A sophomore in high school, Randy Hughes was sitting in English class in Fort Madison, when he heard Walter Cronkite’s voice come over the intercom.
“It was really a Hollywood scene, because the voice came on and said, ‘...and that’s the story from Dallas, where President John F. Kennedy has been killed,’” said Hughes. “And bam, it was just an electric shock in the classroom, stunned silence.”
Even though he would spend his career giving lectures about the events that transpired on Nov. 22, 1963, and everything that followed as a history teacher at Creston High School and Southwestern Community College, Hughes said the assassination marked a change in America’s course through history that was never easy to comprehend.
“Some people had their hands to their face in shock,” Hughes said. “By the time we got the news it was probably about a-quarter to 2 and we had one more period of school. We just all sat in the classroom talking about the situation because there weren’t televisions in all the classrooms and all the access to information.”
Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was assassinated by a sniper around 12:30 p.m., while traveling with his wife Jackie in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas.
He had just passed his 1,000th day in office as the youngest president, taking office in January 1961. He would also be the youngest to die.
According to a White House profile, Kennedy was born in Brookline, Mass., on May 29, 1917, and grew up to be a Harvard graduate before entering the U.S. Navy in 1917.
Upon returning from war, Kennedy quickly dove into a career in politics, earning a spot as a Democratic Congressman in the Boston area. He advanced to the U.S. Senate by 1953.
Through 1960, Kennedy battled with Republican candidate Richard Nixon for the presidency. His appearance helped him better Nixon during the first televised presidential debates.
“He was my president, and he was the first president I was aware of,” Hughes said. “He was young, and he was exciting.”
Kennedy won by a narrow margin, becoming the first Roman Catholic president. In his inaugural speech, Kennedy offered one of his most memorable quotes, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Creston Mayor Warren Woods had just gotten out of the Marine Corps in May 1963 and was attending Nebraska Wesleyan University studying political science.
“I was in a class of seven or eight people, all political science majors,” Woods said.
Woods said his professor announced the president had been killed.
“People had their heads down,” Woods said. “And then he started telling what he thought might happen politically, that Lyndon would serve out the first term, then get re-elected and then Nixon would be elected in 1968. He hit the nail on the head.”
According to the White House profile, Kennedy worked to establish new economic programs, as well as attack poverty and pass new civil rights legislation.
And while his presidency was not always smooth — the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 being an example — his era is kindly referred to as Camelot.
“We were headed one direction in 1963, and we took a sharp turn a different direction,” Hughes said. “We went from a hopeful, optimistic, can-do country to a country that got bogged down in a terrible war in Viet Nam followed by civil disorder, riots and protests and the resignation of a president (Nixon).”
After a 10-month investigation, the Warren Commission concluded that Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald and that Oswald was acting alone in the assassination.
“There were a lot of Kennedy supporters (at Nebraska Wesleyan),” Woods said. “The whole campus was just down, that weekend was pretty somber.”
However, Oswald never stood trial for the attack. Two days after Kennedy died while being transferred from police headquarters to the county jail, Oswald was shot on national television by Jack Ruby.
“We had the weekend (since Kennedy died on a Friday) and on Sunday was when Oswald was killed,” Hughes said. “That was the big buzz story on Monday.”
Despite the findings of the Warren Commission, the assassination has always had a cloud of conspiracy of what really happened.
“The questions that can no longer be answered just bother me,” Hughes said. “My understanding of it is we don’t understand it.”
That uncertainty also adds to the illusion of Kennedy’s Camelot and what parts of history remain unwritten because of the hand of an assassin.
The phrase Camelot was originally used to describe Kennedy’s presidency by his wife Jackie during an interview with Theodore White, a writer for Life Magazine.
Camelot is in reference to the fictional castle and court associated with King Arthur. It was performed as a musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.
In the interview with White, Jackie said Kennedy enjoyed the Broadway performance so much, he purchased the album and it was one of his favorites to listen to before bed.
One of his favorite lines from the musical was, “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”
Hughes said describing the JFK presidency with Camelot is fitting.
“We were young and naive and innocent,” Hughes said. “The hero always slayed the dragon, the damsel was always saved. That’s the way the attitude was in my understanding, in my little world. And then it got dark.
“I wish we had paid more attention to the Camelot lesson at the time, because at the end, the king is dead.”
Fifty years after the Kennedy assassination, Hughes said it is no longer just a history lesson for the younger generations — it is ancient history.
“It’s something they’ve heard about, something they know that President Kennedy was killed,” Hughes said. “I don’t think they know the temper of the times and the significance of the event.”
But Hughes said today’s generation doesn’t understand that Kennedy’s death altered the way the world operates today.
“It’s a history lesson to them, but I don’t think they have the visceral, emotional feeling,” Hughes said.
Woods said he understood how emotions can be hard to translate to other generations, especially over a-half century.
“My (history lessons) 50 years ago, when I was in college, was pre-World War I,” Woods said. “I think they need to appreciate the fact that our presidents are vulnerable and need to be protected.”