Remembering JFK: Nation, campus commemorate the loss of a leader

GW reacted in shock and horror along with the rest of the nation 40 years ago, in the days that followed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

When news of Kennedy’s assassination reached D.C., campus events came to a halt.

The Hatchet reported that several student events were canceled and many final examinations were postponed. The University held a memorial in Lisner Auditorium several days after the assassination. The service included Christian prayers and hymns, a benediction by a rabbi and a memorial speech by University President Thomas Henry Carroll.

Phil Amsterdam, a member of the GW Board of Trustees who graduated from the University in 1962, felt a personal connection to Kennedy, whom he met at the age of 16 when Kennedy was a Massachusetts senator.

“I was with my mother and we were in one of the Senate railways coming back from one of the office buildings,” he said. “Who do I see in the same railway car but Senator Kennedy?”

Amsterdam whispered to his mother, “You know, he’s going to be the president some day.” Kennedy then looked at him, laughed and said, “I hope you’re right,” Amsterdam said.

A Kennedy supporter, Amsterdam was at campaign headquarters on the eve of the 1960 presidential election.

“Kennedy could remember everything and anything he saw,” he said. “This was five or seven years later and he recognized me. He came over and said, ‘I hope you were right.'”

Amsterdam was at Brandeis University pursuing his graduate degree when he heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination.

“As I walked out of one of the halls, two people came up running. They were yelling, ‘The President’s been shot! The President’s been shot!'” Amsterdam said.

“We went to a TV. It was like a time warp. The world stopped,” he continued. “In a micro-millisecond everything changed. Camelot died.”

Peter Hill, a GW professor, was conducting research at the Library of Congress when he learned of the president’s death.

“My most vivid recollection was trying to phone my wife and for the first time that I can remember not getting even a dial tone,” he said.

Former Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) said the halls of Congress fell silent upon hearing of Kennedy’s death.

“We all went over to the Senate chamber when we heard,” he said. “Everyone went over and just kind of milled around.”

McCarthy and Kennedy were colleagues in the House of Representatives and the Senate. They were both Democrats and of roughly the same age.

“I was in the House with him, but we were on different committees,” McCarthy said. “We didn’t get the opportunity to work together a lot, but we had a social relationship. He would invite me over for dinner, and I attended his wedding.”

In 1968 McCarthy ran for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination against Lyndon Johnson, who was sworn in as president after Kennedy’s death.

A famous picture taken hours after Kennedy’s death shows Johnson somberly taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One. In the photo, Jacqueline Kennedy, a GW alumna, looks on blankly, her clothes stained red with her husband’s blood. The short woman in the foreground of the picture administering the oath of office is Judge Sarah T. Hughes, who graduated from GW in 1922.

There stood Johnson, flanked by two stolid women, both GW graduates, becoming president as the nation mourned its fallen leader.

“The death of a president is like taking a piece of you,” said Amsterdam, “and finding out that it has to be amputated.”

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