22 November 1963 — Early that Friday afternoon, I was having lunch in the University of Dayton’s Flyers’ Hanger, the primary hangin’ out spot on campus. A small group of seniors were chatting about what was in store for us just a few months into the future — a couple were planning graduate school, one likely heading to Vietnam as an ROTC graduate and me, I was heading to Liberia in the Peace Corps. We noticed that all of a sudden the large cafeteria descended into an eerie silence. Everybody was straining to hear the FM radio station playing music in the background. That is how we heard the fateful words “President Kennedy has been shot!”
I was devastated; I truly did not know how to deal with the news. JFK and his Peace Corps had unknowingly charted the path of the rest of my life.
The announcement of funeral arrangements were made on Sunday. Still at a loss and probably literally walking around in circles, three friends and I jumped into a car and headed to Washington’s Virginia suburbs to overnight with a friend’s family — nearly 8 hours and 500 miles. It was simple and seemingly preordained — TV was not enough — I had to attend the funeral!!
My most vivid memories of the iconic procession from the White House to the Capitol are JFK’s horse drawn carriage, Jackie’s and the children’s limousine slowly passing and Haile Selassie and Charles de Gaulle walking solemnly down Constitution Avenue.
I had worked for my congressman in DC the previous summer, so was aware of an almost secret passageway from the Senate Office Building direct to the Capitol rotunda. Accessing that with dozens of senators and Congressmen and their families, I was fortunate to be amongst the first couple of hundred mourners to pay respects in tears to my idol and to view his casket. To bypass the miles-long queue, I told a Capitol policeman that I was the son of my Kentucky senator, John Sherman Cooper.
Virtually every American of my age range remembers where they were during those terrible days . . . actually being there was one of the most memorable times of my longish life.
A graduate of the University of Dayton, Dale was a PCV and U.N. Volunteer, both in Liberia. He later was on Peace Corps staff in Liberia, Washington, and with UNV/Cambodia. He also worked for Catholic Relief Services in Somalia and Sierra Leone, and the Lutheran World Federation in Uganda. He then worked for the UN Development Program (Liberia), UN Volunteers Program (Cambodia) and the International Organization for Migration (Thailand). Retiring in 2000, he lives in Thailand.