Amherst Magazine

Remember When: November 22, 1963

By David J. Greenblatt ’66,  P’15

Upon learning the president had been killed, one sophomore went to his room in North, closed the door and sat down to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

“Four weeks ago he was here. We saw him; we heard him; and we knew him. … Now he is gone.”

Cal Plimpton addressed a grim college community in Johnson Chapel on the evening of Nov. 22, 1963, his voice quivering. The brief speech ended with: “Let us stand a moment in silence, to honor him; then let us go and do the work he couldn’t complete.”

JFK’s visit to Amherst a month earlier was exhilarating. The preparations were frantic, the steps of his schedule precisely choreographed. The media and Secret Service swarmed over campus. Three military helicopters arrived. Kennedy gave his now-archival speech in the old cage. Then the motorcade, the Frost Library groundbreaking, and it was over. JFK departed and returned to work.

I missed the whole thing. In that era, the football team traveled by bus to a hotel in Holyoke on the night before the homecoming game. Purpose: to escape the chaos and sleeplessness of homecoming weekend. We arrived back at Pratt Field late that Saturday morning. The Frost ceremony ran long, so the stands were empty at the start of the game. Wesleyan scored on the first two possessions. The stands eventually filled, and we won.

I was raised in Newton, Mass., a few miles from JFK’s birthplace in Brookline. Growing up, I never knew that a New England accent existed, let alone that I had one. Professor Allen Guttmann was unhappy with JFK’s syntax. “To each question,” grumbled Dr. Guttmann, “he responds: ‘Well, I would say that the answer to that would be this.’”

After my 11:20 class on Nov. 22, I returned to North, where an agitated John Swinton King ’66 said, “Kennedy’s been shot.” We crowded around an old radio in classmate Russ Clark’s room. “Is he OK?” I asked. No one knew. I went to Williston for a 12:20 math class with a gentle and revered senior professor, Robert Breusch. Midway through, the chapel bells began to toll slowly. In heavily accented English, Professor Breusch said softly, “Well, I think that’s enough.” He set down the chalk.
Jonathan Wolpaw ’66 met me at the top of the stairs in North. There were tears in his eyes. “He’s dead.”

I was unprepared, and therefore vulnerable to the shock and horror and hurt. I pretended not to think about it. With the door to my room closed and locked, I sat down to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin for American Studies 21. Many hours later I re-emerged, hungry and tired of reading. Bob Lewin ’66 and I walked into a dark and silent town. We found an open pizza place, then moved on to Cal’s meeting in the chapel.

The next morning I took the bus home to Newton. On Sunday I went to Catholic Mass and came home in time to see Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live television (later my grandmother asked, “Is this bad for the Jews?”).

Over the next few weeks, angry at my own vulnerability, I took steps to protect myself. I tried to picture any and all possible tragedies, losses and disasters. If such things did happen, at least I would be unsurprised. (To some degree that system has worked.) On campus, we grudgingly resumed life, but youth and excitement and optimism were done.

Greenblatt is on the faculty of Tufts University School of Medicine, where he is professor of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics.