JFK: Why he still fascinates us

Fifty years after his death, the memory of John F. Kennedy still captivates and evokes emotion. His shocking assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, has stood for generations as a “where were you when" moment. The early Baby Boomers were especially magnetized by the president's youthful idealism. What was Kennedy’s true imprint on history and the presidency? Why does he still hold such a lofty place in our collective memory? We look back on JFK, his slaying and his legacy, a half-century later.

Timeline: Nov. 22-25, 1963

Young candidate's charisma endures in Omaha photo »

John F. Kennedy looked confident and at ease as he sat on a backyard patio near 90th and Hickory Streets in Omaha, surrounded by dozens of reporters, photographers and adoring Democrats.

On this day in August 1959, the telegenic U.S. senator from Massachusetts wasn't running for president — at least, not officially. It wouldn't be revealed until much later that in a private meeting at the home minutes earlier, JFK and statewide supporters had secretly mapped plans for him to enter Nebraska's potentially pivotal 1960 Democratic primary.

At some point while the youthful pol gazed off into the crowd, a photographer hired by the Kennedy family raised his camera and snapped a picture.

It was but a moment in time. But captured in that vivid frame was a photograph that would become one of the most reproduced and recognizable images of Kennedy — one whose use would fatefully frame both the hopeful beginnings of his campaign and the tragic end of his life.

Within months that picture would appear on JFK buttons, bumper stickers and campaign posters as he campaigned across the country.

Read more.

A president frozen in time »

John F. Kennedy Jr. and his sister Caroline dance in the Oval Office as their father claps along. NATIONAL ARCHIVES

You can debate John F. Kennedy’s place in the pantheon of U.S. presidents.

Surveys of historians consistently place him among the top dozen chief executives, though he has also appeared high on historians’ lists of the most overrated.

But by one measure, JFK unquestionably rates on the Mount Rushmore of presidents: the level of public fascination he engenders, even a half-century after his death.

Consider all the Kennedy narratives that still captivate the American public and evoke emotions today: the magnetic personality. The inspiring idealism. Camelot. Staring down the Soviets. Shooting for the moon. The stolen promise. The questionable morals. The conspiracy theories.

Almost all those themes start or end with the gunshots that rang out in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

The shocking assassination of the young and charismatic leader, unfolding at the dawn of the television age, became one of those rare “where were you when’’ moments — one that will be long seared in the nation’s memory.

Read more.

Nebraska native Ted Sorensen carried pain to the end »

President Kennedy, left, with Ted Sorensen. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS.

To truly understand how profoundly Sorensen was wounded by the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of JFK, one must understand the depth of his relationship with the nation's 35th president.

It was hours after the assassination of John F. Kennedy when Ted Sorensen, the Nebraska native who was among JFK's most trusted aides, received a call from the nation's new president.

Lyndon B. Johnson expressed his deep remorse at what had transpired in Dallas that horrible November day, knowing how close Sorensen and Kennedy had grown over the previous decade.

“Good-bye, and thank you Mr. President," Sorensen said as the call ended.

Then Sorensen hung up the phone and broke down sobbing, hit by the cruel truth that he had just used those words to address someone other than Kennedy.

Read more.

Kelly: Treasuring our links to that one brief shining moment »

President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, arrive at Love Field airport in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Last month on vacation, I visited Cape Cod, viewed the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port from a tour boat in Nantucket Sound and quietly reflected on my now-distant coming of age.

For millions of us, that time came during the presidency of John F. Kennedy and in the tumultuous years that followed.

The “Camelot” legend and politics aside, JFK holds a grip. I still have a “Kennedy for President” campaign button from my boyhood, when I was enthralled by the Irish Catholic connection.

I was 15, leaving a sophomore Latin class, when I heard that the president had been shot. At 17, on a senior class trip to Washington, D.C., I had the honor of placing a wreath on Kennedy's grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

I have twice visited the assassination-related Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas and sat mesmerized on the grassy knoll below, contemplating the horror in Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963. Yes, I've read a few conspiracy-theory books.

Read more.

Photo captures happy moment before horror

A snapshot of presidential motorcade in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, taken by Donna Hultman of Omaha. John F. Kennedy is seen with his wife, Jacqueline, Texas Gov. John Connally and Nellie Connally.

Donna Hultman of Omaha recalls the jubilant mood, the cheering crowd. She was 23, standing along Main Street in Dallas as the motorcade approached, President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy beaming from the open limousine.

Donna stood three or four rows back from the curb, holding a simple Kodak box camera. She couldn’t get a good view, so she handed the camera to a taller co-worker, who stepped forward and snapped a picture just as the president and first lady looked his way.

The photo of the Kennedys just minutes before the assassination is unusual because, for most of the next 40 years, it sat in a box unseen.

It was found only in recent years at the Gretna home of Donna’s mother, Bess Schmidt. The photo was never published until it appeared in The World-Herald on Nov. 20, 2003.

After the tragedy in Dallas, Donna put away the camera and forgot about it, not even developing the film for months.

She later sent a copy of the photo to her mom, then forgot about it. In the early 2000s, she came across this glimpse of the moments before the horror.

Conspiracy theories persist »

Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, a pathologist, points to an illustration showing bullets used in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as he testified before the House Assassination Committee in Washington, d.c, on Sept. 7, 1978. Wecht said he could not subscribe to the so-called "magic bullet theory" - that one bullet could have gone through Kennedy's neck and then struck John Connally, critically wounding him. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

There is no reasonable doubt that Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shots that killed President John F. Kennedy and no solid evidence that Oswald was part of a conspiracy.

That's the clear conclusion from a close reading of the best independent research into the circumstances of the case, including the 1994 book "Cased Closed" by historian Gerald Posner and the 2007 book "Reclaiming History: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy" by attorney Vincent Bugliosi.

But Kennedy conspiracy theories remain widely believed in America, fed partly by scores of other books and films promoting them. Conspiracy literature profits from the public's difficulty in accepting that so enormous a crime could be committed by a lone 24-year-old without a clear motive. Read more.

Without fanfare, Nebraska-Oklahoma game goes on

Four Air Force jets salute a half-mast flag at the Nebraska-Oklahoma game on Nov. 23, 1963.

In the midst of the nation’s shock and grief over the Kennedy assassination, a delicate decision had to be made: Should the Nebraska-Oklahoma football game proceed as scheduled on Saturday in Lincoln?

Nebraska Gov. Frank Morrison later said he tried to convince Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson that the game should be postponed. Wilkinson, chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, reported that he contacted U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who advised him to play the game.

Late Friday night, after a six-hour special meeting, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents decided to go ahead with the game, but without the usual pregame festivities. Nebraska won, 29-20, for the Big Eight championship and a berth in the Orange Bowl.

It was one of the few college games played that Saturday, most having been postponed or canceled.

— Michael Kelly

From the OWH archives »

The Nov. 22, 1963, Wall Street Edition of The World-Herald.

Monday, Nov. 25, 1963:

Omahans flocked to churches in record numbers on Sunday. The Rev. Donald F. Haviland, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, was quoted as saying “It reminded me of Easter and Christmas.” All three services at his church were packed. At St. Cecilia’s Cathedral, there was standing room only for the late morning masses. At Dundee Presbyterian about 60 persons were not able to get seats in the nave at the late service. Nearly 1600 attended a joint memorial at Beth Israel Synagogue.

This report appeared in the Friday evening edition on Nov. 22, 1963:

Stunned disbelief was the general reaction in downtown Omaha as flashes about the shooting for President Kennedy came in. Omahans who had gathered to watch a television demonstration in a downtown store gasped when the regular program was interrupted by the bulletin.... Val Walter, proprietor of a downtown cafe, said his lunchroom was crowded with noonday patrons when the news came over the radio. When the first words rang out of the assassination attempt, the usual dining clatter halted. “They were stunned. No one said a word for several minutes while we listened. It was unbelieveable. No one could even imagine such a thing,” Mr. Walter said.

Read more and see other archived World-Herald pages.

What do you remember? »

We asked readers and local newsmakers to share their memories of the assassination and how it changed America.

Mike Fahey

Mike Fahey, 69, former mayor of Omaha was a junior at Highland Community College in Kansas in 1963, where he had gone to play football.

I remember it just like it was yesterday. I was coming out of class and one of the teachers ran up to us, and said, "Did you hear about the shooting in Dallas? The president was hit."

I think the school actually stopped that afternoon. I didn’t go back to class. I remember that. We just stayed glued to the TV set.

Chris Schipporeit

Nov. 22, 1963, a small town in Indiana. My toddler daughter sat by a TV tray waiting for her lunch, my infant son in a baby seat awaiting his bottle. I turned on the TV to the Chicago station broadcasting Bozo the Clown, my daughter’s favorite lunchtime program. The tears began — Bozo was pre-empted by national news. I stood transfixed, peanut butter sandwich in one hand, bottle in the other. The children’s wails went unheard for a moment as I stood on the cusp of history, hearing the broadcast and praying the information was wrong! Then came momentary disbelief as the news unfolded. The children could not understand my tears as the reality of the moment became accepted as true. My little daughter spoke, “Don’t cry, Mommy. Bozo will be back.” I knew that, but President Kennedy would not.

Fernando “Butch” Lecuona III

I was in seventh grade attending Monroe Junior High School, in shop class. Mr. Johnson was our teacher. We had built a kit television set and it was on when the news came on that President Kennedy had been shot and killed. Mr. Johnson started crying. We were shocked. When I got home my mother was watching TV and crying, and when my father got home from work he had tears in his eyes.

Howard T. Swain Jr.

Hearing about the assassination attempt and untimely death of President John F. Kennedy is a moment in time I shall never forget. I was in the eighth grade attending Horace Mann Junior High School (which is now known as King Science Center). The news broke during my seventh hour geography class and my teacher was Mr. Anthony Salerno. Quietness fell over the entire school. That alone was horrifyingly strange! I felt part of a very sad historical event, especially because in President Kennedy my parents saw the hope of civil rights for black Americans, especially myself, a young black man.

Read more than 350 reader-submitted stories from the day President Kennedy died and share your story by clicking here »