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Villa Prezelski: Remembering the day Kennedy died

On Nov. 22, 1963 I was just couple of months in my freshman year at the University of Arizona. I hung out with about 10 or 12 kids at “our” table in the section of the Student Union known as The Coop. We were mostly kids from Pueblo High, still uncomfortable in the world of 300-seat classrooms and wealthy fraternity boys in which we found ourselves. We clung to each other as if we were life lines in a stormy sea.

I was sipping on a Coke when Janie came in. She wasn’t from Pueblo, but she had joined our group and fit right in. Janie was upset. She said that Kennedy had been shot. We didn’t believe her. She repeated the story, begged us to believe her and began to cry. Then we realized what she was saying was true.

It was then that some of us remembered that the one-and-only television in the building was downstairs, in Louie’s Lower Level. We ran down and I got there just in time to see Walter Cronkite take off his black-rimmed glasses, fight back the tears and say that the president was dead. There must have been a hundred people in that room but you could have heard a pin drop. We all just stood there staring at that black and white image on the screen, hoping Cronkite would come back on and tell us there had been a mistake.

Only a few moments passed before I realized the need talk to my parents. They didn’t listen much to the radio anymore and the television didn’t come on until after lunch. I climbed the stairs and went to the row of wooden phone booths in the Student Union lobby.

Papa never answered the phone, so I knew that it would be Mama I would be talking to. I didn’t handle the situation very tactfully. I barely gave her time to say “hello” before I blurted out in Spanish “Mama, they killed the president!” She had me repeat what I had just said and then yelled out the news to Papa.

They later told me they had just sat down to lunch when I called. Food was never allowed to go to waste at our house, but that day the lunch was left uneaten. Mama and Papa spent the rest of the afternoon doing what most of Americans did that day, with their eyes fixed on the television.

When I got back to The Coop most of the kids were already there. The news was that classes had been cancelled but no one seemed to be in any hurry to go home. Whatever conversation there was was spoken in hushed, short sentences. Most of what we said has long since faded from my memory but I do remember something John said. “Gee,” he said about the cancellation of classes. “I wish I had known. I would have made plans.” He was too shell-shocked, of course, to realize what he was saying and we were too stunned to react to it. In fact, it took me several years to process it.

The next several days were a blur. I watched Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald on live television. I watched the funeral in Washington and learned about riderless horses and other traditions that were new to me. I also found myself thinking about shallow, silly things. How, I wondered, could Jackie walk that whole procession in high heels?

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When classes started again my first one was Western Civilization, one of those huge classes, taught in auditorium-sized lecture hall. The professor, Dr. Donahoe, was very old-fashioned and ran a tight ship. His teaching assistants would lock the doors when his lecture began, so late comers were out of luck. We had assigned seats and the T.A.s took attendance. He once caught a student trying to tape the lecture and kicked him out. But on this first day back Dr. Donahoe showed his softer side. He always began his lecture with the same phrase. “Let us continue,” he would say and then open his notebook. This lecture began differently. “Under these circumstances,” he said solemnly. “It is difficult to continue, but that is what we must do.”

We have continued, my university, my country and me. But anyone who lived through those painful times will tell you: We have gone on. But we are forever changed and just a little bit scarred.

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Victor Hugo King/Library of Congress

President John F. Kennedy, his wife Jackie and the Connallys ride in the presidential limousine seconds before the assassination.

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