By Teresa Kelly, Kaplan University
As the nation pauses to remember the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy – the first president born in the 20th Century and a member of the Greatest Generation – iconic images and sounds from that day fill our television screens. Despite the growing power of digital media, it is a book and a television special on TLC about the over 800, 000 letters of condolence sent to the White House in the months following the assassination that captures for younger generations – including many students – the true sense of grief and loss that people across the world experienced at the violent death of a man they felt they knew and knew they loved. These correspondences – called in both forms “Letters to Jackie” – also show students the power of letters and journaling in helping us record, understand, and cope with traumatic events from both psychological and emotional perspectives.
For those JFK spoke of when he said “the mantel has been passed to a new generation,” he was their rallying point to service. He called for them to “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” created the Peace Corps, championed a Civil Rights Bill that passed Congress after his death in part as an homage to him, and challenged Americans to go to the moon by the end of the 1960s – a challenge the country and especially NASA met partly because letting their slain leader down was unthinkable. They had seen them, they had voted for him, and they had loved him and his family. It was natural for them to write to his widow and children as it would be for them to send a sympathy card or letter of condolence to a family member or friend.
The descendants of the Kennedy generation know the images and sounds of that era well. JFK, Jackie, RFK, and a young JFK, Jr. have become ingrained in our minds. We’ve grown up with them playing again and again on our televisions and more recently the internet, we’ve heard the conspiracy theories, and we’ve seen a plethora of actors from Cliff Robertson, to Martin Sheen, to Greg Kinnear, and most recently Rob Lowe portray their own versions of JFK. We’ve seen the news clips of November 22, 1963, and know what is going to happen but somehow, just like when we watch Titanic for the 100th time, we hope for a different outcome. Some of the more startling moments – the radio announcement about two priests saying the president was dead and Cronkite officially announcing the time of death – give me shivers every time I see them. If you grew up in some homes in the 1970s – especially Catholic homes as I did – pictures of JFK hung alongside pictures of the Pope and Jesus Christ. For our generation and those to come, the youngest man ever elected president is frozen at 46, young, seemingly vibrant, and clearly ready to continue to lead his country, but the agony of the loss escapes us.
That day in Dallas haunts Americans as only few others including December 7, 1941, January 28, 1986, and September 11, 2001, do. Still, for many not yet born or at least aware on those horrible November days it takes the letters of housewives, military widows, stunned teenagers, and small children trying to comfort a grieving widow and children while coping with their own sadness to truly allow us to empathize with those who did. Many of the letter writers in “Letters to Jackie” claim they don’t write well, they aren’t educated, or their words mean little. They couldn’t be more wrong, which is something all of us can teach our students to empower them in their own writing.
More than anything “Letters to Jackie” demonstrates the indelible nature of the written word – especially when it is spontaneous like a letter or a journal – to capture emotions and allow them to be felt years, decades, and even centuries later.
Brewer, M. Ed. & Couturié, B, (2013, November 17). In Couturié, B. Letters to Jackie: Remembering President Kennedy. Washington, DC: The Learning Channel.
Fitzpatrick, E. (2013). Letters to Jackie: Condolences from a Grieving Nation. New York: Ecco Press. (Original book published 2010).