President John F. Kennedy at a College Football Hall of Fame (Rutgers was then vying to be the site of the HOF) dinner with Rutgers University President Mason Gross (1959-1971) and General Douglas MacArthur in December 1961.
 President John F. Kennedy at a College Football Hall of Fame (Rutgers was then vying to be the site of the HOF) dinner with Rutgers University President Mason Gross (1959-1971) and General Douglas MacArthur in December 1961.
(All images courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries.) 

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. 

Images from that day and the events that followed remain etched in our collective consciousness—the open-top Presidential limo traveling down the people-lined streets of Dallas; President Lyndon Baines Johnson taking the oath of office on Air Force One beside a shaken First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy; John, Jr., saluting his father's casket at the funeral in DC.

Those who lived through that traumatic period can recall both their initial shock and the nuances of their reactions. Here, ROHA presents a sampling of stories related to the Kennedy tragedy, a touchstone event for multiple generations.

At about 1:40PM (EST), CBS interrupted its broadcast of As the World Turns with the following bulletin:  

Here is a bulletin from CBS News. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting.

The soap opera then abruptly disappeared.  The news spread so quickly that the network did not have time to ready its cameras. 

CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite appeared approximately twenty minutes later, initially reporting only that President Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally, seated directly in front of Kennedy, also hit by the assassin's bullets, had been taken to the hospital.  (Connally later recovered from his wounds.)

Nearly an hour after the initial newsflash, an emotional Cronkite informed the nation that President Kennedy had been killed.

At Rutgers' Campus in New Brunswick, the news caused an immediate disruption to campus life.

Chuck Little, RC '67

The deal was, on Friday afternoon, everybody congregated outside New Jersey Hall.  Richie Novak was a quarterback of the football team and he kind of held court out there with some other guys.  I had German and, when I would come out, they would still be out there, and I was just a little freshman, I'd get in on that. 

The day I came out when Kennedy was shot, there was no one around and I walked all the way up to Ford Hall and there was a kid listening on his transistor radio.  I said to him, "Where is everybody?  What's going on?"  He said, "Kennedy's been shot."  Then, I walked all the way back from Ford to Livingston, which is now Campbell.  I didn't see another person. 

[When] I got there, everyone was just walking around in a daze--not everybody, but a lot of people walking around in a daze--saying, "They've killed the President, they killed the President," and I couldn't make it register in my mind.  "They killed the President?" you know what I mean?

Little, Charles L. Oral History Interview, May 11, 2007, by Matthew Lawrence and Shaun Illingworth.

Carl Burns, RC '64, RBSG '73

I do remember exactly where I was when Kennedy was assassinated. I was doing a pre-flight check on a [plane]. I was in a ROTC flight program. I was doing a pre-flight check on the airplane with my flight instructor. I just turned the radio on and it just said the President had been shot. "Wonderful, now, I've got to go fly."

We were actually so civilized at times back there, we went to the Dean of Student Affairs and said that, "Gee, we've got this party scheduled for," I don't know, whatever night it was, "should we still do it?" or what have you, "and we don't think we should," and so, what we had was, I don't know what you want to call it, a mourning with the girls, the girlfriends and all, from Douglass.

I mean, we just kind of [gathered], no beer, no nothing, no band. We just kind of hung around, because everybody wanted to hang around.

Burns, Carl Oral History Interview, October 8, 2004, by Sandra Stewart Holyoak and Shaun Illingworth.

Robert Melanson, RC '66

I remember exactly where I was. Yes, my father and I, I was going home for another weekend, it was around three o'clock on a Friday afternoon. He and I were in Perth Amboy picking up dry cleaning and it came in over the radio that Kennedy had been shot.

It took an hour or two before it was confirmed that he was dead. By that time, we had gotten home and, of course, I was absolutely distraught, devastated.

I mentioned earlier that my mother was in tears all night. She just could not stop crying and my father finally lost his temper and told her that she had to stop, because it had become intolerable.

I remember that whole weekend just so well. I happened to be watching television when Lee Harvey Oswald entered the courthouse and Jack Ruby came out and shot him in the stomach.

Melanson, Richard. Oral History Interview, December 8, 2017, by Shaun Illingworth.

Check out more Rutgers College Class of 1966 memories of the Kennedy assassination in this 1766 Magazine Extra.

Jim Pressman, RC '67, RBSG '80

Sandra Stewart Holyoak:  Do you remember the day he was assassinated?

Jim Pressman:  I was in Rutgers University, at the language lab, listening to an Italian tape, when he, whoever was running that lab, stopped the tape and said the President had been shot.  We all went back to our dorms and we were gathered in the--behind Demarest, there's a quad, right?  The history building was there at that time--forget the name of it--and there was a quad.

Sandra Stewart Holyoak:  Bishop House.

Jim Pressman:  Bishop House, was that it? yes, okay, just like this one, [18 Bishop Place].  Anyway, yes, we were there and I actually have a picture somewhere home.  Targum took a picture of all the kids gathering there and there's a picture of me standing in the background with my hands on my hips--no doubt deep in thought.  It was a terrible day.  I was [there].  The only reason I could definitely identify myself [is], I was wearing my high school letter jacket. 

So, yes, it was a really, really bad day here at Rutgers, I'm sure everywhere.  I remember, it was the only time they did away with [classes], stopped classes.  They didn't have classes. 

Talking about the technology, we watched the funeral, and I think I watched Jack Ruby kill Oswald on TV.  It was a black-and-white TV with "rabbit ears" [antennae] and we watched it.  I don't know if it was at "The Ledge" or somewhere in somebody's room, because we didn't have TVs in the rooms.  By today's standards, it was pretty Spartan.  [laughter]

[Editor's Note: Lee Harvey Oswald, the primary suspect in the assassination, was himself killed by Jack Ruby on live television days later.]

Patrick Lee:  Demarest is still pretty Spartan.

Jim Pressman:  Yes.  Well, we had a payphone, one payphone for twenty-five guys, or something like that, and we couldn't have girls in the room.  We had a radio and we had no TVs, I know that.  I mean, like I said, when Kennedy was assassinated, we had to find a TV somewhere.

Pressman, James L. Oral History Interview, April 22, 2009, by Sandra Stewart Holyoak and Patrick Lee.

As the day progressed, many left work or school to seek out more news. Emotions began to run high as the meaning of the events sank into the national psyche.

James W. Chernesky, Manville, NJ resident

Gregg Flynn:  Do you remember the Kennedy assassination?

James W. Chernesky:  Yes, I remember exactly where I was working, what I was doing, everything.  I was working in Rayville, it was a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse, Revolutionary War, refurbishing an old farmhouse.  I was working for Riccadonnas Home Improvements, and I was scrapping twelve-inch baseboard, getting the old paint off it, when that happened. 

Then we quit work and went home.  It came over the radio, we had the radio on, we had no TV.  We heard everybody stop, and, of course, listen for a while to find out what's going on, then we just quit working.

Chernesky, James Oral History Interview, December 12, 2008, by Shaun Illingworth, Greg Flynn, and Jason Chernesky.

Richard R. Bird, RC '66

Shaun Illingworth: You come to Fort Knox and you are in this unit as a clerk. You kind of described your daily activities, but what was your typical day like?

Richard R. Bird: Well, I remember when we first got there, we hadn't been assigned duties yet, so, we were just kind of sitting around the barracks, shining our shoes. I remember being in this big bay with a bunch of GIs and listening to music on the radio.

There's an announcement, comes on the radio. It says that President Kennedy and Governor Connally have been shot in Dallas, Texas, with automatic weapons by multiple assailants, but they're expected to survive." Then, they went back to the music, and nobody paid any attention to it. I said, "Hey, didn't anybody hear what just happened?" and nobody had heard it.

Bird, Richard R. Oral History Interview, April 6, 2012, by Shaun Illingworth.

Connie Hirshon, Montclair, NJ resident

We felt it deeply, the assassination of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, my God, one felt these things so deeply. I remember being in a drug store and seeing John Kennedy's assassination on the TV and tears running down my face and the cashier not knowing what was the matter with me, but I was sobbing. Anybody can be affected anywhere at any time.

Hirshon, Connie. Oral History Interview, June 4, 2016 by Molly Graham.

Michael A. Rockland, Rutgers Faculty

We went out on the beach, my first wife and me and our two little boys.  I didn't lay down on the sand five minutes before some man, who was wearing a very loud tropical shirt, yelled, "They've shot the President," and I went half nuts. 

I mean, I went up to this guy and grabbed him by his collar, because I was such a Kennedy guy then.  I grabbed him by his collar, I said, "That's not funny," but it had happened.  We spent the next four days, essentially, sitting, which is the time we were in Miami, hardly getting any sun at all, and, basically, just watching television in our hotel room and crying. 

I mean, it was just so powerful, it was so dramatic, so awful, so tragic, and then, the fact that, surrounded by cops, Jack Ruby makes his way down into that basement, where they were transferring [Lee Harvey] Oswald, and shoots him.

I mean, God, you had all this happening live.  We're watching this live.  It was just incredible.  I often say that was the day my youth ended.  I hope I'll always be youthful, my whole life, but my youth ended in the sense that the power of the disillusionment, the horror of it, changed me.

Rockland, Michael Aaron Oral History Interview, October 7, 2009, by Shaun Illingworth and Daniel Ruggiero.

Robert Owen, ENG '41       

A career diplomat, Mr. Owen worked at the State Department's Soviet desk in November 1963.

Robert Owen: I was there in Soviet affairs, of course, when Kennedy was assassinated. That was a difficult time because our office had been the one dealing directly with the Embassy's Consular Section in Moscow, which had relations to aiding, his return, (the assassin's) return to the United States.

And so immediately we were a focal point of the investigation. What information we had and everything that dealt with it. One of my friends is still now, once in while, being queried, who had been a consular officer dealing with him in Moscow. Still they sometimes come around and ask him questions.

Kurt Piehler: Lee Harvey Oswald.

Robert Owen: Lee Harvey Oswald, yeah. But you can imagine, whether I was in the department, I think I was in the Department, that day, I forget now whether it was Saturday or Sunday, Mary would remember. But we often worked Saturday morning catching up on what I hadn't been able to finish by Friday night. And I think it was there the word came through about the assassination.

But then gradually, I forget how, and I was in the State Department, and the word was going, people were running up and down the halls of the State Department, shouting, "The President's been assassinated. The President's been shot in Dallas." And they got more and more excited.

But then you can imagine how our particular group felt when we heard it was Lee Harvey Oswald and someone said, "Well, he's the one that we provided some assistance to in ... returning to the United States after he defected, right?" So then we got kind of excited about all that.

Owen, Robert I. Oral History Interview, July 24, 1997, by G. Kurt Piehler and Melanie Cooper and Sandra Stewart Holyoak and Linda Lasko.

For children in elementary and high schools across New Jersey, the US and the globe, hearing the news would become one of the foundational memories of their youth.

Marian Calabro, RC '76

Kennedy's assassination, November 22, 1963. That was a Friday afternoon. I was in fourth grade. The nuns revered John Kennedy, and my parents, I'm pretty sure that's the only Democratic vote they ever cast because he was Catholic. Just being stunned by the news. We were let out of school early. It wasn't that early because it was the afternoon, I think, by the time the full news came through, and walking home with my girlfriend and talking about it.

Calabro, Marian. Oral History Interview, March 22, 2023, by Kathryn Tracy Rizzi.

Peg Van Kleef, RC '76

Then, in fourth grade, another turn when JFK was assassinated. That was monumental. The principal, I think, came in and told us, "The President's been shot," and that's really all we knew. As a fourth grader, I had no concept of what that meant for the world or for our country, and they dismissed us early.

I walked home, and my mother was home. She would often have part-time jobs and not be home. She was on the phone with her back to me, and I said, "Hi, Mom." She turned around, and she was crying. I had never seen my mother cry before. I realized then that this was very serious. We spent the next week watching TV and Lee Harvey Oswald and the whole subsequent horrible things that happened as a result of that.

Van Kleef, Peg. Oral History Interview, April 14, 2022, by Shaun Illingworth.

William Fernekes, RC '74, GSNB '78, GSED '85

Melinda Kinhofer: What was the reaction of your family to John F. Kennedy's assassination?

William Fernekes: It was a terrible thing. I can tell you exactly where I was that day, sitting in sixth grade, Dow Avenue Elementary School, Mrs. Mohn's classroom, it came over the intercom. They put on the radio. I'll never forget it. She was terribly distraught, and the guy next to me, Bob Goldstein, said, after it was announced, he said, "Good."

Then, school was closed, you stayed home and, you know, I can still see the black-and-white TV with the funeral cortege. I didn't see the actual killing of Oswald, you know, the shooting by Ruby, but it was a terrible time.

My father is a Republican, he is a conservative. My mother was really a Democrat. My mother suppressed her political ideas a lot, under my father. My father was sort of overbearing about that stuff, and she always said, "Voting is my business." He would pressure her, "Oh, you've got to vote for Nixon. You've got to vote for," you know, and she would say, "Leave me alone."

That's something they negotiated, but it was pretty clear that the Kennedy assassination was a terrible thing.

Fernekes, William R. Oral History Interview, October 23, 2009, by Shaun Illingworth, Kristie Thomas, Damien Kulikowski and Melinda Kinhofer.

Bruce McLeod, Jamaica (later Cranbury, NJ)

[A]ctually, when I was in high school, I came home and my aunt was crying, because I was staying with my aunt and she was crying.  I didn't hear the news, and she was telling me, and I was shocked, you know, and everybody was, I mean in tears. 

I mean everybody loved Kennedy.  I mean, I guess, you know, we got, you know, I know we always read Look magazine, and they were in there, and they were, you know, like this young bright [man]. 

Sandra Stewart Holyoak:  Camelot.

Bruce McLeod:  Yes, you know, new fresh ideas that seemed to be progressive, and people all over the world kind of had that feeling that they were, you know, this was a special change, you know, from the ordinary.  So, yes, it was very big.  I mean everyone was very sad at that news.

McLeod, Bruce Oral History Interview, March 22, 2011, by Sandra Stewart Holyoak and David Ley.

Gregg Anderson, RC '70

What I remember most in high school was probably Kennedy's assassination in 1963. I was in Mr. Sargent's English class, and a girl came in with a note. He goes, "What am I supposed to do with this?" He just read it to us, and the rest of the day was just chaos. They sent us all home. But that's one of those events in history that you never forget. School was closed for the next three days, and we watched television.

Anderson, Gregg. Oral History Interview, October 8, 2020, by Shaun Illingworth and Jessica Aumick.

Ronald Stokes, Rutgers-Newark '83

Andrew Sutphen: Going back to high school, what were the reactions to the assassination of President Kennedy? Do you remember?

Ronald Stokes: Well, we were all students. I guess shock was the biggest thing, shock from the fact that here's a great symbol of our country, the President of the United States, and he got killed and the wonderment of, "Where else is this all going to go? How far is this going to reach?" I don't think we were sophisticated enough to understand all of the political ramifications of this, and so on, that went on. So, it was more of an awareness, I would think.

Stokes, Ronald J. Oral History Interview, March 27, 2015, by Shaun Illingworth, Siri Nesheim, Andrew Sutphen.

Ken Mandel, ENG '69

Then, of course when we were in high school, you know, Kennedy is assassinated.  So, this was huge.  [It] was the fall of my senior year, and he, you know, everyone remembers where they were.  We were in gym, I think outside and somebody said that, "The President was shot," and by the time we went inside they announced that he was dead.  It was a Friday, school was just about over at the time.  So, we went home, and we pretty much watched TV the rest of the weekend as that all unfolded. 

That, of course, just confused everybody, as to this day we don't really know who did it, why they did it, or how many people were involved in the whole, you know, but it sure shook people up quite a bit, including parents and adults.  They were just completely flummoxed about how it can happen, and why.  Then it was off to college, pretty much, I think.

Shaun Illingworth:  Had your family been supporters of Kennedy?

KM:  Yes, they were.  This was a big Democratic neighborhood, it was a very traditional, you know, working-class neighborhood, a kind of Jewish liberal neighborhood, and I would venture to guess, he probably got seventy-five percent or more of the vote in those areas.

Mandel, Kenneth M. Oral History Interview, July 19, 2010, by Shaun Illingworth.

Walter "Chip" Olsen, RC '69

Shaun Illingworth: Were you following international or national news? Were you aware of what was happening in the larger world?

Walter Olsen: I was aware, but I wouldn't say I was very aware. In my household, the daily activities came to a halt whenever the local news came on, and then we watched Huntley and Brinkley, the national news, and then we ate dinner. My sister and I would pretty much sit there while my parents or just my mother watched the news. So, we knew what was going on. We were pretty carefree kids. I'm not sure how much we absorbed, but we were aware of what was going on. The big thing that changed all that, at least in my mind, was the Kennedy assassination. I think everybody in my age group can remember that day like it was almost yesterday. I was in Miss Gist's English class when we got the news.

Olsen, Walter Oral History Interview, June 20, 2019, by Shaun Illingworth.

On November 25, 1963, President John F. Kennedy's funeral procession began with a horse-drawn caisson carrying the casket from the Capitol rotunda, where it had laid in state, to the White House. Then, the procession continued to the funeral service at St. Matthew's Cathedral. After the service, the caisson carried the President's remains to their final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery.

Sheldon Cohen, RC '59

I remember the day when Kennedy was assassinated. I was living in Washington. I was a young lawyer at that point--not quite, I was in law school. Where I worked was on 13th Street in Washington, which was about midway between the Capitol and the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.

There was a restaurant I used to go to frequently for lunch, which was right across the street from the Justice Department. The Justice Department lawyers used to eat there too. I remember precisely, I was sitting there having lunch, and a couple of lawyers, people at the counter were whispering to each other, and they all got up en masse and left suddenly. I didn't know what was up. I walked back to the office, which was about ten minutes away from the restaurant. The news of the assassination was--I think we had a TV in the office.

I had invited my college roommate, and it was a Thanksgiving weekend, as I recall, he and his wife were scheduled to come down to visit that weekend. We, like everybody else, spent the weekend watching television.

[Editor's Note: Thanksgiving Day in 1963 occurred on November 28, the week after John F. Kennedy's assassination.]

I remember walking down and watching the cortège, the procession, going from the White House to the Capitol with the horses and the coffin. I remember walking up over the ridge to Arlington Cemetery. I remember standing on high ground and watching the casket being lowered into the ground, and the eternal light being lit. It was an indelible event in my mind, being right there and part of it.

Cohen, Sheldon. Oral History Interview, May 18, 2023, by Kathryn Tracy Rizzi.

The burial site would continue to serve as a pilgrimage site for all who shared in the vision JFK inspired in the nation.

Bruce Hubbard, RC '69

We had an Explorer post that actually went across the country at the time of Kennedy's assassination and we went from New Jersey to Cape Canaveral.  We stopped at, and put a wreath at, Kennedy's grave about two weeks after he had been killed and went through Arlington National Cemetery, went to a whole series of military and other bases that the Scouts had put together on our way to Cape Canaveral and went down to see the missile system. 

Hubbard, Bruce. Oral History Interview, July 21, 2916, by William Buie.

Kennedy's election and administration held special meaning to Catholic Americans and members of marginalized groups, such as American Jews and African Americans.

Jeanne Fox, DC '75, CLAW '79

Kathryn Tracy Rizzi: What do you remember about John F. Kennedy's assassination?

Jeanne Fox: Sixth grade. Betty, the bus driver. We lived on one side of Maple Shade. The junior high school was on the other side. We got bussed from sixth grade through high school. Betty, the bus driver, would pick us up. Unfortunately, in the morning, my brother and I were the first to get on the bus. We had to go around and pick up everybody else around all the highways in Maple Shade. We were on the bus for an hour every morning, so we got to know her really well.

I come out of sixth grade. The school has sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. We were separate from the junior high, but it was all the Maple Shade sixth graders together. I'm the first person to the bus. I get on the bus, and she's crying and she was a tough cookie. I said, "Betty, what's wrong?" She said, "The President was killed." It didn't even register. I said, "What President?" She said, "President Kennedy." I was in shock. It just didn't seem real. Then, some of the other kids got on the bus and we went home.

I just remember sitting in front of the TV with my parents and my brothers. It was just horrid, just horrid. I think most people, that's what they did. My father was crying more than anybody. You just don't kill the President in this country. It was really horrible, the whole thing. You watch the whole thing more than once--over and over. It was just the worst.

You've got to remember, back then, he was the first Catholic President and some of the stuff against him was--and we were Protestant--some of the things during the election were that the pope would run the country and all that kind of crap. Maple Shade was a very Irish, Italian Catholic town, big Catholic church--actually, it's not that big, but to me it was huge because our church were much smaller.

It was just horrible. Who could believe it? Then, [Lee Harvey] Oswald was killed. That week was just the worst.

Kathryn Tracy Rizzi: Were you watching when Jack Ruby shot Oswald?

Jeanne Fox: I think I was, but I'm not sure. Because you watched it so many times, and as research shows, our memories are really bad and you change what you really know. So, I'm not sure. I think I was, but I might not have been. If I was in school, if he did it when I was in school, obviously, I didn't. We were in front of that TV all the time that week, when we weren't in school. So, I'm not sure. I think I did, but maybe I didn't.

Fox, Jeanne. Oral History Interview, July 18, 2018, by Kathryn Tracy Rizzi.

Robert M. Sees, RC '68

Shaun Illingworth: Also, at that same time, in 1960, that was the time of John F. Kennedy becoming President and his campaign. Do you remember that at all? It was pretty significant for Catholics.

RS: Oh, yes, we watched, in fact, we were allowed, it's the seminary, I was in the seminary in '60, they allowed us to watch the inauguration and everything on TV, because it was a big thing. It was the first Catholic President. That was big. We normally were not permitted to watch TV or use the telephone.

My father actually met Kennedy, because I remember he shook hands with him when he was in Teaneck. My father was working for the Democrats, at the time, and he came by. He was so excited that he met Kennedy. I remember that, shook his hand. At that time, everybody were Democrats. It switched with Nixon; their whole thing turned around. At that time, if you were a Catholic, you were a Democrat.

Kennedy comes in now, a Catholic guy, and all the nuns were just going crazy, because you've got a Catholic President and they were talking about his wife and how religious she was. They kind of put that in your head.

Then, I was in the senior year of high school, because I'd dropped out of seminary in my junior year, so, I had a year-and-a-half in another high school, the same year when he was assassinated. I mean, that hit us all, everybody, hard. I was in a math class; the nuns all started crying. I remember that era.

Sees, Robert M. Oral History Interview, November 4, 2005, by Shaun Illingworth and Tom O'Toole.

Deborah Shuford, DC '81

Kathryn Tracy Rizzi: What do you remember about his assassination?

Deborah Shuford: I'm glad you asked that. I remember when President Kennedy--and I was very young, I had to be four or five when he was assassinated--my mom was sitting at the television. We only had one television. My father was very frugal, just one TV, but the black and white image at the funeral and seeing John Kennedy, Jr. salute his dad. I actually remember that. My mother cried all day. All day she cried.

A lot of African Americans and a lot of people don't know this, and you mentioned the Green Book, well, this is another thing that they had. If you go to older African Americans, I would say, aged sixty plus, they all have these photos of Senator Robert Kennedy in their home, President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, those three, from the '60s. When President Kennedy died, my mother cried all day. Then, when Senator Robert Kennedy, she thought he was going to win, when he won the primary, I remember her watching, and she was so happy. It was like hope for her, like things are going to change finally for a little girl coming from Alabama.

When he was assassinated, first with Dr. King, she just kind of said, "Nothing will ever change in this country. We'll never change." I was a little girl, I didn't understand, but when Dr. King was assassinated, I remember her crying. That went on for weeks. She told me this recently, she said, "I thought after losing President Kennedy and losing Dr. King," she said, "Well, we had Senator Kennedy," she said, "and he was travelling all over the country and he was going to make everything right."

Then, she said, "But when they assassinated him," she said, "well, that's when we just said it's never going to change." I said, "But it will." I said, as an adult now, I said, "I remember you saying that." I said, "But I look at the young people today and I look at the students that were in Washington, D.C. with the students from Parkland." I said, "And it will change, because it will change in November." She was going through this depression again. Every time someone dies, she goes through a depression.

I remember watching her cry in the '60s for President Kennedy, for Dr. King, in that order and Senator Robert Kennedy. It was like it was personal for her, like they were related to her. Again, the depression from death and what it causes and not having therapy to get over it. Yes, so, it's pretty sad. Then, this is the fiftieth anniversary [of Robert Kennedy's death], and so she calls me and she starts talking about Senator Kennedy fifty years later. She still remembers every detail, and she is devastated all over again fifty years later. She's going to eighty-two at the end of this month, and she still remembers it. That's pretty sad.

Shuford, Deborah. Oral History Interview, June 8, 2018, by Kathryn Tracy Rizzi, Avery Kelley, Anthony DelConte, Daniel Venetsky.

Robert Berkowitz, RC '69

Which brings me to another sudden and inexplicable death four-plus years later that still sears in my memory--an event that was life-shaping for a fifteen-year-old, as I suspect it was for my entire cohort of baby boomers. At about two PM on November 22, 1963, the principal of our high school announced over the public address system that President Kennedy had been shot and pronounced dead. My fellow tenth graders and I, who were in study hall in the school cafeteria, sat in shocking, numbing, and silent disbelief. We were told that the remaining hour of school was cancelled and advised to go home to be with our families. My parents both worked, and my brother was in Newark on his way home from class at Rutgers, so when I arrived there was no one to console me. Rather than turning on the television and face the painful reality that my youthful President was no more, like many of friends on my block, I changed into play clothes, and joined them on the street in front of my house. For three straight hours, we played endless games of touch football. Not once was a word uttered about what was the most tragic and traumatic public event in our lifetimes. In retrospect, I'd like to think that running ourselves ragged tossing and catching that leather-bound Wilson football was our only way of honoring and memorializing our beloved, fallen President whose recreational release was playing touch football at the family compound in Hyannis Port. More likely, we played hard and tirelessly to keep at bay the unbearable pain of our President's death.

I would have played into the wee hours of the night under the streetlamp in front of my house. However, at about six PM, my mother, soon after arriving home from work, called me over and announced that we were going to shul for the Friday evening Sabbath service at B'nai Abraham in Newark. Why in Newark, I asked. "To hear Rabbi Prinz give a sermon on our beloved President Kennedy," replied my mother. I balked. My synagogue was in West Orange, a stone's throw from home, which I calculated would give me another hour or so to play ball and escape the painful reality of the President's death. I had no interest in listening to a rabbi sermonize about what I did not want to be reminded of and by one who I knew little if anything about other than that my refugee cousins from Nutley had often attended what they called his Friday night lectures. "He's a wise and learned man and he knew President Kennedy and he'll comfort you," my mother went on, trying to convince me to join the family in the seven-mile trek to Newark. I dug in my heels. "And he's the President of the American Jewish Congress," she informed me, as if that would impress and move me. Feeling more comforted by clutching the leather-bound football as if it were a stuffed teddy bear, I balked again, until my father, the family enforcer, arrived home and commanded me to get the hell in the house and dress for shul. And so, I begrudgingly went to hear Rabbi Prinz's Friday evening Sabbath sermon on the assassination of the 35th President of the United States.

I recall little if anything about that Friday evening Sabbath service except being awed by the entire experience--awed by the physical awesomeness of B'nai Abraham, and most of all by the entire service, including Rabbi Prinz's sermon, an understandably solemn one, but one that would give me the emotional strength to begin to face the tragedy of such an irrational loss. It was abundantly clear to me that Rabbi Prinz was personally shaken by the President's death. It was apparent that he had placed a great deal of hope for the future of our nation and mankind on his young shoulders. And his death was a personal and very painful one. Unlike me, he clearly had the courage and strength to face it and to share his pain with his congregants. His very mournful sermon was genuinely and emotionally authentic.

Years later, I was reminded by Rabbi Prinz's son Jonathan, himself a rabbi, and whom I had come to know later in life, that he had opened the service by reciting from the bible King David's lament for his best friend Jonathan, who had just been slain in battle on the mountains of Gilboa in Israel by the Philistines. He too was in the prime of his youth. The dirge begins with the lines, "A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel. How the mighty have fallen!" I'm not sure I fully appreciated the allusion at the time when I listened to Jonathan recite King David's lament that Dallas was the Mountains of Gilboa, and the gazelle was my beloved President who, despite suffering from Addison's disease, was still able to run yardage as swift as a gazelle playing touch football at the family compound in Hyannis Port until senselessly and mercilessly gunned down in the prime of youth.

That evening service was life-shaping. It inspired me to learn more about this wise and charismatic rabbi who preferred to be addressed as a doctor. I learned from my refugee cousins that as the head rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin, the young Prinz had courageously spoken out against Nazi persecution, despite repeated arrests and threats to his life. I learned that from his pulpit in Berlin, Prinz urged Jews to emigrate before it was too late. Personally, he had no choice in the matter. In 1937, he was expelled. I learned that for his first two years as a refugee in America, he went on lecture tours to create awareness of the gravity of the Nazi threat to world Jewry, democracy, and peace. I learned that in 1960, when he was President of the American Jewish Congress, he and forty of its officers and members picketed a Fifth Avenue Woolworth store to protest lunch-counter segregation in the South. I learned what moved him to become one of the early and foremost champions of the Civil Rights Movement. It was as he eloquently stated when picketing Woolworth that, "As Jews we are animated by our prophetic tradition which asserts that we are all the creatures of one God." I learned that he was a good friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., who had personally asked him to speak immediately before the reverend delivered his I have a Dream speech at the March for Jobs and Freedom in August of 1963. I learned from reading that speech he delivered with his back to the Lincoln Memorial that when he was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the reign of Nazism, he too learned many things, the most important one being that more disgraceful, shameful, and tragic than acts of bigotry and hate is the silence in the face of it. And when I read his urgent pleading that Americans not become a nation of silent onlookers like so many of the German citizens who had cowered in the face of hate, brutality and mass murder, I was deeply moved and inspired.

[Editor's Note: Rabbi Joachim Prinz (1902-1988) was a German-American rabbi who was expelled from Nazi Germany in 1937 for his outspoken criticism of the Nazis. He settled in Newark, where he served as rabbi of Temple B'Nai Abraham, and became active in Zionism and the Civil Rights Movement. On August 28, 1963, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C., Prinz spoke before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. Prinz succeeded gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who performed a spiritual.]

Berkowitz, Robert L. Oral History Interview, April 20, 2022, by Shaun Illingworth, Katherine Silva and Louis Bartolomeo.

Targum Cover 11 22 1963aThe Rutgers Targum (campus newspaper) cover from its November 22, 1963 issue. (All images courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries.)The Rutgers Targum (campus newspaper) cover from its November 22, 1963 issue.
(All images courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries.)

Check out more Rutgers College Class of 1966 memories of the Kennedy assassination in this 1766 Magazine Extra