuous coverage from the United States. Live transatlantic television was in its infancy.

If I was sombre rather than tearful, I was nevertheless shocked. An assassination to an English boy in 1963 seemed remote and distant: it was something that happened to Gandhi in India, not to western politicians.

And young people identified John Kennedy as someone different from the politicians who had dominated the European stage. He was young and vigorous. Our leaders were old and distant: Macmillan, Douglas-Home, De Gaulle and Adenauer.

John Kennedy’s assassination was the first of what would be an all-too-frequent occurrence in the years that followed.

Professor Tony Badger, chair of the Kennedy Memorial Trust and master of Clare College, Cambridge

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To read more about JFK, check out the December 2013 edition of BBC History Magazine.