The events of November 22, 1963 are more than indelibly etched in my conscience; they remain a motivating factor in my personal and professional life. Fifty years ago the earth stopped its rotation for several days in the wake of the unthinkable tragedy that shook the world and robbed it of the promise of a new frontier.
I was ten years old when it happened, a fifth grade pupil at St. Cecilia's in Northeast Philadelphia, when Sister Mary Charles Marita, a taskmaster who would smack her steel ruler against the plaster walls and sometimes against the knuckles of those unlucky enough to warrant her discipline, quietly and out of character explained to us that we were going home early that day.
Growing up in a Catholic family in the late 1950's and early 1960's carried with it a certitude of having a good chance of getting into heaven and the fact that I followed in my father's footsteps and served as an altar boy in a time when the Mass was celebrated in Latin and the incense that filled the church along with the heavenly reverberation of hymns being sung from a choir lent an air of mystery and auspiciousness that lent no doubt that we were on the right path.
The excitement of having one of our own, a Catholic, elected President was further validation that indeed all was right with the world. There was excitement in the air, yes there was still the Soviet threat that necessitated daily drills where we would hide under our wooden desks to protect against a nuclear attack, but our President had assured us of his strength and conviction by standing up and facing down the evil menace during the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event that was made all that more real by the fact that it was covered on our rabbit-eared black and white television set.
When I arrived home early that afternoon there was a genuine sense of sadness and grief not only on the streets but in the home. The omnipresent and incessant television coverage ensured that we were all aware of the magnitude of the tragedy. The passing of the torch, in this case to the Vice-President of a past generation and not to the next generation was with the stricken former First Lady by his side was too surreal, even for a ten-year old. The days that followed, a quick succession including the flight back to Washington, the inexplicable murder of the murderer captured in real time, the throngs who solemnly touched the casket of the President as he lay in the Rotunda of the Capitol, the caisson carrying the body to Arlington National Cemetery, while John-John cast that heart wrenching salute to his father, and the vision of the eternal flame held us all hostage for what seemed like weeks.
I remember it all too well, but for me it did not end there. As I came to find myself during the remaining years of that decade I would come to discover that it was not his religion that would direct me towards a life in public service but rather his faith in mankind. His avowed dedication to ensuring that we as humans would create a better world and that government could and should play a major role in its conception solidified in me the desire to be a part of that transformation.
I have devoted the past thirty-six years to public service; having served two Presidents, two United States Senators, two Governors, the U.S. Senate Budget Committee, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and now as a public advocate for a safe and secure environment. President Kennedy still serves as a beacon of hope for those who believe that government is the solution to social injustice, environmental degradation, economic inequality, and peaceful coexistence. And while that is certainly a largely contrarian point of view in today's cynical and dysfunctional political environment, the passage of a half-century does not lessen, indeed it only reinforces, the necessity of finding our collective game as a nation and as a world of mankind struggling to adapt to the tolerance of diversity.
We can and must reflect upon the unbounded optimism that pervaded those short years of Camelot and dedicate ourselves to resurrecting the spirit of seeing what never was and asking why not. Currently the pungent and stale odor of hatred, obstruction, and searching for a magical era that never did nor ever will exist has rendered progressive thought and actions dead in the water. This represents the antithesis of the world that was evolving that day that our leader and statesman was gunned down. We are better than this.
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