On Nov. 22, 1963, I was just 20 years old and had not been old enough to vote for John F. Kennedy in 1960. Our mother was a staunch Republican, so his name was rarely mentioned with much enthusiasm.
In contrast, I have vivid memories of her involvement in the Eisenhower vs. Stevenson election in 1956, as we all sported “I Like Ike” buttons. I would imagine that the choice of Richard Nixon was not an easy one for her, and ultimately I am not sure for whom she voted.
On Nov. 22, 1963, I was a student at New York University Washington Square College. My classes started early on Fridays and I enjoyed my walk through the small streets of Greenwich Village from my apartment. I always looked forward to crossing Washington Square Park, taking in the smells and sights of each season and the sounds of the city coming to life. As on most days I would walk past the imposing statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi mounted on his horse attempting to draw his sword. There was an urban tale, among NYU students, that Garibaldi would draw his sword if a virgin walked past. These were the things that seemed important at the time.
It was early afternoon when my classes let out and I was moving very slowly through a hallway in the main building, an imposing high-ceilinged, marble-walled space. I heard someone say “the president was shot.”
Those words seemed to echo off the walls and ceiling. I thought, no, this cannot be true. President John F. Kennedy represented the hopefulness of our generation and of the country. We had lived through the harrowing experience of the Bay of Pigs, leaving us with a sense that he ultimately would not risk a nuclear war, and that he truly desired that we show what we could do for our country.
As I left the main building groups of students and professors gathered together and shared sorrow and disbelief. We did not know at the moment that the president was dead. Later, on learning that he had died, an overwhelming sense of sadness and helplessness enveloped me.
I walked through Washington Square Park, surrounded by bare gray trees and the imposing statue of Garibaldi, no longer wondering what would happen or not happen with Garibaldi and his sword. The area around the fountain, in the middle of the park, was usually vibrant with guitar music and song. All I heard were quiet voices as people around me shared their disbelief and grief, each in their own way. I felt both alone in my grief and yet aware that this was a shared experience of a day that no one could ever have imagined.
As the day wore on, heart-wrenching scenes of Jackie Kennedy bent over JFK’s body, her Chanel suit splattered with his blood, were played and replayed on televisions around the world.
The ensuing days were like a very bad dream, filled with scenes of the shooting of JFK, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald and the somber funeral procession to Arlington National Cemetery.
The image from the procession of the riderless black horse remains vivid in my memory. Horses, in my experience, are so attuned to the emotions of those who are close to them, yet this lone horse seemed to carry the weight of us all.
Sugie Weiss lives in Ottsville. She is a member of the Johns Hopkins Osher Institute. A version of this memoir appeared in the John F. Kennedy Special Edition of the Fall 2023 JHU Journal.