JFK's death shook the nation, began decade's downhill slide

United in grief
United in grief
Jackie Kennedy and her children, Caroline and John Jr., leave St. Matthew's Cathedral behind President John F. Kennedy's casket following a funeral mass on Nov. 25, 1963. Even without Cable News Network or the many other all-news stations of today, President Kennedy's funeral received all-day coverage, uniting the nation in grief as never before.

President Kennedy's assassination was one of five in the turbulent decade.

By LEO MORRIS of The News-Sentinel

Nancy Osbun was sitting in the library at Concordia College in St. Paul, Minn., when she heard about it. But, she recalls, the news was delivered by the campus clown, so nobody believed him at first.

Danny Walchle was on his way to Miss Ridgeway's algebra class at Fort Wayne Central High School. "Louie Imbody told me as we passed each other in the second-floor overpass. I assumed it was a minor hunting accident or something. I wisecracked, `Who beat me to him?' I don't know if Louie remembers that remark, but I will always regret it.''

Pat Corbat was working as a secretary at Lincoln National Life. Another secretary came running in breathlessly with the news, "then word spread like wildfire, and the office became quieter than usual. We were all stunned.''

Some public events are etched in the mind forever, producing memories that always give a positive answer to the question, "Do you remember where you were when . . .?'' The moon landing. President Reagan's wounding. The Challenger explosion.

And the event that is etched the deepest — as Osbun, Walchle and Corbat testify — is the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

"Over the years,'' says Stephen Schele, who heard the news in class at South Side High School, "I anchored that event to my studying Mr. Collier's face as we all listened to the broadcast, (and my) reflection that it was fitting I should experience this in history class.''

And Gary Gilpin probably speaks for thousands when he calls hearing the news "one of the more distinct memories from that time in my life.''

Of course, there were other assassinations in the turbulent '60s, each in its own way reshaping the social and political landscapes and producing lasting memories:

* The assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King while he was in Memphis, Tenn., in support of a civil sanitation workers' strike. His death led to riots in 125 cities and forever changed the course of the civil rights movement. Escaped convict James Earl Ray was convicted of the murder, but he died protesting his innocence, and some members of the King family have also expressed their doubts.

* The assassination, by Sirhan Sirhan, of Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy was in Los Angeles after just winning the California primary, which made him the front-running Democratic presidential candidate.

* The assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers by a white supremacist.

* The assassination of Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X by a rival.

But the Kennedy assassination, on Nov. 22, 1963, was the first, the most shocking, the one most people still feel resulted in this nation's loss of innocence. The 1960s, in retrospect, really seems like two decades, split by the JFK assassination. Before the killing, the decade was a prosperous, hopeful extension of the placid '50s. After it, there was only turmoil: an Asian war that got bigger and bigger, student protests that got louder and louder, racial strife that became ever more violent, promiscuous sex and dangerous drugs and rebellious rock 'n' roll.

"Except for the Beatles,'' Walchle says, "the '60s seemed to go downhill after that. No more presidential joking with reporters, cute kids, nice-looking family. Instead, we got Johnson, Vietnam and Nixon. It's one of those things where you ask yourself, `What would have been different if . . .?' ''

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