Kennedy assassination rocked UConn campus 50 years ago today
Published: Friday, November 22, 2013
Updated: Monday, December 2, 2013 19:12
“There was a system of bells on this Associated Press machine that would tell us when news was coming in,” remembers Steven Primack, who was once the manager for UConn radio station WHUS. “Depending on how important the story was, a certain number of bells would ring. The maximum was five. I was downstairs and other people were up in the station just doing their normal thing, and all of a sudden the machine went crazy. It was ringing constantly, ringing right off the wire. Somebody said ‘Steve, you better get upstairs. The president has just been shot.’”
The date was November 22, 1963 – exactly 50 years ago today.
“It was just a very somber moment. People were crying. The studio became packed and you just couldn’t move,” recalls Primack by phone, now working in insurance for Phoenix Mutual in Massachusetts. “There was a fellow by the name of Vaughn Meader, who was a comedian who would do an impression of President Kennedy, sounded just like him. We had that album stored in the studio and very often would play it. Right after that happened, we took a magic marker and wrote ‘Not to be played for the next 10 years.’”
Victor Schachter was president of the UConn Associated Student Government. “In the Student Union cafeteria there was a bulletin board on the left-hand side. I had come down from a meeting, and on the board was posted the announcement that Kennedy had been assassinated,” recalls Schachter by phone, now a litigator at the Sillicon Valley law firm Fenwick and West.
“Which, to all of us who were aspiring hopeful progressive-thinking students, came as just a devastating shock of disbelief. We started milling around and held an informal gathering on what was then the patio of the Student Union to console ourselves, then held an impromptu memorial there on the patio. As I recall, there were several hundred students.”
Dianne Rader, now Dianne Kuhn, was Editor-in-Chief of the Connecticut Daily Campus student newspaper. “All of a sudden there was this massive ringing of bells. We kind of jumped around, we weren’t sure what was going on. We went over to the Tele-Type machine and there was news of the assassination in Dallas. There must have been 10 of us standing around, just trying to take it all in.”
Although it was a Friday and the paper only published on weekdays, “The staff worked over the weekend and we got out [the paper’s first-ever special weekend edition] either the next day or Sunday,” recalls Kuhn by phone, recently retired from being associate vice president at United Way of Seattle. “It was amazing to be able to witness it in that way, to feel like we were doing something positive while it was all going on. There were a lot of tears as we were working, but it was a way to channel some of the grief, to share the information with everybody else on campus. It was a full staff, everybody was working to make sure we got it out, even the sports editor.”
All agreed that Kennedy’s death struck a particularly fierce blow on the psyche of college-aged students in their late teens and early 20s. “It was difficult for us to talk about it, it was difficult for us to put together the [eulogy] program,” remembers Primack. “A tremendous shock for everybody. The campus became almost like somebody had draped a big veil over us. Nobody felt good, obviously. Nobody felt good.”
“His call of ‘Ask not what your country can do for me, ask what you can do for your country’ – I think there are many people who have worked very hard to fulfill that contribution to their country, though not as many as there should,” says Schachter, who has tried to do his part to fulfill that mission all these decades later. “In fact, I set up a scholarship at UConn for setting up peaceful resolution centers around the world, the Victor Schachter Rule of Law Award through the Human Rights Institute. It’s a version of [Kennedy’s Peace Corps], absolutely.”
“The beginning of the ’60s was Kennedy’s assassination, because it was such a death knoll for all the optimism,” Kuhn feels. “And I think as university students we had a wonderful sense of optimism. ‘Ask not what you can do for yourself, what you can do for your country’ – we all bought that. We believed it wholeheartedly, and we saw things moving up.”
Kuhn pauses. “We all felt it was more than the death of a president. It was the death of some of our hopes.”
The next day, the student newspaper ran a poem excerpt by Edwin Markham in place of their regular editorial. “He held his place – held the long purpose like a growing tree – held on through blame and faltered not at praise. And when he fell in whirlwind, he went down as when a lordly cedar, green with boughs, goes down with a great shout upon the hills, and leaves a lonesome place against the sky.”