Where were you on November 22, 1963. What Peace Corps Country?

Shortly after noon on November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, Texas.

RPCVs—Tell us your story of being in the Peace Corps on November, 22, 1963.

  • Where were you a Volunteer?
  • What was the reactions from neighbors, friends, students?
  • What did your HCN friends say to you about JFK’s death?
  • How did the “American in-country community” react?
  • How did you hear the news from Dallas?

These are just a few questions you might answer. Tell us your story of that time in fewer than a 1000 words. I’ll post it on our site during the week of November 22nd. Send it to me: jcoyneone@gmail.com


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  • On November 22, 1963 I was attending a luncheon at Northern Illinois University sponsored by the school’s journalism department for publishers and editors of community newspapers from the northern sector of Illinois. The community newspapers represented the conservative views of their readers concerning the Peace Corps. I had just returned from Malaysia and was helping with the training of Peace Corps Malaysia V and as part of my job I was assigned to speak to various community groups each week and was to be the luncheon speaker.

    I tried to get out of speaking to the group because I remembered the same newspapers referring to my Peace Corps Training group, Malaysia I, as something to the effect as ‘Kennedy Kids with nothing to offer to developing countries.’ But the Director of Peace Corps Traing said “Jim this is your opportunity to set the record straight.”

    We had lunch and after a few welcoming remarks by the College Dean the Master of Ceremony came to the podium to introduce me. As I approached the podium a young woman ran from back stage and handed the Master of Ceremony a note. The Master of Ceremony said, “Excuse me Mr. Wolter, we have a piece of breaking news. The President has been shot. President Kennedy has been shot and is being rushed to the hospital.”

    Then he said to me, “It’s all yours.”

    Initially I thought it was some kind of sick joke he was playing but then seeing the paper shake in his hand and the members of the audience sitting on the edge of their chairs I realized as unthinkable as President Kennedy being shot was, it had really happened. I asked for a moment of silence for the President and our nation and then related comments two teenage infantry men, who got on the plane in Danang, shared with me and then told them I was sure they would rather contact their office rather than listen to me. With that, they bolted out of the dinning room.

    Fortunately Lew Butler who was the new in=country director of Peace Corps Malaysia and was a good friend was at the luncheon. He and I walked in stunned silence as we mad our way back to the Peace Corps Training Office to be with the Trainees. We were a mutual support to one another.
    Lew and I still visit by telephone every November 22nd.

  • In November 63, I was still at the University of Dayton (Ohio)… headed to the Peace Corps and Liberia the following summer of ’64. Within hours of hearing the terrible news and the announcement of funeral arrangements being made, I jumped in a friend’s car and headed to Washington … my most vivid memories of the iconic procession from the White House to the Capitol are JFK’s horse drawn carriage, Jackie’s limousine slowly passing and Haile Selassie and Charles de Gaulle walking down Constitution Avenue … having worked for my congressman in DC the previous year, I was aware of an almost secret passageway from the senate office building to the Capitol rotunda … accessing that with dozens of senators and their families, I was fortunate to be amongst the first couple of hundred mourners to pay my respects to my idol and to view the casket… bypassing the miles long queue by telling 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 in those terrible days … actually being there was one of the most memorable times of my longish life.

  • The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22nd happened in the middle of the night (wee hours of the morning of the 23rd) in India where I was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer. At 6:00 am my fellow PCV and housemate, Gordon Louden and I were awakened by a frenzied knocking on our door and we opened it to find our neighbor, a forty five year old teacher and his two sons , tears running down their cheeks, shouting “su president suth hogate, president suth hogate” (your president is dead). We thought we misunderstood them so I said, has President Zakir Husain (India’s president) died? They cried no, no no—they babbled, “your president,your president). I could not believe it, I was surly not understanding what they were saying in Kannada, the local language. So I turned on our shortwave radio which was tuned to Voice of America and I heard a somber voice say”…the president died in the tenth month of his third year in office”—then it struck me—my God, President Kennedy is in the tenth month of his third year in office. The news knocked me off my feet!

    Within minutes dozens of our neighbors, most of them teachers and students at the Gramsevak Training Center came running to our house to express their dismay, sadness and sorrow that President Kennedy was dead. They all were saddened because they were sure President Kennedy was a friend of the poor countries round the world, and they had lost a friend, a man who cared about the downtrodden and one of the greatest Presidents ever.

    By noon the government of India had declared a three day period of mourning, flags were lowered to half staff and memorial services were being organized to be held on Monday in every village, school, municipal, state and national government center. All-India Radio launched three days of dirge music and announcements of the assassination, the funeral arrangements in Washington DC and the ceremonies all over India and worldwide. Literally, the country of India, on the other side of the world, a country Kennedy had never visited (though his wife and sister-in-law had), a country which had many disagreements with the US government—mourned the death of President Kennedy as if he were their own. Gordon and I remained stunned beyond description–it seemed surreal, but eventually we decided to put one foot in front of the other, go back to work on Peace Corps assignments and not think too much about this terrible assassination, and the sadness it brought to the world.

    Within days President Kennedy’s photograph appeared in nearly every coffee shop, store, restaurant and government office–and soon thereafter his photo joined that of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi on the walls of nearly every shop in the market and in the homes of millions of people—a triumvirate of photos that remained on display for nearly fifty years. No President of the United States, before or since, was so revered and honored as a friend of India and India’s people as was John F. Kennedy.

  • I was in a movie theater in Asmara, Ethiopia, watching an American movie. Suddenly, I saw a white person in the aisle, beckoning for me to come out to talk. I gathered with other Americans in the lobby and learned that JFK had been shot. A PCV invited us to his apartment nearby to listen to the BBC on his shortwave radio. Our small group dispersed after learning that the President had died at Parkland Hospital.

    I spent a restless night wondering whether atom bombs might obliterate America while I was in Ethiopia, 10,000 miles from home. The next morning, after Muslim calls to prayer went out over loudspeakers, I walked to the Italianate Cathedral in the center of Asmara. Now, loudspeakers sent out updates from Dallas in local languages and Italian—but not English. As flags stood at half-staff, tears filled the eyes of nearly every stranger.

    My partner Nyle Kardatzke and I rode the bus for two hours to return to our village, named Adi Ugri. We felt our shock being slowly replaced by depression and anger. When we arrived, we experienced speechless faces and awkward condolences punctuated with tears and hugs. Nyle found a poster that displayed our handsome President’s image; he attached it to the gate outside our compound. I found an American flag and placed it alongside the poster. We welcomed visitors for the hours that remained of this fateful Saturday and Sunday. On Monday, we returned to teaching again at Adi Ugri Secondary School.

    We didn’t often receive news from newspapers in Ethiopia, and none from radio, or television. Information about the assassination and funeral arrived in snippets—letters from home, news magazines, or occasional newsreels shown at local theaters. I didn’t read a coherent story about what happened in Dallas until I returned to the U.S. ten months later. I did read the Warren Commission Report, and then later scoffed at all the conspiracy theories. But still, I don’t truly understand what happened that day.

    But November 22, 1963, did change my life, almost immediately. I felt driven to be worthy of JFK’s legacy, and to become the most effective Peace Corps volunteer I could be. I banished my lazier habits and worked feverishly to improve my teaching. I wrote and mimeographed an entire English textbook, and distributed it to my students. These kids were already good at memorizing. Lacking electric power in their homes, they sat beneath street lamps until late at night to be able to read. I wrote colloquial English dialogues for my textbook, and required students to repeat conversations from memory. Soon, they invented their own sentences—they sounded like native English speakers! My Kennedy-inspired efforts were starting to pay off. In a few years, Ad Ugri Secondary School became known throughout Eritrea as the country’s most outstanding school for math and science (Nyle’s specialty), and for English (mine).

    Haile Selassie made a global impression at JFK’s funeral procession, but I like to think that, for some Ethiopian students, I returned the Emperor’s favor.

  • On November 22, 1963, I was in a Speech class in Dwinelle Hall at the University of California, Berkeley. After class, I walked outside and proceeded through Sather Gate to the Student Union building. In the Student Union building, I saw a mass of people standing around. I walked up to them and tried to figure out what they were doing. Finally, I asked someone what was going on. They responded that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and everyone was trying to listen to the overhead speakers that were broadcasting the news. I tried to listen to the radio from the overhead speakers, but I couldn’t hear much. The speakers were just not working well enough to hear anything.

    So, I ran out of the Student Union building and went straight to the rooming house I was living in to catch up on the news. I had to walk all the way across the campus to get to the north side to get to my rooming house. When I arrived there, I sat down in front of the TV in the community TV room and watched the news for the next four days–STUNNED! I just could not believe that Kennedy was dead! It was just unbelievable to me! I could not wrap my head around that news.

    During the election of 1960, I had heard that since the election in 1840, every President elected every 20 years (1840, 1860, 1880, 1900,1920, and 1940) would die in office whether by assassination or by natural causes. That made me wonder if either Nixon or Kennedy were elected in 1960, whether this apparent curse would strike again. Since the two presidential candidates were so young, I couldn’t believe it would happen again. Was the curse real or was it merely by coincidence? In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected President. Later, he was shot in an assassination attempt. But he survived. The so-called curse was broken.

    Peace Corps selected me later in September 1965, roughly two years later, to begin my training in preparation for my service that was from January 1966 to June 1968. My service was to teach primary school children and their teachers how to grow vegetables more effectively in a tropical climate in my schools in the Ivory Coast, located between Ghana and Liberia, in West Africa.

  • Nov. 22, 1963 I was still a student at the University of Oklahoma. Would join the Peace Corps in 1965 and end up in Tanzania. But that day in 1963 after hearing the news, I headed to the Student Union to watch on a color tv, one of the few on campus. Hours later it was announced that Lee Harvey Oswald had been arrested. A student in our dorm mentioned that he knew Oswald having come from Dallas, TX. The student was from a Russian emigre family living there and had met Oswald and his wife Marina through the Russian community. Somehow word got out of that student’s connection and he was being interviewed by a federal agency that evening.

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