JFK greets PCVs on the White House lawn in 1961

JFK greets PCVs on the White House lawn in 1961

On November 22, 1963, I was in the middle of pre-deployment training at UCLA as a member of Nigeria IX. My wife and I were going to be English teachers. That morning our group was listening to a British professor lecture on something historical or cross-cultural when someone came to the back of the hall and called in that JFK had just been shot. After a brief moment to take in this shocking news the lecturer went on. A few minutes later someone again called in from the door at the rear of the lecture hall to tell us that the president was dead. For a minute we just sat there. The professor said something or other about what a terrible thing it was and then said he thought the best thing was to continue the lecture. (He was from the British stiff-upper-lip school.) But within a few minutes individual Peace Corps trainees quietly started leaving the room and the prof realized there was no point in trying to take our minds off the unthinkable news we had just received. He dismissed those of us still remaining in the room and we had to figure out what do we do now.

My wife and I went back to our room in the Dracker Hotel where I suddenly began sobbing uncontrollably. I liked Jack Kennedy, and even more I loved America and the idea of America. At once, without actually planning it and without knowing in advance for how long, I began fasting. My fast turned out to be for 36 hours - by far my longest ever, before or since. I don’t remember mentioning that I was fasting to anyone except my wife; it was just something I did to get through the emotional shock of the assassination.

At UCLA we Peace Corps trainees were asking one another whether they would call off the whole Peace Corps thing. The Peace Corps was so closely associated with our young president. It seems absurd now but we thought it was possible that the whole fabric of the U.S. government - and maybe of civilization itself - was in danger of unraveling. Had anyone contemplated the possibility that the president would be assassinated? Had anyone speculated about the consequences of such a heinous act?  Although I had grown up in the shadow of the Cold War and the knowledge of the potential for nuclear destruction - indeed the Cuban missile crisis had occurred earlier in JFK’s term - I had never thought about the possibility of a presidential assassination.

Classes were cancelled for the next couple of days. However, one of our fellow-trainees had been asked to see a UCLA psychiatrist (that was part of the pre-departure process in those days if the training program managers had any doubts about your psychological fitness for the challenges of a Peace Corps tour) and the appointment was for the day after the assassination. He called the shrink to ask whether the appointment should be postponed under the circumstances but the shrink said he’d prefer to go ahead as scheduled. When trainee R showed up the next day the first thing the shrink asked him was what he thought of the killing of the president. R was so taken aback by the question under the circumstances that he more or less shut down and was not very responsive to that question or subsequent interview questions from the shrink. At the end of training a couple of weeks later just a handful of trainees were ’selected out’ and told that Peace Corps wouldn’t send them to Nigeria after all. R was one of them (and since he was married that meant his wife was also selected out). He had told some of us about his unfortunate one-time experience with the psychiatrist. A few of us who thought that R was an excellent prospect put two and two together and guessed that the bad session with the shrink had been a major factor in the selection-out decision. We went to the training managers to urge them to reverse the decision. We said that R was highly qualified and an experienced and motivated teacher and we thought he would do very well across the cultural divide in Nigeria. His wife was also a terrific prospect. And we said that others in our group who had not been selected out were much less qualified and riskier propositions on cross-cultural sensitivity. That was our lay opinion. We expressed our doubts that the shrink’s evaluation had been professionally sound under the circumstances. The rules of confidentiality and secrecy surrounding the whole selection process prohibited the senior management of the training program from explaining any of the details of how they operated, but apparently they took our views seriously. R (and his wife) were reinstated and they served with distinction for the full two years as teachers in a Nigerian secondary school.

One more postscript to the JFK assassination: I was teaching commercial English and British economic history (and please don’t ask how that happened or how I was qualified to teach those subjects) to students at a post-secondary technical school in the regional capital city of Enugu. In a classroom discussion early in 1964 one of my students remarked offhandedly that of course the Kennedy assassination was a plot and LBJ was part of it. This way of looking at the killing had never crossed my mind. I was new to Nigeria and I responded angrily that no such thing was possible. But that incident stuck in my mind and over time it became integrated with other bits of cross-cultural insight. I have never personally subscribed to any of the conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination but I can understand how it could seem that way to a West African.

After serving as a PCV Larry Lesser (Nigeria 1963-65) joined the Foreign Service and served as a

Larry Lesser Today

Larry Lesser Today

State Department officer in two more African countries – Burkina Faso (which at that time was Upper Volta) and Rwanda, as well as in India, Belgium, and Bangladesh and  Washington, D.C. Since retiring from the Foreign Service he has continued to do international work  for the State Department and Peace Corps/Washington. He has participated in ten election observation missions in the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union, and last year in Albania for the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).