John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Where Were You Daddy…?

November 5, 2013huhnInsights0

John N. Gardner

Where were you when President Kennedy was shot? I remember all too well, and much more.

Have my two children ever asked me that? No. But I wish they had because that would have signaled to me that they had given President Kennedy even a moment’s thought. But they were both educated in South Carolina public schools during their childhood, where it is safe to say that there would have been little reference to the late President. Strom Thurmond, yes, John Kennedy, no.

I wish I could think of a better phrase for this kind of an event than a “defining moment” but I can’t. But that is exactly what it was for me. When I think back to my own four years of college, his assassination and the reaction of my college community to it, and my own thoughts and feelings, were the single most influential and memorable event of that four-year period for me, 1961-1965.

Now, on the other hand, I did ask my father multiple times during my childhood: “Where were you Daddy…when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.”

And he would tell me and apparently I never tired of the retelling, with each one taking on greater significance for me as I became more able to understand its significance for him. He was at a football game on that fateful Sunday afternoon, December 7, 1941—he told me who was playing I am sure but I don’t remember. I suspect it was an Ivy League game as he was a recovering former football player for Dartmouth and loved going to Ivy games in our region of the greater New York City metropolitan area spanning Connecticut (Yale) and New Jersey (Princeton) and New York City itself (Columbia). He would describe his emotions ranging from shock to anger to determination to avenge the attack and especially his unity with everyone else in that stadium—and his willingness to put aside his partisan disdain for the current occupant of The White House, Franklin D. Roosevelt. I thought of his retelling and my rapt listening to this story, when my wife and I visited for the first time this past January the Pearl Harbor National Monument. I am so glad I did that, and not only for the memories it evoked of my father.

He would retell me this story in part because it was defining for what he did and didn’t do going forward in his life. Like millions of other men and women he volunteered to serve in the armed forces. But he was declined because his civilian role was deemed more critical to the national defense. He was a manager of a large factory, which rapidly had to convert to production of military materials. So he was spared possibly his life but always felt great regret that he had not personally been able to participate in the avenging that followed. President Kennedy’s death confirmed my future direction too and hence was that defining moment.

I am posting this blog now about the 50th anniversary of the assassination because I have been thinking about this so much recently. If I can influence even one reader to talk with her/his students about this concept of a “defining moment” for a generation, this early posting will have been good placement on my part.

So what is the defining moment of this college generation? Is it the attack on the twin towers in 2001? Today’s first-year students were only six then. What has happened since that they might have thought of as defining? What has happened since that defined them even though they might not have thought about it at the time or even since? The launching of Facebook and then Twitter? The invasion of Iraq in 2003? No, they would have been only 8 then. A better possibility might have been the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 when they would have been 13, but even that is a stretch. What about the Newtown shootings of just over a year ago when they were 17? Probably not, seeing how rapidly that has had diminishing influence on our country so inured to the acceptance of gun violence. So, I don’t know. You tell me.

As for me, I remember where I was the very moment I learned that something had happened on the warm, sunny, late fall afternoon of November 22, 2013. I was a junior at Marietta College in southern Ohio. Was sitting in one of my favorite classes: Political Philosophy. We were discussing one of the most influential books I read in college—Plato’s Republic. The professor, R.S.Hill, had just finished providing for us a synthesis of Plato’s answer to the fundamental question: what is justice (which became the most important question guiding my professional life—justice for first-year students). And the professor was leading us to consider Plato’s answer to a related powerful question: who should rule? Plato’s answer: philosopher kings.

And at that very moment, because the classroom windows were open that warm afternoon, we could hear the sounds of animated and distressed fellow students voices outside. Someone came to the door and politely interrupted and said “The President has been shot!” Things would never quite be the same again.

We sat in silence and then some murmuring. The professor adjourned the class. We all filtered outside the building (in which I had some meetings just last week when I visited the College—another reason why I am thinking of this so vividly a week later). We gathered, shared what little we all had been hearing, mainly sharing our disbelief. After an hour or so, I didn’t want to talk any more. And I didn’t want any company. I wanted to escape, withdraw. I wanted silence and some other kind of mental focus.

So I headed a to a place I had come to love, a place of peace, silence, and focus: our college Library, named for an alum, a former Vice President of the United States and Nobel Prize Laureate, Charles Dawes. And first I just sat. I remember where I sat, in corner, next to a window into and through which streamed the mid and then late afternoon falling sun. And when I finally could get up and move, I went to that antique of the card catalog and looked up my now deceased President and pulled the call numbers that permitted me to find him alive and well in the stacks.

The assassination had taken place on a Friday. Later that day the newly sworn in President would declare the following Monday to be a national day of mourning. For a residential college student like myself, coming the Friday before Thanksgiving, the timing of all this had particular significance. Our academic calendar had called for regular classes to be held that coming Monday and Tuesday with no classes scheduled for the Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. So after the national day of mourning was declared, the College officials announced to us students through the residence hall communications medium where we all lived, that in observance of the national day of mourning, that no classes would be held that Monday. Well, because I was an upperclassman, and we were allowed to have cars; and because the cancellation of Monday classes meant only Tuesday classes would remain, suddenly the College had provided the rationale for many of us (not myself) to leave early for the Thanksgiving holiday which now if we left immediately would mean cutting classes only one day instead of two. Near pandemonium broke out in my residence hall. A cacophony of celebratory sounds, both verbal and non verbal, as the students realized that an assassin had just provided them an unplanned longer holiday. I was stunned by the near euphoria, which I observed in the vast majority of my students, and how this only furthered deepened my own sense of loss. I was learning once again that I was different from most of my peers and that I was going to lead a different kind of adult life.

We buried the President. I continued to think about him and what he head meant to me. How he had inspired me. How he had saved our country from nuclear holocaust forcing the Russians to withdraw from Cuba. How he had sent federal trips into Mississippi to admit other college students like me, but very unlike me. How he had lived a life of privilege and learned and honored the obligation of the most fortunate: to serve. I too was a child of privilege and knew that I had to find some way to serve. That was my defining moment.

What are those of your students? How can these continue to be used for focus, growth, transformation, attainment, during the college years?

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