Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

JFK assassination a collective memory for American children

March 31, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
<a href='ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1051909' target='_blank'>Paula Matuskey, 15 years old</a>: "Shocked, we looked across the room at each other, in total disbelief. Even hardened football players who were in our class were visibly crying. And somehow, even that early, some of us knew that this was going to forever change our society, our expectations and our country." Paula Matuskey, 15 years old: "Shocked, we looked across the room at each other, in total disbelief. Even hardened football players who were in our class were visibly crying. And somehow, even that early, some of us knew that this was going to forever change our society, our expectations and our country."
HIDE CAPTION
Where were you on November 22, 1963?
Where were you on November 22, 1963?
Where were you on November 22, 1963?
Where were you on November 22, 1963?
Where were you on November 22, 1963?
Where were you on November 22, 1963?
Where were you on November 22, 1963?
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Many children of the '60s can recall exactly where they were on November 22, 1963
  • Experts call JFK's assassination a "flashbulb memory," which sticks in the collective mind
  • Because of TV, American families felt they knew JFK and were devastated at his loss

(CNN) -- As the 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible rolled down Elm Street in Dealey Plaza, three shots rang out in Dallas, their echoes lodging in the memories of America's youth for years to come.

Derek L. Farthing was in third grade in Jersey City, New Jersey, when the school's janitor came to tell his teacher, Ms. Melvin, the horrific news.

"Her hands rose to cover her face and to still her ... shocked voice from raising our concerns," he told CNN iReport. "After composing herself, she turned to us and stated, 'The President, President Kennedy, was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas.'"

Farthing was released from school early and went home to tune in to the black-and-white CBS broadcast of Walter Cronkite, who famously removed his glasses as he confirmed JFK's death.

Celebs reflect on the death of JFK
Remembering November 22nd
On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while in a presidential motorcade in Dallas. Pictured, Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, children, Caroline and John, and mother, Rose Kennedy, behind, wait outside St. Matthew's Cathedral for the procession to the cemetery during his funeral on November 25. On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while in a presidential motorcade in Dallas. Pictured, Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, children, Caroline and John, and mother, Rose Kennedy, behind, wait outside St. Matthew's Cathedral for the procession to the cemetery during his funeral on November 25.
John F. Kennedy's funeral
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
Photos: John F. Kennedy\'s funeral Photos: John F. Kennedy's funeral

Amid cloudy conspiracy theories swirling around the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963, many baby boomers have a moment of clarity from that day; they remember where they were when Camelot fell.

"President Kennedy has died"
The riderless horse: A JFK icon

One JFK conspiracy theory that could be true

Flashbulb memories, as they're called by memory experts, are vivid remembrances of significant events; a mental snapshot of the who, what, when and where -- and the emotional fallout.

These memories, according to neuroscience writer and professor W.R. Klemm, can be particularly reinforced by the images associated with them.

Kennedy was the first TV-ready president. His charismatic good looks were a deciding factor in an early debate victory over Richard Nixon, and he went on to use television to deliver unprecedented live press conferences to the American people.

Never-before-seen photos of JFK's presidential campaign

Clinical psychologist Ditta Oliker, who blogs about childhood memories on Psychology Today, said for many, the Kennedys were America's couple upon a hill -- wealthy, well-connected and glamorous. Their newfound vulnerability made the country feel vulnerable.

JFK's assassination: a look at the facts

"Before that dreadful day, we worried about whether we could dye our peau de soie shoes the exact same color as our party dresses, and whether we could get a nice bouffant," Marcia Wendorf told CNN iReport; she was 13 at the time.

Children who previously hadn't a care in the world now knew death firsthand.

Kathi Cordsen, who was 11 then, told iReport: "More fear came over me when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, because what came into my head was this was going to keep going and going until finally they kill every man -- including my dad. I was so emotional and very afraid."

CNN iReporter Gail Powell was just 8 years old when America's 35th president was assassinated on that sunny November day.

5 things you might not know about JFK's assassination

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

"What upset me the most was seeing my mother so upset about what happened to Kennedy," Powell told CNN. "I was young, but I understood enough that something terrible had happened and that many people were very sad."

Klemm said memory is reinforced by dramatic circumstances, "and this was certainly an emotionally charged circumstance."

For many children of the '60s, the assassination was also the first national event played out on television, its scenes repeatedly flashing onscreen over several days. Even on this day 50 years later, the images remain instantly recognizable. Klemm said this repeating retrieval of a memory only strengthens it in the brain.

These types of memories are similar to what later generations would experience after images were played on TV news of the second airplane crashing into the World Trade Center or of Columbine High School students running out of the building with their hands in the air. For some, it's even O.J. Simpson's white Ford Bronco leading a slow-speed chase on Interstate 405.

Oliker said a powerful reaction from a parent or another adult also makes a huge difference in how children encode a memory.

Then-5-year-old Natalie Montanaro remembers having to go to bed early on that day in 1963, amid the hushed whispers of her parents in the next room.

"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." The iReporter remembers those words replayed over and over. She would later join the Peace Corps, which Kennedy established in 1961, to commit to that promise.

For many children, the events of November 22 signaled their loss of innocence most of all.

"Back in that era, prior to JFK's death, I think we lived in an idealized world, where it seemed that all things were possible, that nothing was foreclosed, and certainly that a presidential assassination was not even possible," Paula Matuskey, who was 15, told CNN's iReport. "It was an exciting time, in other words, and a pretty happy time."

Farthing echoed her sentiment: "I believe that the death of President Kennedy gave more awareness that there was more to just where I lived. I became more aware of the nation and the world."

Where were you when you learned of John F. Kennedy's assassination? Please share your experience in the comments below.

CNN's Daphne Sashin contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 18, 2013 -- Updated 1608 GMT (0008 HKT)
During the half century since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, you may have heard about a few conspiracy theories.
March 31, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
As the 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible rolled down Elm Street in Dealey Plaza, three shots rang out in Dallas, their echoes lodging in the memories of America's youth for years to come.
March 31, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
As the nation marks 50 years since John F. Kennedy's death, here are five things you may not know about the assassination of the 35th U.S. president.
March 31, 2014 -- Updated 1337 GMT (2137 HKT)
President Kennedy's alleged sexual encounters have been widely discussed and documented, though none have been acknowledged by the Kennedy family.
November 13, 2013 -- Updated 1412 GMT (2212 HKT)
Dallas, Texas, has transformed from the dark days of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963.
November 21, 2013 -- Updated 1440 GMT (2240 HKT)
Fifty years after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, there are very few down-the-line defenders of the Warren Commission to be found.
November 21, 2013 -- Updated 1437 GMT (2237 HKT)
Rep. Roger Williams, then 6, stood outside the Fort Worth Hotel with his mother and shook President Kennedy's hand right before he got on a plane and flew to Dallas.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
This month marks 50 years since JFK's assassination in Dallas, an event that jarred the nation. Here are some images from that fateful day as it unfolded.
November 14, 2013 -- Updated 1517 GMT (2317 HKT)
Secretary of State John Kerry says he has "doubts" Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of John F. Kennedy
March 31, 2014 -- Updated 1337 GMT (2137 HKT)
They were history's power couple, a dashing Democrat and an elegant wife. Take a look back at the couple that embodied the image of a perfect family.
November 14, 2013 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Filmmaker Ken Burns talks to CNN's Piers Morgan about who he believes is the best U.S. president of all time.
October 23, 2013 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
From the assassinations of JFK and RFK, to the tragic death of John F. Kennedy, Jr., a look at the tragedies that have befallen America's first family.
November 21, 2013 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
I vividly recall those 13 days in the fall of 1962, watching President John F. Kennedy on our black and white television in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
September 12, 2013 -- Updated 2217 GMT (0617 HKT)
John and Jackie Kennedy were a young newlywed couple much like any other newlywed couple -- with one notable difference: they were, in a sense, already superstars.
November 5, 2013 -- Updated 0419 GMT (1219 HKT)
Oliver Stone tells Piers Morgan why he believes the Kennedy assassination involved more than just Lee Harvey Oswald.
December 16, 2013 -- Updated 1848 GMT (0248 HKT)
50-year-old footage shows the Kennedys on vacation just four months before John's assassination.
May 29, 2013 -- Updated 2136 GMT (0536 HKT)
What does it take to play the president of the United States on screen? Jake Tapper reports.
December 16, 2013 -- Updated 1848 GMT (0248 HKT)
JFK's grandson Jack Schlossberg speaks on Inauguration Day about what went through his mind during President Obama's speech.
ADVERTISEMENT