He was the icon of the early 60s, the greatest
popularized president since FDR. We studied him in school, read
about him in magazines and newspapers; and talked about his war
experiences and heroism in the South Pacific aboard a small wooden
fighting vessel known as PT-109. He seemed to be everywhere, personifying
youth, vitality, and hope.
He sent us on an adventure into space, an event that later defined
the environmental movement. The last president to dare us to dream
a national mission, his fervor put us on the moon, and instilled
in us the spirit to reach outward even further.
But it all came crashing down one day in late November 1963-forty
I was in the old Barringer High School building changing classes,
on my way to Mr. J. Harry Smith’s English class when the news
of his shooting started spreading. I heard it in the stairwell.
Upon arriving there, the class was quite unsettled; with Mr. Smith
delayed in coming into the room—very unusual for one of my
favorite teachers. When he did finally arrive, he had tears in his
eyes, speaking very slowly and measured, informing us that what
we had heard was indeed true. The president had been shot. Needless
to say, not much was taught that period, and soon thereafter, we
were dismissed for the day.
Our usual group of friends met as always and headed back through
Branch Brook Park toward Bloomfield Avenue, near where most of us
lived. Something violent and very ugly had come into our lives.
Our nation’s innocence was over in one brutal, senseless act.
It was a quiet walk home; shocking to realize that presidents’
could still be assassinated. Little did we know what would be in
store as events unfolded later that weekend, and for the remainder
of the turbulent 60s.
News coverage of the events was constant. Almost painful it was
to watch TV, and listen to that somber death march, as the President’s
coffin was wheeled through Washington on its way to Arlington National
I went outside for a quick walk around the neighborhood, but there
wasn’t a friend or other person in sight on that cold overcast
afternoon. It was something out of a Rod Serling Twilight Zone episode;
except this was real. I headed back for the warmth of home, and
that ever present drumbeat.
Years later, my wife and I visited Arlington and JFK’s gravesite.
That old familiar gloom tried to descend again; but the absolute
beauty and tranquility of that incredible cemetery helped keep the
negative mood at bay. That place is as beautiful to me as the redwood
forests of California. At the changing of the guard at the Tomb
of the Unknown Soldier, there wasn’t a dry eye. It is the
most fitting place for JFK to rest--among the heroes and fallen,
a place where good, although at the expense of youth and unfulfilled
promise, does triumph over evil.
Whenever I think of JFK, I naturally remember old Barringer High,
and J. Harry Smith who validated the event for me; with those tears
in his eyes, and quiet soothing conversation to help us get through
the confusion and fear.
Mr. Smith passed a year or two ago, but I got to stay in touch
with him over the years.
I watched as he pioneered Essex County Community College and built
it into a fine school. We invariably bumped into each other all
over Essex County. He never failed to recognize me, always coming
over for a warm embrace and some talk. I miss his smiling face and
twinkling eyes, as much as I miss the innocence.