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The Sound of Drums

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On Friday, November 22, 1963, the students in Mrs. Maxwell’s third-grade class at Sabin Elementary School in southwest Denver got a singular history lesson: the news came in that President John F. Kennedy had been murdered.

Janet Maxwell, a popular young instructor who taught 25 kids reading, math, science and history by turns, was trying to get an educational program on a radio at the front of the classroom – a weekly radio play called “I Am an American” in which actors dramatized the lives of famous figures in U.S. history.  But she couldn’t seem to lock in the station.  So she went next door to Mrs. Grossman’s room to see if they were having difficulty there, as well.

When she came back, perhaps 10 minutes later, her students – I was one of them — were startled to find her weeping.3c34844r

“Boys and girls, I don’t know how to tell you this,” she said. “President Kennedy has been shot.  I hope he will be all right.”

We were stunned.  A couple of kids began crying, too.  We were old enough to understand that the leader of our country was fighting for his life, and might even be dead. The president! The president of the United States. 

This was not an era of instant communication. There might have been one TV in the whole school.  But we did have the radio in the classroom, and Mrs. Maxwell began dialing around to find news coverage of the shooting.

It was only a matter of minutes before the announcement came: President Kennedy was dead.

Mrs. Maxwell tried to project an air of calm, but her grief could not be hidden, and it upset all of us.

Lunchtime came, and we took our sack lunches and went out on the gravel field beside the school.  Some kids were hysterical.  Other kids were silent, a little frightened by the effect this news had on adults.  I wondered what my Mom and Dad were thinking.  I knew they liked President Kennedy and had voted for him.

We tried to have a normal afternoon in school, but no one could keep their mind on the work.  One boy cracked an inappropriate joke; Mrs. Maxwell upbraided him.  At 3:20 we got to go home.

That night I went to my friend Jonnie Sue’s house for a sleepover.  My mother urged me to have fun and not to dwell too much on the sad event.

But all Jonnie Sue and I did Saturday morning, when we would ordinarily have been watching cartoons, was to stay glued to the wall-to-wall television coverage of the assassination, the swearing-in of LBJ, the speculation about the arrested man, Lee Harvey Oswald.  I walked home at noon and a few hours were spent away from the TV.

Sunday morning I got up and went to the basement, where we had a big black-and-white tube set. As I sat there in my pajamas, police officers were seen moving Lee Harvey Oswald along a corridor crowded with people.  A man—later identified as Jack Ruby — stepped forward, and suddenly Oswald’s face contorted in pain.  He had been shot, right there on live TV, and I had witnessed it as it happened.

I ran upstairs, delivering my first “flash” in a lifetime that later included 18 years as a newspaperwoman: “Dad! Dad! Somebody shot Lee Harvey Oswald!”

The true tragedy came through to me as I watched the state funeral Monday on TV.  JFK’s children stood by their mother as their father’s casket rolled past.  I was only a little older than those kids.  The roll of the drums was unforgettable:

Brum – brum – brum – brrrr

Brum – brum – brum – brrrr

Brum – brum – brum – brrrr


Brum – ba – brum.

It may be hard for people born more recently to grasp the impact John F. Kennedy had on lives in that era.  In later years I met several people who had been inspired by his challenge to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” and in response had actually joined the Peace Corps or done some kind of public service.  Kennedy’s killing did great damage to their collective spirit.

Within five years, both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were dead at the hands of assassins.  It was a profoundly disquieting time.

But this is America.  New leaders step forward, and we build the bench so new leaders can step forward. Democracy can be untidy, and not always satisfying, but it still beats the alternatives.

Who will fill out that bench – by serving on the city council, or the school board, or in the legislature?

What can you do for your country?

Comments (7)

  1. I’m a boomer who remembers the time. You said this so well and made an important connection to how journalism can be at its best with long term impact.

    Thanks for sharing this experience.

  2. Thank you, I appreciate your comment. And I’m sure many of the people who recall that day were looking at it through kids’ eyes, and have had all these years to try to put it into some sort of perspective.

  3. I was in the 4th grade on that fateful day, and like you, on Fridays our treat was listening to the “I am an American” radio show. On Friday, November 22, 1963, we did not hear the show, instead the program was pre-empted by news of the the President being shot. Your description of what happened that day, and that weekend was just how I remember it. Its funny how I cannot rememner a lot of specific events that occured in the years prior to that day, but the emotions of that day have burned the memories in my brain. Every year on November 22th, I relive that 4th grade experience and until today, I have never heard of another referencing the “I am an American” radio series. Thank you for confirming that specific obscure fact.

  4. I too was a Sabin Elementary student. Though only 6 years old, I still remember watching the aftermath on TV with my stunned parents. Thanks for the story!

  5. everything happens too fast. it is Ameriaca’disaster.
    But, he caused war in Viet Nam. i hate him.

  6. Mr. Nguyen, I appreciate your comment, too. How we feel about historical figures depends on what impact their policies had on us, or on those we care about. My parents, raised in the U.S. during the Great Depression, thought Franklin Delano Roosevelt was fantastic; my mother-in-law, who spent her teen years in Auschwitz, believes he let the Jews of Europe suffer far too long before getting the U.S. involved in World War II.

  7. Now two weeks since the sad anniversary of President Kennedy, yet I too, remember vividly when we learned of the fatal shooting. My father had been ordered to Stuttgart, Germany the year before and it was evening. We had gone to anotherPost to watch a Disney film,’Airs above the Ground’. A young man came running in and announced ,’The President has been shot!’ Shortly, we learned that he had been tragically killed. From a bustling theater box office room to silence in a matter of moments. For people born after that time, sadly I believe they have never experienced the charisma and dedication we knew from that presidency. For those of us alive at that time, well, for this Boomer, life and its prospects were never the same. Thank you so much for yourpost.

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