(A version of this story first appeared Sunday.)
Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It was a defining moment of the 20th century. That is even the case for someone like me, who was born after November 22, 1963, in the shadow of the president’s murder. Most of my generation can tell you where they were when they learned of the shooting of John Lennon and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, but everyone of a certain age can tell you where they were that tragic day in Dallas. With the passing of the WWII generation and memories of Pearl Harbor, only 9/11 is as seared into our souls now as much as 11/22. In remembrance of the 35th president, I asked some of the industry’s most notable and insightful individuals — a few of whom had seen JFK just before his death — where they were when they heard the news of the shooting and what they experienced that day. Here’s what they told me:
Ron Meyer – Vice Chairman, NBCUniversal
I had just gotten out of the Marine Corps and I was living in LA. I was working at a men’s clothing store and we heard this news. You know, I was in the Marines during the Cuban missile crisis, during the blockade, so we really felt we knew him and that you had direct involvement with him because, at least during that time, everything that happened to him affected us. We could have gone to war if he’d ordered it. So when he was killed, you felt that someone who had been an integral part of your life, my life, was gone. I was young, 20 years old, but it was the most unexpected loss. You know, my family escaped from Nazi Germany – so to us, he represented the hope of the world. It was tragic.
Jeffrey Katzenberg – CEO, DreamWorks Animation
I try to focus less on November 22nd and more on November 8th, the date in 1960 when Kennedy was elected president. I was only 9 at the time, but that election, with its down-to-the-wire finish, suddenly made me aware of the excitement and possibilities of politics. Three years later, Kennedy’s assassination was devastating beyond words. But, for me, it further heightened the impact of his 1,000 days. While I was still in middle school, I went to work for another dynamic young leader, New York Mayor John Lindsay. JFK’s example inspired me then, and it inspires me still.
Bill O’Reilly – Host, The O’Reilly Factor; Author, Killing Kennedy
Back in November of 1963, I was a 14-year-old freshman at Chaminade High School in Mineola, New York. I was sitting in Brother Carmine Diodati’s religion class when the loud speaker crackled, and the school principal announced that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. He then put the CBS radio report on the loudspeakers all over the school. The students were stunned. Few of us said anything.
When I got home that afternoon, my mother was watching CBS on television. Her mother, my grandmother’s name was Winifred Kennedy. So the O’Reilly family had a direct emotional tie to the much more famous Kennedy clan. In the weeks that followed, life got back to normal for the teenagers on Long Island. But my friends and I will never forget the first time we heard of the treacherous assassination.
Oliver Stone – Director, including 1991’s JFK
I was 17 years old, in boarding school and coming from a Republican family who were not JFK people. Like everyone, it was sad for the country. He was a handsome young man with a beautiful family, but the consequences of the act did not have meaning for me until later. Within four years I’d be in Vietnam as a ground soldier. And then as I got older, JFK’s presidency became more important to me in retrospect than ever before.
Morgan Freeman – Actor-Producer
I was 26. In NY just over two months and working in the Garment District. There had never been another like him. It was he who was responsible for VISTA and the Peace Corps. It was he whom Eisenhower had warned of the military-industrial complex. He meant for America to go to the moon, not to war.
On that dreadful afternoon I, along with most of the other people in NY, found myself on the street, wandering in a daze, shocked to realize the enormity of the act. I think that’s when America began to lose her way.
Tom Sherak – former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Director, City of LA Entertainment Industry & Production Office
November 22, 1963, is one of those days that stay in your mind your entire life. I was a senior in high school, still living with my parents in an apartment building in Brooklyn. On that faithful morning, I was home in bed, suffering from a horrible case of mononucleosis, when I heard screaming as my next-door neighbor came running in to tell my mother that the president had been shot. We spent the rest of the day, into the evening, glued to the television set watching Walter Cronkite share details as they unfolded. We were shocked and horrified — and mourning the end of Camelot.
Bill Paxton – Actor
I was in the crowd in the Hotel Texas parking lot that morning November 22, 1963. I was 8½ years old. I was with my brother Bob. Our dad took us down from the suburbs of Fort Worth to downtown. There was a crowd of about 4,000 to 5,000 people there hoping to catch a glimpse of the president, hear the president speak. The Kennedys were Mr. and Mrs. America; they were movie stars. Seeing John F. Kennedy in the flesh there, he was jocular, with his red hair, he was in top form. There was an excitement in the crowd as we hung on his every word. I even got a bit of a ringside seat because my dad put me up on his shoulders and I must have been about 30 feet in front of the president. It was the best seat in the house, but being there has haunted me and my brother ever since.
I remember being on the recess playground later that day at St. Alice Elementary School and they ended the recess early, which was strange. They rang the bell to bring us back in from the big vacant lot across the street that we kind of used as a recess playground. And when we came in, I was in the third grade, and I remember Sister Annette, she was crying and we were all instructed to lay our heads on the desks. A radio was brought into the classroom and shortly after that it was announced that President Kennedy had indeed died from his gunshot wound. Then very quickly after that, school was dismissed for the day. Afterwards, if you were from North Texas, everyone wanted to pretend like they had amnesia, like it never happened. Of course Dallas became synonymous, even to this day, with Kennedy’s assassination. Unfortunately Dallas had become the murder capital of the United States on November 22, 1963.
Ken Howard – National President, SAG-AFTRA; Actor
I was at basketball practice at Amherst College when I heard the news. I remember looking around at my teammates and realizing that we were all feeling this deep shock and profound grief. He had been right there at Amherst only four weeks before to dedicate the Robert Frost Memorial Library. He was introduced by the great Archibald MacLeish and gave a stirring speech about the responsibilities of privilege and the value of arts and literature in education. It was an impressive and memorable address, and I was greatly affected by his words. Even 50 years later, that is the President Kennedy I recall. He was the golden promise of great things for our country and I believe he is best remembered through the words of a Frost poem, “So dawn goes down to day, nothing gold can stay.”