In November 1963 I was in my senior year at Harvard, where I had been admitted on an academic scholarship after two years at the Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. I had ended up at Exeter, one of the country’s most prestigious secondary schools, after the circulation manager at the Evansville Sunday Courier and Press told me that the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain (owners of the Press) gave scholarships to newspaper boys to attend a prep school in New Hampshire. At the time I had a motor route, delivering the Sunday paper to country folks as far away as New Burnside. New Hampshire was entirely a different matter: unknown territory. And as for prep schools, all I knew was from reading an old book about an English boy named Tom Brown.
Anyway, I remember my Dad going up to the high school (HTHS) to talk to Mrs. Malan and Mr. Bauman about my chance to leave Harrisburg and go to Exeter.
Mr. B was unequivocal: get out of here. So I did, heading out East by Greyhound bus in the fall of 1958, accompanied by an old steamer trunk my Uncle Orval had
bestowed upon me.
Two years later, I moved on with about 60 of my Exeter classmates to Harvard. The fall of freshman year was an exciting time around Harvard. One of our own, John F. Kennedy, was running for president. I wasn’t old enough to vote (in those days you had to be 21), but I was as enthused as most of my friends.
During the summer before leaving Harrisburg, I had heard that Senator Paul Douglas was in town to be interviewed at WSIL-TV (I think by Jim Bolen), so I headed up to the station and introduced myself to the silver-haired senator. He asked me to help his campaign by putting flyers under windshield wipers. (In fact, I had prior experience at much the same thing, ads for Ronnie’s Studio.)
By virtue of having worked for Sen. Douglas, and the nice handwritten letter he sent me afterward, I was elected the freshman representative to the board of the Harvard Young Democrats. On the night of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, a friend and I traveled from Cambridge to Boston to his sister’s apartment to watch on her little black and white TV.
On election night, my classmate Steve Schlesinger invited me over to his house to watch the returns. His father, Prof. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and their next-door neighbor, Prof. John Kenneth Galbraith, were both looking forward to positions in the hopefully upcoming Kennedy administration. I remember meeting two other famous people that night: Arthur Schlesinger the elder, a noted historian, and Al Capp, creator of the comic strip Lil Abner.
Page 2 of 2 - By November 1963, the new had worn off. President Kennedy hadn’t accomplished all that much, from the point of view of me and my contemporaries. My own focus had moved away from politics toward literature and the arts.
I was an English major. On Nov. 22, I was walking back from a senior tutorial on 18th century poetry at my tutor’s apartment on Massachusetts Avenue near Harvard Square. I met a classmate named Grace walking toward me in tears.
“They’ve killed him, David. They’ve killed the president.” That’s how I learned of the
assassination, still as clear in my mind as if it had happened yesterday, and an
account I have repeated a number of times over the years.
The next few days are a blur of TV–Cronkite, Oswald, Ruby, Jackie, LBJ. . . .
Now fast forward 25 years plus. My college class is having its 25th reunion. A
woman in her mid-forties approaches me. I see by her name tag that it is Grace. She
says, “Oh, David, I’ve never forgotten how you were the one who told me that
President Kennedy had been assassinated.” And her memory was just as crystal clear to her as mine to me.
As a trial judge and attorney, I’ve had occasion to dwell on this, reminding me that memory – like eyewitness identification – is not always the most reliable and definitive evidence.
Thank you, Grace.
David Nelson is a former Saline County State’s Attorney and a retired Associate Judge of the Circuit Court.