JFK: Readers' memories part 5

JFK: Readers' memories part 5

I remember the rain. Drizzle mainly, making a sad day even sadder. And as I go back to that awful time, I think to myself, "I remember all of it. Every moment." But, of course, I don't. The day, Friday the 22nd of November, 1963 comes back in bits and pieces. The rain, the chill, and before that the terrible moment in the teachers' lunchroom at Urbana High School when Jack McNevin entered the room and announced, "The president's been shot." And for one crazy moment I remember thinking, "President of what? Who's he talking about?" And twenty minutes later while walking to class, I paused to listen to a random radio announce the death of the president.

And as I think back to that moment, I realize that what I felt was not sadness, which would come later, not even anger, but an enormous sense of incredulity. How could this have happened? We'd won the War. Korea was now another country, not a war. The missiles were being dismantled in Cuba. The Illini were to play Michigan State for the Big 10 title tomorrow. Times were good or at least getting better. And we had that handsome, supremely articulate president and his beautiful wife in the White House. (Be kind, I was pretty young.)

And then my students. What would I tell them? How would I handle their questions? All of this I remember thinking as I entered my classroom to find — no one knew the president was dead. Like the teenagers in a less digital age they'd been unaware that the injured president was now the dead president. But soon the terse announcement came over the loud speaker, "The president was declared dead at 1:00 this afternoon." I'm not sure exactly how that announcement was worded, but I do remember that lengthening moment of shock on the kids' faces. No one spoke, and as I recall it, no one even made a sound. No one asked a question. So I did the only thing I knew to do, I read a poem, a sad, sweet tribute to a lost leader: Walt Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," which describes the passage of Lincoln's funeral train from Washington to Springfield for burial.

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,

And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,

I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Darkness seemed to come early that afternoon. And then the rain. (I checked the amount yesterday and oddly enough total for the day was only about a tenth of an inch.) But my memory sees and feels cold rain.

And then the weekend: Saturday more rain. Solemn TV, no smiles. Sunday, the killer is killed. Monday, the widow in veil accompanies the funeral cortege. Everything in black or shades of gray.

Tuesday, a return to real life. I remember entering the teachers' lounge that morning and saying to Oscar Adams that I'd never been happier to return to work. He agreed.

These are my memories of that terrible event and the days following. I was 27 then and I'm old now with fewer illusions. Those kids in that senior class became eligible for Medicare 2 or 3 years ago. And were he still alive, John F. Kennedy would be 92.

Carol Le Seure, English teacher, retired, Urbana High School, Champaign

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I was a 7th grader at the American School in Manila, Philippines. I had spent the night with a good friend whose father was in the military. We were just waking up when her mother came into her room crying and saying that President Kennedy had been shot and was in surgery. President Kennedy was the first president that we really felt that we knew as we had followed his campaign and election closely in our classes. We were devastated. The entire American community and most of the Filipinos followed the story and grieved with the American people. My family and I attended a memorial service for President Kennedy at the American Cemetery in Makati. I vividly remember the service, the rows and rows of white crosses on the immaculate green lawn, and the lighting of an eternal flame. During that time I compiled a scrapbook (which I still have) of clippings from American (Stars and Stripes) and Filipino newspapers, the LIFE magazine pictorial account of the shooting and funeral, and mementos from the memorial service. This was the first major historical event in my conscious memory and it has stayed with me as a part of my transition from a childhood free from intrusions of the outside world to an awareness of the larger world around me and the horror and sorrow created by this sudden, tragic event.

Linda Myette, Champaign

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On Nov. 22, 1963, I was working for the University of Illinois Housing Division, assigned to Allen Hall, women's residence. My shift was from 1 to 9:30 p.m. I was at the time-clock station to punch in when the painter foreman ... told me "They just shot Kennedy." I was awe-stricken when I found out that the shooting was fatal.

During that afternoon and evening I saw hundreds of female students crying. Also many of the staff had tears in their eyes.

When I left at 5 p.m. for my supper break I found my car was missing from where I had parked it to report for work. My car had been stolen by a prisoner that had broken out of the Champaign County jail at 6 a.m. that day. (The man eventually was captured and the car was recovered in January 1964.)

The next few days, the weather was miserable. It had rained hard and long on Friday (the 22nd) with freezing temperatures which added to the poor mood and low morale of the people brought on by this terrible tragedy. The shooting of Lee Oswald by Jack Ruby added more to this already bad situation.

There were reports of popular first-edition magazines like Life and Time being stolen from mailboxes.

Mel Schriefer, Alvin

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I was 10 years old and in the fifth grade. I lived in Tolono but was bused to Sadorus grade school. I was in Mr. Steinbeck's history class when we were told that the president had been shot. There was an odd silence across the room, unusual for a bunch of fifth graders. I remember that some of the girls were crying but mostly there was a genuine silent sadness over the whole room. It was something that you just knew you would remember for the rest of your life, it was something that touched me in a way that I had never felt before. I don't think we would have the same reaction these days, I'm not sure that most fifth graders even know who the president is!

The days that followed were full of sadness. I think all Americans were glued to their television sets. The thing that stuck with me the most was the slow procession of the horse-drawn hearse carrying the president. I remember thinking that it was such a special honor for a very nice man.

Dave Summers, Champaign

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I was 19 years old and fresh out of high school, full of hopes and dreams like all of my friends. We all had uplifted spirits; after all, we had this wonderful, energetic and strong John Kennedy and he was our hero. No mistake about that!

I had just gotten a job at Montgomery Wards on Chicago Avenue and loved where I was in my life. I had lived in Chicago all my life and had no problems with that.

On Nov. 22, 1963, I had gone to work and just slid into my usual routine. Lunch was coming up and I was anxious to drop down into our "bargain basement" in search of some form of great deal. When the lunch hour arrived I went downstairs to do my thing.

All was well until suddenly I overheard several women talking. "Oh my God! He's been shot!" said one. "I can't believe something like this could happen!" said another and then again I heard, "How awful! I can't believe it!"

They sounded so upset and worried. My first thought was that maybe someone had tried to rob the cashiers upstairs, so I approached them and asked if there had been a robbery at the store. What had happened to make them so upset. They looked at me, wide-eyed, and one said, "Oh my God! President Kennedy was shot in Dallas!"

I couldn't believe my ears. My heart dropped as I asked, "Is he okay? How bad was he shot?" They answered they didn't know yet. There was so much confusion.

I dropped what I had and rushed toward the steps. My thought was to reach the television display area where we always had 20 or more televisions turned on for display. When I reached the stairs I found myself engulfed among the many people trying to do the same thing. When we finally made it we were 15 deep, glued to the sets. Walter Cronkite was on every one, explaining that the president had been taken to the hospital and everyone was waiting for further word.

I couldn't breathe; I couldn't blink; I couldn't even move. All I could do was stare at those televisions, waiting. Then Walter Cronkite came on and announced that President Kennedy was dead! He had just died! He was dead! DEAD! We were all so stunned. We were in shocked disbelief. What did I just hear? That can't be right. Oh my God! Please say it isn't so! How can this be? How can this happen? My thought process refused to accept this impossible message. The tears, pain and confusion were immediate and overwhelming. Everyone looked and felt the same way. What sadness.

I spent my entire lunch hour and more just watching and listening to Walter Cronkite. His reaction was just like ours. I was actually sick to my stomach when I finally made it back to my desk. The workday was over for us all. All any of us could talk about and reflect on was President Kennedy. How could we even manage without his leadership? How would Jackie and the kids make it through this horrible time? How could the world come to grips with these events?

All day long, for days we stayed glued to the television. There was so much to absorb: Jackie's numb and grieving face as she stood by Vice President Johnson as he was sworn in as president; the sight of Jackie still wearing the blood-spattered pink dress she wore to Dallas; Jackie crawling on the back of the limo calling for the Secret Service; the solemn silence of the Capitol Rotunda where his body lay; the unending lines of those wanting to pay their last respects; little John-John saluting his father's body as it passed by; the worldwide heads of state that walked behind Jackie on their way to Arlington; the lighting of the eternal flame. So many memories etched into my mind.

We have never stopped asking ourselves "What if," as President Kennedy's legacy was totally unfulfilled and we can only speculate what might have been.

Lucy Sparks, Penfield

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Friday, November 22, 1963 was a happy day. I was a 23-year-old mother expecting a fifth child. The Thanksgiving holiday was less than a week away, and we were excited about friends and relatives visiting. My husband was working at the university, and I was preparing lunch while the TV droned on in the background, providing moment by moment descriptions of President and Mrs. Kennedy's visit to Dallas, Texas. The children and I sat down around the table, watching the black and white television less than 20 feet away.

We watched as the motorcade made its way through the streets of Dallas. I think it was the first time I was really aware of Dan Rather, as he described the events leading up to the visit. I, in a house dress and apron, was eager to see the stylish first lady.

We watched the motorcade turn the corner onto Dealey Plaza, saw the crowds clicking away with their still and moving cameras. A few feet beyond a tall building, we watched the president's limousine disappear behind a road sign, then saw it come again into view. Mrs. Kennedy was bent forward, looking at her husband and he had his elbows out, his hands at his throat. In the next few seconds, we saw the president's head jerk backward, I think, then forward, and we saw Mrs. Kennedy climb out onto the trunk of the limousine, reaching for something. The car, now with a Secret Service Agent trying to cover Mrs. Kennedy and the president's body, sped forward, heading for Parkland Hospital. I don't think I ever heard gunshots, but I knew about hunting, having grown up in Charleston, Illinois, and was certain someone had shot the president.

The three younger children paid little attention to the action, but I saw the stunned expression on their older brother's face. He had been born on the president's birthday. He and I sat transfixed, watching second by second, the unfolding of a tragedy. I will never forget Walter Cronkite removing his glasses, looking up at the clock on the wall, and with a catch in his voice, announcing that the president was dead.

Family and friends did come, but on that very weekend, and we barely ate, but huddled around the boxy old television, unable to tear ourselves away from every utterance of news, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the grieving families, and Mrs. Kennedy, in her blood-spattered pink suit — in the plane and on the tarmac. And I remember the sound of the snare drums beating, beating, beating. And I remember Mrs. Kennedy, this time in a black suit and black veil — at the president's casket, holding her children's hands, and walking defiantly behind a different kind of motorcade.

It was a sobering time. I never really felt young again.

Doris Replogle Wenzel, Mahomet

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How could I ever forget November 22, 1963! It was the day after my 20th birthday and my future husband and I were making plans to be married in February 1964! It was an exciting time in my life!

At the time I was working at the U of I as a Clerk Steno I, making $225 per month. This was my first job at the U of I after graduating from high school at St. Joseph Community High School. I was working in Graduate and Foreign Admissions for Harriett E. Hamm. We called her the "green dragon" because of the way she would come roaring into the office every day. She was very strict and we were not allowed to talk with each other during work hours unless it involved a work matter. Harriett was upset all the time because the university at that time had a mandatory retirement of 69 and she only had a year left to work. Now that I am 69, it doesn't sound like a bad idea! I have been retired since age 62. But, Harriett was single and her job was her whole life.

I remember sitting at my typewriter at work and everyone was returning from lunch and someone came into the office and said that Kennedy had been shot. We just couldn't believe it! It was such a shock. Of course, we were still expected to work the rest of the afternoon. There was no such thing as bringing in a TV to work to watch the coverage as we did on 9/11. I do remember the days that followed and seeing Walter Cronkite making the announcement over and over and the pictures from Dallas of the motorcade. It was such a sad time for America. We were glued to our TVs for days. Years later (1969) when my husband was drafted and stationed at Ft. Stewart, Ga., we were reminded of President Kennedy when we were told he used Ft. Stewart as his headquarters during the Cuban Missile Crisis and how the headquarters was remodeled to accommodate him and his staff.

I don't recall Kennedy's visit in 1960. I would have been a senior in high school and I don't remember our school doing anything special on that day. We can only speculate on what might have been had Kennedy not been shot. I only know that America had very high hopes at that time and we were all excited about having a younger president in office and we loved reading about the Kennedy family.

Carol Mullis, Danville

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When President Kennedy was shot, I was in the 3rd Marine Division at Camp Hanson on Okinawa. It took a long time for news to get to us.

We were rousted from our racks and into the back of six-by trucks very quickly.

We didn't know if the president was alive or dead. While we were in the trucks we could hear the officers and staff NCO's talking. It was decided that until we found out what happened that we would only follow orders from the commandant of the Marine Corps.

That was probably the opinion on all Marine bases.

The president being shot probably did not make a difference as to the Vietnam war. That was over money and would happen with or without President Kennedy.

Michael F. Perry, Gifford

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I was a 23-year-old graduate student at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., across the river from Boston, both cities being JFK's hometowns. It was a Friday afternoon after a long week and I was driving to Harvard Square to walk around and relax. I heard on my car radio that the president had been shot and taken to the hospital. Once in Harvard Square I was in a bookstore when a person was going door to door, sticking his head in and announcing that the president had died. I was buying a book, which I still have, and wrote inside it the terrible historical event that had just occurred.

A crushing sadness settled over the cities, lasting through the weekend and well beyond. Everyone was watching the events unfolding on TV. I was a teaching assistant in a course with an exam scheduled for that Monday. I phoned the professor (something not done in those days) to ask if we would still give the exam. He said that because everyone was so distracted and depressed we would postpone the exam. It took a long time for the sadness to diminish, and it never did fully.

John E. Prussing, Urbana

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I had been out of the Navy for nine months in November of 1963 after serving four years on active duty. I was on that November day working at Uraco Business forms in Watseka, also living in Watseka. A couple of days before the Nov. 22 tragedy my boss had come up to us with a Kennedy joke that he would tell everyone. So in the afternoon of the 22nd when he walked up to a couple of us and said that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas, I was wanting for a punch line. I soon realized by the look on his face he was serious. All we knew at work that day was that he had been shot ( we didn't know he was dead). We got off early in the afternoon; I drove to my parents house in Hoopeston, spent the rest of the evening watching TV. I remember thinking WHY would anyone do this. The rest of the weekend my dad and I stayed glued to the TV. I pretty much didn't do anything but watch TV all weekend. My dad and I were watching on Sunday morning when they were bringing Oswald out and Jack Ruby shot him. We both looked at each other and said did that really happen.

If President Kennedy had not been assassinated, I think that Vietnam would have been a different story altogether. I was in the Navy when the Cuban Missile Crisis happened in October 1962 and I only had 60 days left in the Navy, we got extended for up to a year (later it was changed and we got out on time). I remember thinking at the time it was the right thing to do and what he did saved us all from a very volatile situation. He was in my opinion a very great president. I think that the Civil Rights Act would have become law a lot sooner if he had lived. As we all know we can't rewrite history, only speculate and give our opinion. I put that day in line with 9-11-2001, a day of sadness in our country and day in which as Americans we grieved together.

Ron Lewis, Hoopeston

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I lived in San Antonio, Texas at the time of the Kennedy Assassination, I was 10 years old. I went to school at Bonham elementary school. We were lucky to find out the president was going to drive by our school on Nov. 21st. So we had the chance to see the president. Being a short person, I was in the front row. I was no more than 15 feet from where the car drove by. It was so exciting to see. The next day a girlfriend who had gone home for lunch came back and was crying and said the president had been shot and was dead. We didn't believe her. When I got home my mother and sister were crying and watching TV, and I couldn't understand who would do such a thing.

Kathy LeDoux, Danville

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On November 22, 1963, I was a 24-year-old mother of a daughter who would be 3 years old on December 27, 1963, exactly one month after John-John would be 3 on November 27, 1963. So I have always felt a strong connection to that fateful event.

My husband, our daughter and I lived in Ogden; and I had driven with my daughter to the country near Armstrong to spend the day with my parents. As was our custom, Mother and I were watching TV, As the World Turns, when Walter Cronkite came on the screen with the breaking news.

I remember standing in front of the television set with my hand over my mouth in total disbelief and shock. Mother and I were both just glued to the TV for the rest of my visit. It was so scary and we were just silent most of the time, trying to get our heads wrapped around what had just been announced.

Of course, we watched constantly for days and weeks after for the latest developments, and we mourned the loss of our president along with the rest of the nation. We had not voted for him, but he was wonderful president.

Now, at age 74, I remember it like it was yesterday.

Rosa Lee Osterbur, Armstrong

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When JFK was killed I was 23 years old, in the Iroquois Memorial Hospital in Watseka. I had given birth to my son, Mark, on Nov. 19. I lived in Sheldon, Ill., at the time. My hospital roommate and I were watching TV on Nov. 22 when all stations were interrupted by the news that JFK was shot. My mother worked in the basement of the hospital. I was not supposed to leave my floor, so instead of taking the elevator I walked down the stairs to tell her. She loved JFK and started crying. I was in Carbondale at SIU when he campaigned in October 1960. I was 20 at the time and very impressed to see such a youthful presidential candidate. These events made a big impact on me. Before that event I thought any U.S. president was safe from harm in this country. I discovered it wasn't true.

Fay Runck, St. Joseph

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I remember the day like it was yesterday. But, before I go into what and where I was on that day I must digress and give some background. My family always tuned in to the CBS Evening News and to pass the time I would grab a stack of papers and sit at a table and pretend I was looking into a camera and giving the news, like Walter Cronkite. However, while watching the news my young ears and brain would short circuit. I would hear something about the Vietnam war and about President Kennedy I would jumble the two and while looking into the imaginary camera I would say, "..and President Kennedy has just been shot." The first time my mother heard what I said I got slapped and told it was disrespectful. My Uncle Robert chuckled when he heard me say it the first time. Obviously, he voted for Nixon.

This was prior to November of 1963.

The day of November 22, 1963 was cloudless and crisp, with no wind. I was four years old, four days shy of my fifth birthday, and in kindergarten at the old Sidney Grade School. Since it was such a nice day I walked home from school, (we had half-day kindergarten back then), and was just settled in on the sofa in the living room. My mother was on the back porch, doing laundry on an old wringer washer. It was such a nice day I believe she intended to hang clothes on the line outside. She had the soap opera As The World Turns on the television. I was just waiting for mom to finish with the laundry washing and to make me lunch. Suddenly the tv screen flashed BULLETIN, then switched back to the soap opera, then back to BULLETIN. They were called bulletins back then, not special reports, as they are today. After a few seconds hesitation, Cronkite came on the air with the famous words, "In downtown Dallas shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade. First reports say the President has been seriously wounded."

Knowing that what I was about to say wasn't something I made up I tossed the calculated risk of being smacked by my mother to the four winds by yelling, "Mom! Someone on tv just said that the president's been shot!!" Then I ducked for cover. Mom came flying out of the back of the house and never gave me another glance, her eyes glued to the old Magnavox black and white set. She just slumped into a chair and we watched until the confirmation about an hour and a half later, by Cronkite, that President Kennedy was dead.

The clothes never got hung out. I don't think I ever got lunch, either.

I don't remember much of the rest of that day. Mom wept when she talked to my dad on the phone and again when he came from work at Sears. That Sunday, after the assassination, my parents and I spent the day at my grandparents' farm. We were watching the TV when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot and killed. I remember my grandfather saying, to nobody in particular, "My God, what has the world come to?" And, to see the utter shock on their faces. Perhaps the most vivid memory I have of the events after the body of the slain president was laid in state in the Capital Rotunda were the hushed voices of the news reporters on television and how quiet and solemn everyone was. You could hear a pin drop in that Rotunda. What stood out the most was the continued cadence of the drums as the caisson was rolled through the streets of Washington, DC, on its way to the final resting place, in Arlington National Cemetery, along with the riderless horse with the boots in the stirrups backwards.

I will never forget that.

Mike Osterbur, Sidney

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On November 22, 1963, I was an 18 year old freshman at ISNU. (We didn't become ISU until January 1, 1964.) Friday was a heavy class day for me, so I did not hear about Kennedy being shot until I returned to the dorm for lunch around noon. Details about the shooting were sketchy at this time. Nobody knew how bad things were to get. I grabbed a quick lunch and headed back out for my 1 o'clock class. When I left my 1 o'clock class in Schroeder Hall it was raining and the flag on the quad was at half staff, and I knew then that President Kennedy had died. My last class of the day was canceled.

None of us had TVs in our dorm rooms, but certain lounges in the dorm were designated as "TV lounges." These lounges were packed by a very somber, stunned, and tearful group of freshman women. Everything came to a screeching halt. All campus activities for the weekend were canceled as we all remained glued to the TV. There were a number of churches close to campus, and most of us were in a church on Sunday morning. Late Sunday afternoon, the student body gathered at the flag pole in the central quadrangle for a service of meditation and prayer followed by a flag ceremony and taps. ISNU President Robert Bone declared Monday, November 25, 1963, a day of mourning. No classes were held that day, and the student body gathered at Horton Fieldhouse at 9 a.m. for a memorial service. The fieldhouse was packed. After this service we all returned to the TV lounges to watch the funeral. The country was hurting, but it was even sadder to watch the young Kennedy family without their father. Young John-John saluting his father's casket reduced us all to tears.

At some point during this weekend of craziness, I tearfully called home and Dad, a WWII Navy vet, was the one who answered the phone. He told me that the country had been through worse times and that we would survive this too. Comforting words for an 18-year-old away from home and witnessing such evil for the first time.

Phyllis Overman, Champaign

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I was a freshman at Southern Illinois University, attending the Vocational Technical Institute. VTI was located southeast of Carterville on an old military facility built in the late '30s or early '40s. In transit between classes I heard that something had happened to the president in Texas. Arriving at my next class the instructor already knew what had happened. We never started class that day but we talked about the disaster that had befallen the president and the nation.

Politics and government were not yet my thing but this event sure got my attention. What I had seen and heard about President Kennedy was inspiring to me as I was approaching voting age and needed to become more informed about that awesome responsibility and privilege. I think our nation would have turned out very different than what we have today. The circumstances are still not clear to me and although I like to get more and more information, I doubt that the truth of this assassination will ever be known in my lifetime.

May God Bless America.

Kenneth Zirkle, Rantoul

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I was 9 years old and in fourth grade on the day JFK was shot. I attended St. Mary's Catholic school in East Moline, Ill., and my teacher, Mrs. Seams, was the only lay teacher in the school. The principal, Sr. Mary Innocent appeared at the door and announced to us that the president had been shot and the whole school was going to pray for him. We all knelt down and said a rosary for him and then we were all sent home. We all knew what had happened, and it was the quietest walk I ever remembered down the hill from the school as we all walked in double file to the bottom. Crossing the street, we ran all the way home to tell our mom, but of course she already knew.

There sat my mom, crying in front of the television, her apron in her hands and it was soaked, with her tears I was pretty sure. On the television was Walter Cronkite, explaining what had happened, trying very hard to keep from crying himself. It seemed we had gotten home just in time to hear him announce that the president had died, breaking down and wiping a tear from his eye.

We had a large family that descended from large families. As a result we had lots of pictures on our walls, and only two pictures, ironically the largest, were of people not in our family. One was Pope John XXIII and the other was John Kennedy. President Kennedy was Catholic, but he also was young. Unlike previous presidents, he spoke to young people. He and his brother Robert became heroes to me.

Since then I have learned they are human and had feet of clay. But the same can be said of all our heroes. John and Bobby Kennedy told us we could be a better country and better citizens, and although we are just men and women, we are not helpless in the face of our problems. To this day, I still shed a tear when I hear their voices.

Ben Montez, Champaign

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