Where Mass. Leaders Were When They Heard

The moment John F. Kennedy died is one that most who went into public service, and most others too, remember well.

Ask anyone of a certain age where they were fifty years ago today when they heard that John F. Kennedy had been shot, and they’ll almost always have an answer. Ask politicians of a certain age why they went into public service, and most of them will cite Kennedy’s call to “ask what you can do for your country,” in their answer. Perhaps that’s why there’s so much interest in where our leaders were when they heard.

John Kerry had been very much inspired into public service by Kennedy, a fellow Massachusetts Catholic with familiar initials. As a Massachusetts blue blood, by 1963, he had even met the president several times. Kerry was on the Yale campus when he heard, according to the Boston Globe’s biography of him:

Late during a soccer match on the Yale campus on November 22, 1963, a ripple of noise went through the crowd, growing louder by the second. News was spreading: President Kennedy had been shot. It had been just fifteen months since Kerry had gone sailing with the president.

“We were all sort of numb,” Kerry recalled. His hero, his role model, was dead. Kerry spent hours watching his small black-and-white television set in disbelief.

Then there was President Kennedy’s brother, the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who wrote about the day in his memoir

 Friday November 22 was a dull day in the Senate. I was presiding … At about twenty minutes to two in the afternoon, I heard a shout from the lobby. I glanced over to see the Senate’s press liaison officer, Richard Riedel, striding through the door to investigate. Then I saw Riedel reemerge, a strange expression on his face. He was hurrying directly toward me. The shout had come from someone who’d paused to read an Associated Press teletype machine.

“You’d better come over,” Riedel told me. He meant to the AP printer.

I followed him out of the chamber. I knew something had happened, something bad, but I had no idea what it was. We reached the machine and I watched the bulletin clatter onto the tape. The president had been shot and grievously wounded. My first overwhelming sense was disbelief. How could it be true? And then horror, as I stood there listening to the tick, tick, tick of the teletype machine. I couldn’t hear anything or anyone else. Gradually, I became aware of the voices around me. I heard someone say the president was dead.

CBS Boston asked several Massachusetts notables for their answers. Mayor Menino says he was at work in a garment factory in the South End. “We got the call and I said … I want to go home. I got on the train to Hyde Park. It was very somber on the train, and everybody just sat still, and you went home and watched the whole thing for three days after the assassination, because President Kennedy gave us a lot of hope, a lot of vitality in this country.” 

Former Mayor Ray Flynn told CBS he was in the U.S. Army and was called to Washington D.C., where he stood outside the White House as they brought Kennedy’s casket in.

Deval Patrick was seven years old and like a lot of those asked, was in school. “It was the first time I ever saw my grandfather cry,” he told CBS of watching the funeral.

So too was Attorney General Martha Coakley. “I recall that the news we first got was that he had been shot. We didn’t know, of course, at that time that he had been killed. But our first response was, the whole class, we were finishing up a geography lesson, and Sister Maria Bernard said let’s say a prayer. And we did that and we left school shortly thereafter.”

Former Governor Mitt Romney was home sick that day, he tweeted.


And of course, with the moment now fifty years past, already we have public notables who don’t remember the moment firsthand. Barack Obama was just two years old. Mayor-elect Marty Walsh wouldn’t be born for another four years. For them, as for most Americans, it’s a moment in a history book rather than a personal recollection.