The noontime news on my car radio reported that the President was in Dallas, Texas. Any mention of JFK boosted my adrenalin and brought back memories; my connection to the President was personal. In September 1961 my Peace Corps group (Colombia I) met with JFK in the East Room of the White House. And, several months later, he and Jackie were welcomed by millions of Colombians and two-dozen volunteers in Bogotá.
The love affair between Colombians and our Catholic President was pervasive and mystical. His picture was posted on mud walls of huts throughout the country. Volunteers in Colombia and all of Latin America were referred to in the press and radio as los hijos de Kennedy – Kennedy’s children. The connection opened hearts, doors and countless bottles of beer.
In 1963 in the USA, the Peace Corps was expanding; up to 100,000 a year was a number kicked around. A few hundred volunteers had completed overseas service. More than half the Colombia group were hired by the Peace Corps to work at Washington headquarters, as staff in Latin America and in training programs all over the country. The experience changed our lives and illuminated options few of us would have considered before the JFK inauguration.
I parked my 1957 Volvo 544 in the lot surrounding a huge supermarket a few miles from the Michigan State campus. The store and parking lot covered an area larger than the first village I lived in in Colombia. Inside, cart in hand I moved slowly up and down the isles paralyzed by the choices displayed on the shelves. I was maneuvering around two middle-aged ladies when the in-store loudspeakers emitted a high-pitched screech followed by a somber announcement: President Kennedy had been shot and taken to a Dallas hospital
I was stunned but hopeful. I listened as one of the ladies whispered to her companion, “Perhaps this will be good for the country.” Her words left me speechless, in shock. I left my cart, exited the supermarket and headed east to the house I shared with a few other graduate students. The living room was empty and I turned on the TV. I watched Walter Cronkite tell us that President Kennedy is dead. Like tens of millions of Americans and Colombians, my soul was punctured and filled with grief; Kennedy’s children were now orphans.
Two days later I watched Jack Ruby fatally wound Lee Harvey Oswald in front of TV cameras in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters. I laughed at the speculation of Mafia involvement. My gut told me this was an inside job by men who, more deeply than the ladies in the supermarket, thought that they, and perhaps the nation, would be better served with LBJ in the White House.
Ronald A Schwarz (Colombia 1961-63) is an Anthropologist. He was a faculty member at Williams College, Colgate, Tulane and the Johns Hopkins University. He trained Volunteers for Peace Corps programs in Ecuador, Venezuela, Chile, Colombia and Togo. In Colombia he established an anthropology field training program and a wooden toy factory. After a decade as a freelance consultant he founded Development Solutions for Africa (Kenya). The firm designed and evaluated projects for the World Bank, USAID, U.N. agencies, the E.U. and other development organizations. He is co-editor of three books and the author of dozens of reports. A decade ago he began research and is now writing a book about Colombia I, Kennedy’s Orphans.