Iowa City remembers John F. Kennedy


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It is 1963, and a hushed crowd huddles in front of the Old Capitol. One young man leaves the crowd and approaches the tall wooden door beneath the gold dome — Michael Carver, University of Iowa’s then-student body president. He places a large circular wreath on top of the steps. Tears fill his eyes, and he’s not alone. The city, and the country, had come together to honor and grieve a man who transcended party lines, race, and age: President John F. Kennedy.

Fifty years later, Carver is still emotional as he speaks of Kennedy.

“It was a tough period; we all had to make a little personal adjustment in our lives,” he said, pausing momentarily. “It was emotional for everyone, to think our president was gone. It was certainly something I’ll never forget. Everyone remembers where they were for 9/11, and everyone remembers the same thing with this.”

Kennedy was in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, where he was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald during a parade. Kennedy was the 35th president of the United States and was the youngest president elected to office.

The Daily Iowan editor of the time sprung into action when he heard the news of the assassination.
“I heard the news, and I went to the Daily Iowan offices right away,” said Dean Mills, now the dean of the University of Missouri Journalism School. “I was lucky to be a student journalist at the time. Other than just [reporting] the morning over, we decided to put out an extra edition.”

Mills recalls sending reporters to pass out the special edition papers, hot off the presses. News of the assassination, which happened around 1 p.m. on Nov. 22, was distributed among campus by the evening.

“One of the things that journalists face is you can’t say a flood makes you happy, but it’s exciting to cover; it’s what we do,” he said. “It was very sad time, but we felt we were doing some good by informing people.”

Twenty-four hour news coverage had also sprung to life at the announcement, something Iowa City City Councilor Connie Champion said had never happened.

“Well I remember the day had literally 24-hour coverage; it was a real shock,” said Champion, who was 24 at the time. “I think the pictures of Johnson and Jackie with the blood on her dress really showed us [the gravity of the situation].”

University of Iowa history Professor Shelton Stromquist, who was in Germany at the time, said there was no less grieving overseas.

“I was at a play … and everyone got up and walked into the streets,” he said. “Crowds were just gathering in the streets — everyone seemed to want to be in a public place. And for Germans, they were particularly fond of Kennedy because he had just been to Berlin in June.”

Kennedy’s youth and enthusiasm was a breath of fresh air for the American people, a longtime Iowa City resident said.

“It seemed like we had really old presidents in office for a while,” said Damian Pieper, a 21-year-old at the time. “FDR had died in office, then we had Truman, who was old, and Eishenhower seemed old, so it was some fresh new blood — we had this young forward-looking president who was enthusiastic for change.”

The president’s likability managed to transcend party lines, as well as race, Carver said.

“I don’t remember anyone who had anything negative to say about him [the weekend of the assassination], regardless of their political persuasion,” he said.

Kennedy’s stance on civil rights also inspired Carver as well as other UI student legislators to take action on campus.

“Civil rights was a big issue on campus at Iowa; Vietnam wasn’t that big of a deal yet,” Carver said. “We got fraternity and sorority leaders and asked what we could do to get involved in this issue.”
What Carver and other students formulated and put into place the following spring of Kennedy’s death was a weekend-long exchange with sorority and fraternity students in Mississippi. Five students from the UI drove to Mississippi.

“I, for the life of me, don’t know how we pulled it off,” he said. “I felt I was inspired to do what we did, and I don’t think there’s any question that passion came from Kennedy.”

The legacy of Kennedy has remained positive over time, despite various allegations that have emerged over the years ranging from promiscuity to his handling of various war conflicts.

“Those things had been around since he was a young man, his love for women and that stuff,” Champion said. “The kinds of bad things that are written in books get watered down over the years. I hope people look at his accomplishments and all the positive things he did.”

Carver agrees Kennedy’s legacy will be seen as positive for generations past, and for years to come.
“The saddest part of losing him was the message we could have used down the road,” he said. “The legacy he left, from my standpoint, is part of what the nation needs is a rise in responsible action. When he said ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,’ I think that people need to follow his example and think about what they can do to make a difference, and they can be inclined to make a difference.”

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