A former Peace Corps press officer described the night and early morning after President Kennedy was killed — and how an emotional first lady turned to those close to him for help
David Pearson was a second-level Peace Corps press officer filling in for out-of-town White House press staffers on Nov. 22, 1963 — a day that at first only seemed significant because of his newfound responsibilities in his temporary role.
But then Pearson got the news that shocked a nation: President John F. Kennedy had been shot in the head in his limousine while riding in a motorcade through downtown Dallas with wife Jacqueline Kennedy by his side.
By 3 p.m. that day, Pearson got a call requesting his assistance as arrangements were made for the slain president.
Pearson’s recollections from the day, first published in 1983, were resurfaced by The Miami Herald decades later.
“I was there,” Pearson wrote. “I tacked black crepe. I fetched sandwiches. I wrote press releases. I emptied ash trays. I ran errands. I also watched and I listened. And I remember what has now become history and legend.”
Pearson also remembered watching the group of men who were closest to the president — Sargent Shriver, the first-ever director of the Peace Corps (and Kennedy’s in-law); aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr.; National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy; along with other military staffers — translate the first lady’s “wishes into substance, form and effective action.”
As a priest sprinkled holy water and said prayers in Latin and English, the Kennedy family began to trickle in. That included the first lady, still clad in the pink designer suit she had been wearing when her husband was shot, now splattered in his blood.
Mrs. Kennedy, Pearson wrote, “appeared out of nowhere, an apparition standing in that characteristic pose of hers that would become so well-known to the world in the ensuing days. Feet apart, the slight lean forward. Stiff and awe-struck. Her lips are parted slightly. Her eyes are as if she had just been surprised, only they stay that way. A wrinkle of disbelief on her brow.”
“I look at her suit and am surprised that she hasn’t changed clothes,” Pearson continued. “The dark stains are all over her skirt and her stockings.”
At that point, Pierson recalled that the priest nodded to the first lady to move to the casket, where she pressed her forehead against its side.
“She kneels there like that for what seems a long time, but it must span no more than two or three minutes. There is dead silence. I am almost afraid to breathe,” Pearson wrote. “Slowly, she starts to rise. Then, without any warning, Mrs. Kennedy begins crying. Her slender frame is rocked by sobs, and she slumps back down. Her knees give way. Bobby Kennedy moves up quickly, puts one arm around her waist. He stands there with her a moment and just lets her cry.”
In his recollection, Pearson wrote that press coverage over the ensuing days would accuse Mrs. Kennedy of being stoic — “people would actually wonder whether she could have loved him very much because she didn’t seem to mourn the way people mourn who love deeply” — but those in the East Room saw her emotion firsthand.
The first lady would go on to shape her late husband’s legacy, famously quoting the musical Camelot to describe their White House. “She wanted to be sure he was remembered as a great president,” her longtime Secret Service agent Clint Hill previously told PEOPLE.
But the assassination continued to take its toll as she struggled with depression and, sometimes, thoughts of suicide. (In one letter to a priest, she wrote of feeling “bitter against God.”)
As her friend and media executive Joe Armstrong later recalled, she equated the events of that day with an all-consuming force of nature beyond her control, telling him: “When the terrible thing happened, I felt like I was being thrown around in the ocean by giant waves.”