Texas college students' old essays cast light on reaction to JFK's assassination

By PATRICK M. WALKER | Fort Worth Star-Telegram | Published: November 22, 2012

ARLINGTON, Texas — Freshmen and sophomores in Duane Keilstrup's classes at what is now the University of Texas at Arlington sat at their desks a few days after one of the darkest moments in American history and wrote down their thoughts.

Some of the essays started off almost like news dispatches.

Friday Nov. 22, 1963 John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States, was assassinated while on a visit to Dallas Texas. It was a shock to the American people. It was a shock to all decent peace-loving-men of the world.

Keilstrup, then a newly hired German-language instructor at what was then Arlington State College, asked for his students' thoughts on Nov. 26 and 27. He read the essays, compiled a summary of their contents and then tucked them in his files.

That's where they remained for almost five decades, he said, "untouched since that first week after the tragedy."

A few weeks ago, with this year's anniversary approaching, he decided that it was time to share the students' insights. So he took out the stack of neatly folded, slightly yellowing pages of notebook paper, about 60 essays in all, most filled with flowing lines of cursive.

"Students did not know they would be asked to write reactions that day," Keilstrup said. "They were given plenty of time, up to 30 minutes. Most students took most of the time, taking the request very seriously."

As the nation's living memory of Nov. 22, 1963, slowly fades, collections like Keilstrup's provide a snapshot of the country's mood in the immediate aftermath: Confusion and conviction. Despair and hope. Resignation and resolve. The need to assign blame.

That fateful day Kennedy woke up at the old Hotel Texas, now the site of the Hilton Fort Worth hotel.

He spoke to a cheering crowd outside the hotel and addressed a Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce breakfast. He then went to the former Carswell Air Force Base and boarded Air Force One for a short flight to Dallas.

He and his wife, Jacqueline, along with Gov. John Connally and Connally's wife, Nellie, rode in the presidential limousine that was expected to take them to the Dallas Trade Mart for a luncheon with business and civic leaders.

At about 12:30 p.m., as the motorcade passed by the grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza on the west end of downtown, shots rang out, hitting Kennedy and Connally.

Kennedy was taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where he died.

After shooting and killing a Dallas police officer, the prime suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald, was caught and arrested. But less than two days later, he himself was dead, shot point-blank by strip club owner Jack Ruby, who had wandered into the police station.

In their essays, students, like the rest of the nation, tried to make sense of it all.

There are so many facits to this it is impossible to lay this act on one group, one city, or one state. It boils down to roughly this, a man with known unstable personality & with a radical communist background seemed to be allowed to wander at will where he wanted to. I was under the impression that the FBI kept close tab on people like this. It looks like it was a mistaken impression, one student wrote.

Students weren't required to sign their submissions, but one who did was the late Fred Stovall Sr., who went on to become an insurance underwriter. I think it is too early to evaluate completely the reasons for the occurrences of the last five days, his essay reads, in part. I don't think it is safe to speculate as to why Oswald shot Mr. Kennedy (I believe that he was the sniper.) There have been several theories put forward, any of which might be true, but then again none may be true.

Fred Stovall Jr., an attorney and Carroll school district trustee, learned of the letter Tuesday and said the handwriting was unmistakably that of his dad.

His father's reasoning even as a young college student reflected that of the man later in life, Stovall Jr. said.

"I think these essays paint a picture of the days immediately after the United States had suffered a stunning loss of a charismatic leader and many in the Dallas area felt a sense of responsibility and a need to understand how and why assassination occurred," he said.

"My father was very analytical, so it doesn't surprise me that his answer to the essay reflects an assessment of the responsibilities of security personnel with respect to the assassination and the subsequent murder of Oswald rather than his feelings regarding the loss of the president."

Americans ate breakfast 49 years ago today in a land riven by political polarization and spring-loaded with social upheaval.

By midday they lost their president to an assassin's bullets. At supper time they sat in uniform shock and grief.

Wrote one student: That shot that entered the President's brain took something from me. In a way it was like losing part of my own family.

In a country of 180,000,000 people, another student surmised, there will always be the few psychopaths who have no compunction about perpetuating a deed such as this.

Those who lived through the turbulent 1960s will remember that Kennedy had come to Texas to unite the state Democratic Party, University of Texas at Arlington political science associate professor Allen Saxe said this week. Kennedy picked Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1960 to be vice president as part of a political strategy to win Texas and other southern states, where the president was not popular.

But now there were rumors — continually denied by the Kennedy administration — that LBJ would be dropped from the 1964 ticket. Kennedy's domestic policies concerning civil rights and military spending also worried many Texans.

"JFK was not all that liked in Texas or in the nation, really," Saxe said.

After the assassination, however, some of Keilstrup's students wrote of their admiration for Kennedy standing up for what he believed in.

Oswald killed a man who was trying to better our nation and the world in which we live. Whether or not John F. Kennedy was doing the best job possible is not for any individual to decide. The nation does that on election day.

Some students held out hope that the unspeakable act would unite the country in a way that Kennedy never could.

Each of us should examine our own conscience to see how many people we have mentally condemned out of our own petty prejudices. Only after we as a nation uphold and honor the dignity of the individual and the right to be an individual, can this nation and this free society persevere. Let us hope that from the tragic events of the past few days, we shall have grown in understanding, in toleration, and compassion for our fellow men.

"The students were young and impressionable," said Saxe, who has not seen the essays. "If they had been asked to write about it six months later, their answers might have been different."

For a brief moment, however, as with 9-11 four decades later, the country did come together, he said.

City leaders hope to bring the country together again in honoring Kennedy's life and legacy next year on the 50th anniversary of that fateful day.

Fort Worth recently unveiled a tribute near the spot where Kennedy delivered his final public address. Next year, Dallas will hold its first official events related to the assassination, including an appearance by presidential historian David McCullough.

His deeds may not be to one's liking, one student's letter concluded , but his dignity must be preserved.