Tom West: JFK begins to fade from nation's collective memory

Thirty-nine years ago last Friday, I was plinking away on the keyboard in a high school typing class, when the principal came on the intercom and announced that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. After telling us that he had no other detail...

Thirty-nine years ago last Friday, I was plinking away on the keyboard in a high school typing class, when the principal came on the intercom and announced that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. After telling us that he had no other details, the principal signed off. There was a pause, and then we went back to typing.

Twenty or 30 minutes later, the principal announced over the intercom that the president was dead. A girl in the back of the class gasped, jumped out of her seat and ran out in the hall sobbing.

We spent the rest of the day listening to a radio feed over the intercom, there being no TVs in any classrooms at the time.

Two days later, 39 years ago today, I came home from church and when I walked in the house, my mother said, "They just shot (Lee Harvey) Oswald." She said "they" as if the shooting on live TV were orchestrated by some Hollywood moguls making a play for ratings. The entire weekend became one of those truth-stranger-than-fiction nightmares for the American people.

Certain events in history are so stunning in their enormity, that most of us remember where we were when we heard the news. My parents said the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was like that. To a slightly lesser degree, so was the death of President Franklin Roosevelt.


Since Kennedy's death, in my mind only one event compares, and that was the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

Other events in between might bring back memories of where they were for many: the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, man's first walk on the moon, Nixon's resignation, the attempted assassinations of presidents Ford and Reagan, the explosion of the space shuttle, O.J's low-speed chase, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine massacre, etc. Certainly for Minnesotans, the plane crash killing Sen. Paul Wellstone will leave a lasting imprint as to how and when each of us heard the news.

With Kennedy, it seemed like that imprint would last forever. For 20 or 30 years afer that dark day in Dallas, every time Nov. 22 rolled around, Americans paused in their routines to remember their fallen president. It isn't like that any more. First, you would have to be at least 63 today to have voted for Kennedy. Second, you would have to be at least 50 to have any direct memory of the assassination. Third, I'll bet if Jay Leno did a man on the street survey, he would find that 10 to 15 percent of Americans have never heard of Kennedy.

A lot of time has passed.

In fact, while the wounds left by the death of Wellstone are still raw, it was interesting that the plane crash took us full circle back to an all but forgotten plane crash 62 years ago. On Aug. 31, 1940, Minnesota lost its first U.S. senator in a plane crash, Sen. Ernest Lundeen. Lundeen was a Republican turned Farmer-Laborite. (In those days the Farmer-Labor Party had not yet merged with the Democrats to create the DFL.) He had served from 1917-1919 as a Republican Congressman and from 1933-1937 as a Farmer -Labor Congressman. He had been something of a perennial candidate in between.

He was elected senator in 1936 in an unusual campaign. He had set out to run for his House seat. Minnesota Gov. Floyd B. Olson had decided to run for the Senate, but he came down with cancer and died a couple of months before the election. After the primary election in which Lundeen won party nomination for his House seat, the party held a convention to replace Olson on the November ballot and chose Lundeen. He won the election.

Lundeen died four years later when the Pennsylvania Central DC-3 in which he was riding was hit by lightning in a thunderstorm near Lovettsville, Va., shortly after takeoff from Washington, D.C. It is believed that the crew was incapacitated by the lightning strike, and the plane crashed, killing all 25 people on board.

Six weeks later, Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen, a Republican, appointed a St. Paul newspaper reporter, Joe Ball, to serve until the 1942 election. In 1942, Ball was elected to a full term on his own. In 1948, having expressed misgivings over the G.I. Bill and supporting the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, he was defeated in a bid for re-election by Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey.


Walter Mondale, then 20, was a protege of Humphrey's. In 1960, after managing the successful campaign of Gov. Orville Freeman, Mondale was appointed by Freeman to fill a vacancy when Attorney General Miles Lord became a federal judge. In 1964, when Humphrey became vice president, Mondale was again appointed, this time to Humphrey's Senate seat.

He held the seat until 1976 when he, too, was elected vice president. To replace him as senator, then Gov. Wendell Anderson arranged his own appointment. This created a backlash and in 1978, Republicans won the governorship and both U.S. Senate seats.

One of the two new senators was Rudy Boschwitz, who held his seat for two terms. He was defeated by Wellstone in 1990, who then held the seat until he died.

And that takes us back to Mondale. The last time he was elected to the U.S. Senate was 1972. That means that you would have to be at least 51 today to have voted for him then. Sure, he ran as vice president in 1976 and 1980, and he carried Minnesota (and not much else) as a presidential nominee in 1984. Eighteen years is a long time not to be promoting yourself to the voters.

Look back at that list of state leaders: Floyd B. Olson, Ernest Lundeen, Harold Stassen, Joe Ball, Hubert Humphrey, Orville Freeman, , Miles Lord, Wendell Anderson, Rudy Boschwitz, Paul Wellstone and Walter Mondale. I wonder if 39 years from now, more than a handful of Minnesotans will know anything about any of them, let alone how many will recall anything about Kennedy's assassination that fourth weekend in November 1963.

Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at .

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