Emy Martin Halpert, MBC alumna
The damp chill startled me as I rushed out of my dorm. It was the Friday before Thanksgiving recess in my junior year at Mary Baldwin College, and I had a lot of work to finish before going home. The walkways were empty as I raced down the steep steps — a sure sign that I was late for class.
Stepping into the Academic Building, I sensed an eerie quiet. The first room was empty. Maybe I wasn’t late after all.
Then down the hall I saw a group huddled in front of a doorway. Coming closer, I realized the people were not in my class. The students and teachers leaned in silence towards the classroom, listening to a man’s voice on a radio.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
As soon as I spoke, a girl in front turned and walked towards me. It was my friend Mary reaching for my hand and guiding me away.
“Let’s go to the lounge,” she said, looking at me with awkward concern.
“What’s going on?” I asked again, as we sat down.
“Emy,” she said, pausing…. “The President was shot,” she said.
“President Kennedy is dead.”
First I screamed. Then I began to cry.
I had seen him up close, those blue eyes radiating excitement as he climbed into the convertible a few feet away, no phalanx of secret service hovering. We had screamed, “Jack, Jack,” my sister and I, like teenage fans at a rock concert, thrilled to be so close to the star. We had passed out flyers for his campaign. We could not yet vote, but he was our hero.
I don’t remember how long we sat there. I do remember the crushing weight of sadness as we walked in silence back up the stone stairs.
Assassinated. The President. Unthinkable.
We had not yet known the sting of quicksilver change. Time was measured more slowly, long before the Internet brought a constant rant of public pain. The phone was in a booth, not a pocket. Long distance calls were expensive. We wrote letters, not emails. We sat around. We talked.
For the rest of the day we gathered in front of the TV in our dorm lounge, watching Walter Cronkite, his voice sober and solemn as he relayed the ongoing events, guiding us through the rainy day and into the dismal night, interviewing important people who spoke through tears, straining to comprehend the tragedy.
The country would go on, they said. We would not let the voices of hatred win out, they said. Mr. Johnson was president now, they said. The iconic photograph on Air Force One had not yet been shown. We could only imagine that scene.
Later the newsreels would show the motorcade when Jackie Kennedy was climbing onto the back of the car, the secret service agent reaching for her as she tried to escape the awful noise and explosion as the bullets ripped through the President’s head. You could see it all happening in black and white over and over and over again. When the news magazines came out, we discovered that her suit was pink and red splotches of blood covered her skirt.
When Lee Harvey Oswald was captured – they always said all three of his names – the first photos showed him with a pinched expression as two men escorted him out of a movie theater in downtown Dallas. Then two days later we watched in horror as a fat man in a dark suit walked up to him as he was brought from jail and bang bang the noise of a gun and him collapsing dead right there in the hallway. They said the man’s name was Jack Ruby. We thought he was part of a plot.
Classes were cancelled, and the next day I took a train to Charlottesville to meet my boyfriend at the University of Virginia. While we waited for our ride home to Baltimore, we talked with friends, trying to understand what was happening, what this would mean for us, how our lives would be changed.
Sheltered as I was in a white collegiate world, I had not noticed the prejudice and hatred that festered around me. I should have, but I didn’t. Five years later — ironically living in Dallas — I turned on my TV and screamed again at the news that Martin Luther King had been shot. That cold November day was the beginning.
I don’t remember Thanksgiving dinner. But I do remember driving in my car at night when the music was interrupted for President Johnson’s first address to the nation.
“Mah Fella Amuricans,” he said in that deep Texas drawl. I pulled the car over to the side of the road and wept as he spoke in earnest words and tried to reign in the terror that gripped us all so tightly. He would do his best he said, he needed our help he said, we must all come together he said for the sake of our country and the world. “God Bless Amurica.”
We watched the funeral as if it were a pageant from a distant time and saw Jackie standing erect in a long black veil reach down with a silent tap to John-John who gave his toy soldier salute to the horses and caisson passing by. Those indelible images will forever recall a nation’s sorrow.
I met Caroline Kennedy once at a campaign event soon after she had given her support to Barack Obama. I was planning to say thank you for coming to the party. But when I reached out my hand and saw her father’s blue eyes, the words caught in my throat, and I could only smile.