By Budd McLaughlin
“So, where were you when President Kennedy was shot?”
Anyone who was old enough to realize what happened 50 years ago today usually knows where they were and what they were doing.
But, what is the fascination with JFK and why has it endured so long?
Many historians believe it’s because of the unrealized potential and air of uncertainty. What would Kennedy have done regarding Vietnam? Civil rights?
Others say he was the first president to which much of America could relate. He was young – just 43 when elected – and had a wife with two young children.
“We sort of idolized him,” said Dr. Waymon Burke, history and political science professor at Calhoun Community College. “They were in Look magazine and Life and everybody subscribed to them.”
The tragedy is the seminal moment of the boomer generation.
“The World War II generation, it was Pearl Harbor,” Burke said. “For the (generation) Xers, it’s the World Trade Center.
“The Kennedy assassination is for our generation.”
And, Burke remembers where he was when he heard about the shooting.
“I was in the sixth grade,” Burke said. “It was announced over the intercom.
“For those of us who were children of that era, it was a traumatic thing.”
It was also traumatic for the adults of that day, too. Teachers could be seen crying in classrooms and hallways. There were tears at the supermarket and the old five-and-dime store.
“When I got home, my mother was crying,” Burke said.
Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks was a freshman at Florence State (now the University of North Alabama) and, like many others, was in disbelief when he heard about the shooting.
“I was walking through the student center,” he said. “At first, we didn’t believe it. But then it spread.”
The news was received with a mixed reception here in the South because Kennedy was a northern Catholic, liberal Democrat.
“The split was as much with religion as it was with politics,” Marks said.
It hit hard on a young Jimmy Gill, now an Athens city councilman.
“I was in the 10th grade and we were in the auditorium at Trinity High School,” he said. “When they said the president was shot, I said ‘Are you kidding me? They killed the president?’
“It was unheard of. We all couldn’t believe it.”