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Measuring the losses and gains of a terrible November night

Thanksgiving week is a time to remember, to reflect, to give thanks. Last Friday marked the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. When it happened I was a student at Oxford University in England. For me and for many others, the events of that day are frozen in my memory: cold, still, horrible.

The local time at Oxford was seven hours ahead of Dallas, meaning those fatal shots were fired at 7:30 that Friday evening.

I – with around 25 others – was seated at a black-tie dinner in a candlelit, oak-paneled room at University College. The main course had just been served when the college’s Master, Sir John Redcliffe-Maud, stood up at the end of the table.

His face was white and his hands trembled. “I am very deeply sorry to announce that President Kennedy has been shot while on a visit to Dallas, Texas. He is not expected to survive.”

I was the only American in the room, and I wasn’t ashamed to hold my head in my hands while the tears came. The Master came over and kindly said, “I am terribly sorry for you to hear this awful news in this way. Of course, if you wish to leave the dinner, you are excused.” I stayed for a while and tried to maintain a certain level of conversation, trying to remember Ernest Hemingway’s definition of courage – which was also JFK’s – as “grace under pressure.”

But as dessert was served, I couldn’t bear it anymore and went back to my room. As I opened the door, I was astonished to find all the lights on, the room filled with my English friends, gathered there to be with their American chum in a desolate hour. Someone turned on the radio and picked up the bulletin from the BBC: The president was dead. I don’t remember the rest of the evening very well, other than that it turned into a kind of wake, with much whiskey being drunk and hugs exchanged with the normally reserved English.

I had only met John F. Kennedy once, in an elevator, before he had announced his candidacy for president. He had bright blue-gray eyes and a magnetic air that filled that tiny space.

I saw him again at a distance at 2 a.m. on October 14th, 1960, standing on the steps of the Michigan Union in Ann Arbor, urging young Americans to volunteer to serve abroad. Like the thousands who had waited for hours to hear him, I was thrilled and motivated at his speech – in part because I had a very indirect role in it.

While an undergraduate at the university, I had been a member of a student group, Americans Committed to World Responsibility. Organized by two sociology graduate students Al and Judy Guskin, the group met from time to time to discuss the world situation. We stayed up too late and drank far too much coffee and beer.

Eventually, we wrote a manifesto (of course) calling on American youth to take up our responsibility to help the world.

That manifesto was reported in the student newspaper, the Michigan Daily, and was warmly received on campus and around the country. Eventually, it wound up in the hands of Theodore Sorenson, Kennedy’s speechwriter. Although Kennedy did not use the phrase “Peace Corps” until several weeks later, his speech in Ann Arbor is widely recognized as the first expression of the idea.

All those memories flickered through my mind last Friday as I journeyed back through that dark night half a century ago, an American far away from home, grieving for my assassinated President. And I always will give thanks for the English students who, unbidden, came to my room to comfort their American friend.

It’s truly said that you are very, very lucky if you have 10 real friends over a lifetime. In that room that night were young English men who became my true friends.

And I will always give thanks for the gifts of grace and intelligence of John F. Kennedy. Over the years since his death, history has revised its opinion of his short presidency. It was not a particularly successful one, and it was only the shock of his death and the legislative mastery of the new President, Lyndon Johnson, that led to the Civil Rights Act, among other achievements.

But to people of my age, Kennedy’s presidency was a bright flame that has stayed alight in our hearts for the last 50 years.

Like the Bible’s Job, I am learning in my old age that it is only out of profound sadness that it is possible truly to give thanks.

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