By TEDDYE SNELL
Ask almost any Baby Boomer about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, and he or she can recount vivid details from that horrible moment in U.S. history.
Fifty years later, the memories remain crystal-clear for most, including former Sen. Jim Wilson.
Wilson was a junior in high school at Paul’s Valley and was attending classes that day.
“The assassination of President Kennedy left an indelible memory,” said Wilson. “I was in class when the teacher, struggling to hold back tears, announced president had been shot. Unlike any other incident in my life, I can still picture the Paul’s Valley classroom. I was seated in the second row from the left in the fourth desk from the front.”
Wilson said he sat in shock, along with his classmates, as news of the shooting unfolded.
“The class quietly waited for updates from the office over the intercom,” said Wilson. “In stunned disbelief, we heard he had been pronounced dead. The entire community solemnly followed the subsequent events until he was buried at Arlington.”
Like most teenagers, Wilson had, up to that point, not considered his own mortality or the possibility of flaws in adults.
“At age 16, it was the first time in my life I fully realized the fragility of people and institutions I perceived to be unbreakable,” said Wilson. “Perhaps I was disproportionately impacted because of my youth, immaturity or simple naivete.”
Over the course of his life, Wilson has experienced a number of tragedies and triumphs of which he has clear memories, but JFK’s assassination remains unparalleled.
“I vividly remember my surroundings as other major events occurred, such as Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon, the space shuttle Challenger explosion, the bombing of the Murrah Building and the destruction of the World Trade Center,” said Wilson. “None had the impact of the Kennedy assassination.”
Nov. 22, 1963, was a turning point in Wilson’s life.
“I experienced a loss of innocence,” he said. “My subsequent military service and the tumultuous decade that followed were tempered by that experience. Perhaps its served me with a degree of callousness we all accumulate with maturity.”
As a former legislator, Wilson also believes that event and the actions that quickly followed formed a number of policies still in place today.
“Implementation of Kennedy’s ‘New Frontier,’ primarily through [President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s] ‘Great Society,’ shaped all our lives,” said Wilson. “I am convinced that, in spite of LBJ’s considerable political capital, Kennedy’s untimely death contributed significantly to passage of the policies we all take for granted today.”
Longtime Tahlequah resident Isabel Baker has served the Democratic Party at all levels – local, county, state and national – and has attended a number of Democratic National Conventions, as well as presidential inaugurations.
She was a young teacher when Kennedy was shot, and remembers the day well.
“I was a speech teacher at Tahlequah High School,” said Baker. “I was coming back from lunch when I heard of his death on the radio. I was totally wiped out.”
Understanding her professional responsibility, Baker returned to school.
“I parked my car and went in to face a very big class,” said Baker. “I didn’t have to say a word. Students asked me why I was crying, and as I started to tell them, the principal came over the intercom to tell us the terrible, almost unbelievable, news that our president had been shot.”
Like Wilson, Baker has experienced a number of tragedies in her life, but few have left the mark the Kennedy assassination had.
“[There have been] several things in my life that were so horrific I could hardly accept: the Nazis killing millions, Kennedy’s death and Martin Luther King’s death,” said Baker. “I have been shocked lots of times, but those were the worst.”
While Baker is often surprised by the terrible actions people take against one another, she remains true to her belief that most are genuinely good.
“One lesson I have learned from those events is we can’t always trust and count on everyone to do the right thing,” said Baker. “But that shouldn’t taint our love for all the wonderful people who make up the majority – people who are always doing the right thing, or at least meaning well and trying to do right.”