For me, John F. Kennedy always will be a figure who was larger than life. The charisma that he radiated has not been duplicated since in a major governmental figure.
Of course, my situation is unusual; I was one of those young men and women who joined the Peace Corps during its first year of existence. I did it because of John Kennedy’s challenge to “ask not what your country can do for you, but rather, what you can do for your country.”
See photo below
The call to serve my country in some capacity other than killing people was irresistible, not to mention the opportunity to get to know and understand people of other countries. I was raised during the ’40s and ’50s on the cold war and bomb shelters. The remote possibility that I might be able to do something to change the gloomy prospects for the future that came out of that era was an opportunity I could not pass up.
Even though we were concerned with the beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis and later the Twist, the thought that we might soon be in the midst of World War III always loomed large in the minds of the young people of my generation. I am sure similar thoughts are shared by many young people today, especially since September 11.
I first heard of the Peace Corps at the end of the summer of 1961 by word of mouth on a Greyhound bus coming back from Mexico, where I had spent the summer living with a Mexican family and learning Spanish. Upon arriving home in Salt Lake City, I immediately went down to the post office and picked up an application. Although I took the exam amid much fanfare in October of 1961 (It was the first time it had been given in Salt Lake City), I wanted to finish my bachelor of science in nursing the next June—so I went in June of 1962 instead.
I went to Bolivia—not exactly Shangri La, but a place I learned to love along with its people. I worked 18 hour days in a small rural hospital and clinic, immunizing people, assisting with surgery, training paramedical personnel and generally trying to relieve the suffering of many poor people with practically no equipment and supplies. As I tell my students now, you haven’t lived until you have immunized several thousand people with five syringes and 10 needles and sterilized the equipment in a pot of boiling water on a campfire.
As long as I live, however, I will not forget that fateful day in November of 1963. I was in the provincial capital of Santa Cruz getting ready to go up to a meeting in the town of Cochabamba in the mountains. As I walked down the street, people suddenly ran up to me crying, “Señorita, Señorita, we have just heard terrible news on the radio.” (They knew I was an American because there weren’t many of us in the area and we tended to stick out like sore thumbs.)
The next thing I knew I was in a strange house where people were gathered around a shortwave radio listening to Voice of America. As we waited, apprehensively there came the announcement that President Kennedy had been assassinated. It was like getting kicked in the stomach. I suddenly knew how those troops of old felt when they rode to war behind their champion, only to see him fall in battle. I felt disorientation, a sense of unreality and great sadness that some fool would take the life of someone so young and vital, with so much to give.
Most of all, I could not believe that this could happen in my country. Bolivia was under martial law the entire time I was there and it was not unusual to see soldiers with submachine guns standing on the street corners. I had never associated that kind of scene with my own country, however. Little did I realize that it was a precursor of events to come. As I walked out on the street in a daze, Bolivians who I didn’t know at all were crying and coming up to offer condolences.
We started on our bus journey to Cochabamba by way of Sucre. These towns are buried in the mountains of Bolivia and are not easily accessible. At that time the roads were not paved and between towns was a 10-to-12 hour trip. Nevertheless, the day after Kennedy’s assassination, every little wide spot in the road along the bus route was flying a flag at half mast in mourning.
I had to marvel at the efficiency of the communication system, given that it was based on shortwave radio and word of mouth. There were few if any telephones. This was truly, as the old Spanish saying goes, “donde el diablo dejó su poncho” — where the devil left his poncho. The bus stops were not exactly the last word in up-to-date accomodations. I remember being particularly impressed with one on that trip where the restroom facilities consisted of two doors, one with damas (women) and the other with caballeros (men) written on them. Both opened up onto the same big field.
In Sucre, where we stayed the next day, they had a special mass for Kennedy, as they did in other towns. I remember having people come up to me in the street and tell me I was being disrespectful because I was not wearing black. Trying to explain that wearing black was not part of my culture was impossible, so I gave up and acquired a black outfit. The reaction was the same all over Bolivia. People were devastated.
No American president since Kennedy has come close to equaling his stature in Latin America. At the time, rumors had been circulating in Bolivia that John and Jackie Kennedy were coming to South America on a trip the next year. People were ecstatic and already making plans, even though Bolivia usually tends to be the last place diplomatic and political tours stop. If he had been running true to form, however, Kennedy probably would have included countries like Bolivia on his itinerary.
I have spent over ten of the past 51 years living and working in Latin America, and the Caribbean, most recently as a Fulbright Scholar in Jamaica. I can honestly say that I have never seen a similar response to any United States government official since then.
Why did John F. Kennedy have such an effect on the young people of the sixties and on people of other countries? I believe Sen. Edward Kennedy summed up my feelings well in a 1988 article in Parade Magazine: "What endures is the way he summoned us to reach beyond ourselves, to do things for others that would reflect our shared humanity." I believe that he saw himself as a citizen of the world, recognizing the urgent need to reach beyond national boundaries — to create a unified society of all humankind in this shrinking world.
We could certainly use some of that vision and charisma now. Personally, I don’t think young people today are that much different from the silent ’50s generation that woke up to Kennedy’s call for service above and beyond the ordinary. However there have been few people in leadership positions willing to put their necks on the line and challenge young people to give of themselves to help those who are less fortunate; not because their souls must be saved, but because they are fellow humans. There are even fewer who would be willing to invest the time and money to create the means for young people to serve their country this way.
My children as teens were fascinated by the tales of early Peace Corps Volunteers. I personally am very pleased that the Peace Corps has persisted over time and indeed currently appears to be growing. I believe there are still many young people today who would rather till the soil, care for the sick or teach in the name of peace than shoot in the name of freedom. Maybe someone out there will figure out how to activate the tremendous resource represented by our young people and channel it constructively; away from the self-centered focus that leads to “yuppieism,” drug abuse and violence, toward an interest in the welfare of others. They might take a leaf from the book of John F. Kennedy, visionary and world citizen, who dared meet peoples of all nations as equals rather than let prejudice and ethnocentrism dominate.
Looking back at my Peace Corps experience makes me aware that the path we have followed as a nation in recent years only leads us as a people into the untenable position of thinking ourselves to be always right, infallible (a condition which seems to be a valid claim only for God and the pope, although they too seem to have trouble with it). Some of the infrastructure to challenge the young is still in place — the Peace Corps, for example. But, for us there is no champion; no one to sound the clarion call to the battle against poverty, ignorance and poor health.
This is indeed the shame of our times, given the new technology and knowledge now available that could be used to end human suffering. To some, these ideas may sound farfetched. I for one, however, believe that our society could use a healthy dose of idealism to shake it out of its materialistic, self-centered rut. Who knows what the generations of the 21st century might do if their hearts were “touched with fire,” in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, as were the hearts of we who came out of the 60’s generation.
Sharleen Simpson prepares to weigh a patient at her the clinic in Bolivia when she served in the Peace Corps
I, a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher at a secondary school in Malaysia, was awakened by the Head Mistress of the school, telling me my President had been shot, a few minutes later she came back and she said that she heard on the radio that President Kennedy was dead. I said “If that is true, we have a new president, and his name is (I paused and searched my memory) Lyndon Johnson, He is a good man and will do a good job.”
Being far from the US, in a country that did not have television. I did not have the opportunity to follow the events as they unfolded, so that days like today, 11/22/2013, I watch the coverage with amazement and somehow feel that I missed out on an important event. I was, however, doing what I could to do for my country as President Kennedy had asked me to do.
I was walking across campus at the small liberal arts college where I was a junior, and I came upon a classmate, an Iranian girl, who was weeping so terribly and uncontrollably. Trying to comfort her, I asked what was wrong - I thought she must have lost a member of her family in Iran. She said “President Kennedy has been shot and is dead!” I stayed with her for a few minutes and then ran to my dorm to find out what had happened.
A couple years later, my wife and I were new Peace Corps Volunteers, just posted in rural India and working with agriculture and health and nutrition. We were out visiting a local village one day, and one of the village farmers invited us into his home for chai (tea). His home was simple, made of mud bricks. On one wall was a picture of Gandhi, on the second was Nehru, and on the third was a picture of JFK. I don’t know how he got the picture or his feelings (my Hindi was very limited at the time), but the fact that he kept it on a wall along with the two most highly revered men in India spoke more volumes than any words. And of course, JFK was the primary reason my wife and I were there in India - “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!” It was a call to service, to help.
These two incidents showed me how much JFK was appreciated and even loved by people of around the world, not just Americans. Because of the circumstances, they were riveted in my brain and became an important part of the motivation for my career which was entirely spent in international development work, including 28 years with the World Bank working on agriculture in Asia. I wanted to help those people, to make a difference, the way JFK had made a difference to me. And the feeling is still there despite retirement, put there indelibly by JFK.
I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru. I had joined the PC because I believed in JFK. I had gone home for lunch and had no access to news. My Peruvian co-worker came to my house to ell me about the assassination. I accused him at first of lying to me, but then I was unable to compute that this was happening in the US. When I returned to work tat afternoon, I received many visits from the local residents who exprssed they sympathy to me as though he had been a close relative. This dayis etched in my mind.
I had stopped for a red light on Grand Avenue in mid-town St.Louis, MO, on my way to a philosophy class at nearby St. Louis University. While waiting for the light to change, I heard a special radio news bulletin that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. I can only recall that a kind of paralysis must have gripped me. I made my way to my classroom, which meant that somewhere I had parked my car and walked to the second floor of Dubourg Hall, but I remember none of that. When I arrived, there was no one in the classroom. Someone had scrawled on the black board that the class was cancelled. The creaky old four-story building was eerily silent and I neither saw nor heard anyone in the hallways, on the staircases, or in classrooms or offices. I felt stunned and immobilized, incredulous and drained. I made my way to the next door St. Francis Xavier “College” Church where I slumped down in the Gothic darkness, not noticing what must have been numerous other people in the cold hard pews. I recall nothing more of my shock and trauma that day, but vividly remember being glued to the dining room TV at home for the next several days where I and my parents and brothers and sister and an aunt watched the unfolding drama in silent disbelief and tears. We said little to each other—it was too horrible and incredible for us to comprehend. We listened to Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. They had a tough time of it. We did too, and I still do.
My future wife (whom I had not even met at the time of JFK’s assassination) and I joined the United States Peace Corps in the fall of 1966 and subsequently served for several months as a librarian and a secondary school teacher in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, East Africa. This happened in part as a response to JFK’s call for service to others which in retrospect we perhaps took more personally than we may have realized at the time. The experience was a life-changer if only because it demonstrated for us that there are many ways to accomplish most things, and many of the “alternatives” are as successful as the ways in which we might have done those things ourselves.
Gene Schneider, 72 Austin, Texas
I was in my final year at Brown University. That afternoon I was getting ready for an early afternoon date. I was listening to music on my transistor radio when programming was interrupted with the news flash that President Kennedy had been. Shocked by the news, I dressed immediately and ran, radio in hand, to the John Hay library across the street from my dormitory. My intention was to inform two of my classmates who were studying in the periodicals room. As I crossed the threshold of the room and hailed my friends, the librarian intercepted me and told me to take the radio outside.When I protested that the President had been shot, he said that he was aware of the fact, but that the Periodicals Room was to be kept silent. Within the hour, standing on the steps outside the library, my friends and I heard the confirmation of his death.
Until the assassination of John Kennedy, I had been planning to eventually join the Foreign Service. In the aftermath of his assassination, I decided that the way I could best honor his legacy was to join the fledgling Peace Corps, which had been initiated by his administration. I did just that, serving as a Volunteer in the Republic of Panama for three years. Then I spent another two-and-third years training Peace Corps Volunteers at the Training Center in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, teaching community development and Spanish, and coordinating the language components of several programs.
When I left the Training Center, it was to take a Masters in Spanish and obtain teaching certification. I spent the rest of my professional years as a Spanish teacher, principally on the high school level. It had become my lifelong goal to foment understanding between the peoples of the Americas. As I taught Spanish, I sought make my students aware that they were potential instruments for positive change in the relations between the United States and the other nations of the Americas. In the school I taught at last, Westtown School, I emphasized activism, taking dozens of my students as volunteers to teach English and support agencies that were offering G.E.D. classes to the Hispanic immigrant population of the area.
Upon retirement, my wife and I moved to Ocala, Florida. Here, within a month of my arrival, I had begun to help the N.G.O., Marion County Literacy Council, set up an ESOL program. I have been retired for six years. I continue to teach ESOL as a volunteer.
To say that that day fifty years ago tomorrow was pivotal in my life would be an understatement. Back then, as I stood with my roommates and some fifteen hundred other stunned and grieving Brown students under a steady drizzle during the memorial service for our fallen leader, I didn’t know or understand the forces the tragic event had set in motion in me. I had no inkling that I would spend my entire life answering his call “…ask rather, what you can do for your country,” and that it would translate into such a rewarding teaching and activist career and a retirement of volunteering — and I hadn’t the remotest idea that by tomorrow, fifty years later I would have written a novel and two short stories in which that event figured so prominently.
And the ultimate measure of the power of John F. Kennedy’s gift to this country is that his vision, his example, and even his tragic death inspired and informed tens of thousands of stories like mine.
When JFK was assassinated I along with 31 other Peace Corps Volunteers were In India. We had arrived in Sept, 50 years ago,a mere 2 months before the President was shot. When we awoke the morning of the 23rd, a nurse from the hospital we were assigned to, came running towards us and said “Sister Sister your President has been shot dead”. Of course none of us believed it until she showed us the local paper. I think some of us sobbed for hours and the outpouring of sympathy was overwhelming. The people of India, we met, were very fond of JFK as well as of Jackie. It took us a long time to recover from such a great loss. We continued our work in his memory.
I was a volunteer serving in the Peace Corps predecessor organization, International Voluntary Services, in Laos, on vacation in Malaya with my young wife and small daughter. We paid little attention to the news. But walking down the street in Kuala Lumpur we passed a newspaper vendor holding up the city’s English newspaper - Kennedy Assassinated - in the headlines. VERY startled, I backtracked and quickly purchased the paper. I clearly remember the conversations we had with Malayans and Singaporeans (our next stop, where we learned of Oswald’s assassination). They were universally saying how much the world loved John Kennedy, his global activities and his interest in other nations and their peoples. His image abroad was extremely positive.
Little is known how Kennedy formulated his Peace Corps recommendation. Before Kennedy became president, our International Voluntary Services organization, started in the mid-1950s, served as a model for and stimulated new legislation submitted by Hubert Humphrey to establish a “Youth Corps”. Kennedy’s transformation of our more simple service orientation to the attractive “ask not” notion of also serving our country was very appealing to young people. Our headquarters office provided the material to those researching voluntary service abroad as the Peace Corps was being formed. I found letters I had written home quoted in books published about the establishment of the Peace Corps.
My response to the “where were you …” question is quite different from most, given my circumstances at that hour. We clearly did not hear about it when it happened, but several hours later. And then we were spared the volume of details around the event, not having access to television and only able to see the very limited local English language media. Nevertheless, it was clearly a memorable event, even though my life had already been completely changed through my service abroad. My career has been in the foreign service - the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The day after President Kennedy was shot, I received a letter from him thanking me for being in the Peace Corps for one year. I still have the letter, and especially this year, I get goosie-bumps when I read it.
In 1963 I was serving in the Peace Corps teaching English to elementary age children in a barriada outside Chimbote, Peru. I had heard President Kennedy’s speech … ”Ask not…” and i couldn’t let go of the idea of joining the Peace Corps. It was fulfilling a dream for me.
I learned of our president’s death one morning when students flooded into my classroom, crying and screaming that my president was dead. I don’t know how they heard of it…but I found my job at the time was to console them. They expressed concern that i would be leaving them to return to the United States because my president had died. It impressed me that they didn’t have the understanding of our way of government — that the Peace Corps program would continue, that I wouldn’t be leaving because of the death of our president.
I remember being in a state of shock. It helped that our director Ralph Guzman planned as soon as possible a reunion of our group and a memorial service for President Kennedy.
That was truly a day that I will never forget.