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JFK and Virginia


On Friday, November 22, 1963, in an elementary classroom at Flint Hill Elementary School in Vienna, Virginia, the principal’s voice over the intercom alerted us to turn on our television. The president of the United States had been shot in Dallas, Texas. Those black and white TVs were the latest technology in schools. We watched space launches and broadcasts about the Cuban missile crisis to monitor news events that had profound personal effect on our lives. As we listened that afternoon, Walter Cronkite announced that John Fitzgerald Kennedy had died. The room became deathly still. As a little girl, it was my first experience with anyone I knew dying. For the Kennedys seemed like a part of our family as we watched them on television each evening. JFK’s son John John was the same age as my little brother. I fantasized that my mom, who had beautiful dark hair, was just like Jackie Kennedy. When my Dad, who worked in Washington, D.C., for the navy, returned home, he had tears in his eyes. It is the only time I remember him crying.

Following President Kennedy's cassion (Virginia Historical Society, Accession no. 2003.216.43)

Following President Kennedy’s cassion (Virginia Historical Society, Accession no. 2003.216.43)

We spent the weekend glued to our TV. There was no CNN. Television stations signed off at midnight to the “Star Spangled Banner.” We did attend church on Sunday and promptly returned to our TV where we watched Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald. Monday was a national day of mourning. We returned to church and then to our television to watch the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. A riderless horse from Fort Myer followed the funeral cassion.

I looked at my little brother as John, Jr., saluted his father’s coffin. As the flight of fifty jet fighters and Air Force One flew over the grave, I could not only hear but also feel them fly over our house.

When I came to work at the Virginia Historical Society, we received a copy of a first edition of JFK’s book Profiles in Courage, which he inscribed to Ralph Catterall, a Richmond lawyer and member of the state corporation commission from 1949 to 1973. Catterall pasted in this book an image of Kennedy that appeared in the newspaper following his assassination and the Christmas cards he received while Kennedy served in the U.S. Senate. The book even has its original dustjacket, so we had a special box made for it, and it became part of our rare book collection.

After the death of John Kennedy, innumerable books were published about him and his legacy. The country was trying to cope with his loss and remember him both as a president and a person with both gifts and flaws. In A Torch Is Passed, Saul Pett remarks: “We write in the hope that those who come after us will find an insight and wisdom and a workable moral out of these events which so far elude us who lived them.” Many of these books have come to our collections from the Virginia donors who owned them.

And donors have been generous in sharing other Kennedy keepsakes as well. Memoirs, correspondence, typewritten accounts of the assassination, oral histories, programs, postcards, political buttons, front page headlines, inauguration tickets, photographs and funeral fans with the images of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Kennedy Half Century

Textbook for Larry Sabato’s Coursera class on the Kennedy Half Century

The latest donation is a copy of Larry Sabato’s new book, The Kennedy Half Century, that he inscribed to the Virginia Historical Society. The study of the presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is still not complete as his influence as a president continues into the twenty-first century.

Paulette Schwarting is Director of Technical Services at the Virginia Historical Society.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. annieharriett permalink
    11/20/2013 2:35 pm

    Thank you for your narrative, it was very touching. Seeing the various keepsakes is wonderful & a good reminder to us all of how many fascinating bits there are to be enjoyed at VHS.


    • Paulette Schwarting permalink
      11/20/2013 3:57 pm

      The collections here are AMAZING and the staff is too. In this season of Thanksgiving I feel blessed to work here!


  2. Patricia Thompson permalink
    11/20/2013 5:02 pm


    I was reading the post on 11/22/63. I too am of the age to remember that day. My mother told a story when she came home from work–she worked at Lauris & Brother Tobacco Co. and it owned WRVA Radio and WRVA tv (now WWBT). The radio station broadcast from the basement of the tobacco company at that time. The 5 bells of United Press rang with the report of shots fired. Mr. Lauris was immediately informed; he was really close friends with Sen. Byrd, Sr. and called him right away. They kept an open line to his office in Washington and he was kept up to date as the news came over the wires before being broadcast.

    Patricia Thompson

    On Wednesday, November 20, 2013, Virginia Historical Society's Blog wrote: > Paulette Schwarting posted: “On Friday, November 22, 1963, in an elementary classroom at Flint Hill Elementary School in Vienna, Virginia, the principals voice over the intercom alerted us to turn on our television. The president of the United States had been shot in Dallas, Texas. ” >


    • Paulette Schwarting permalink
      11/21/2013 8:05 am

      Thanks Patricia for sharing your story! It was one of those times in history that will never be forgotten!


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