By Jim Brown (Colombia IV)
There are certain days we will remember as long as we live. We can tell you exactly where we were, what we we doing, and why that day—good or bad—would never be forgotten.
November 22, 1963, was one of those days. President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas shortly after noon, local time. For the 7,000+ Peace Corps Volunteers around the world, it was more than just memorable; it was an especially unsettling and surreal experience. News reports were sketchy, volunteers were uncertain about what to do (or not do), and getting in touch with family or friends in the States was practically impossible.
Colombia IV volunteers, who served from 1962 to 1964, were asked to describe what they remembered about that event, the effect it had on their work, and how it impacted the rest of their lives.
There is a recurring theme in the stories that follow. It is the heartfelt expressions of sympathy, loss, and sorrow shown by the Colombian people toward Americans living in Colombia and Peace Corps Volunteers in particular. They were, after all, affectionately known by Colombians as “hijos de Kennedy.”
- “It’s never left me”
“Judy Lavicka and I were on a bus headed for Cartagena. At one stop, two men with a transistor radio came over and said President Kennedy had been assassinated. Our initial reaction was disbelief. When we got to Cartagena, it was confirmed, and I recall that everything seemed to be subdued.
When we returned to our Colombian family the next day and walked in the front door, everyone was standing to receive us in sympathy. It broke my heart then, and it does today. For days afterward, people on the street would stop to express their sorrow. It’s never left me.”
— Sue Farrington, Barranquilla
- “On our way to buy wedding rings”
Susan (Westlund) and I had taken a bus from her home to the Bogotá city center to buy our wedding rings. It was a traditional bus, with a transistor radio hanging from the rear view mirror and substantial noise among the passengers. We were about five minutes into the trip when the music was interrupted by an announcement that Kennedy had been shot. The last 50 minutes on the bus were absolutely silent. By the time we got downtown, his death had been confirmed. As we were getting off the bus, people were touching us and murmuring their condolences. Flags were at half-mast and being wrapped in black bunting.”
— Loyd Kepferle, Bogotá
- “Never experienced such a display”
“Bob Willey and I were teaching at SENA in Medellin. The director asked us to come to his office, where he told us that our “jefe” had been killed. I thought he meant Chris Sheldon, the Peace Corps director in Colombia. He explained to us that it was President Kennedy who had been assassinated.
My initial reaction was disbelief. I was sure that there had been some mistake, then it was shock and sadness. Colombia was in an official state of mourning for a week—no music or entertainment during that time. I went to visit friends in Manizales, where a Danish gymnastics team had gone for an exhibition. They couldn’t perform until after the week of mourning, so we organized activities for them.
Colombians kept expressing sadness and dismay that Kennedy, who they regarded as their hope for the future, had been killed. I had never experienced such a display of mourning, nor have I experienced it since.”
— Chris Day, Medellin
[In Colombian homes during the 1960s, it was not uncommon for living room walls to have two pictures—one of Jesus and one of Kennedy. — New York Times]
- “Cali seemed to go into shock”
“I was teaching a co-ed swimming class at the Olympic Pool in Cali. The news came from a radio over a loud speaker. After hearing the initial report, the students wanted to stop the class. I felt differently, and we finished the class.
All of Cali seemed to go into shock. John Roberts, my roommate, was certain that this would be WW III. Black flags went up all over the city. The PCVs in Cali were invited to a special mass at one of the churches. My impression was that the Colombians were astounded by the events. I think the assassination and then the killing of Oswald significantly changed the image of the USA in the eyes of the average Colombian.“
— Dave Bohnke, Cali
- “Jacqueline lloraba, Jacqueline lloraba. . . .”
“I had just picked up my paycheck from the Peace Corps office in Bogota and taken a taxi to the bank. The driver had his radio on and seemed both intent and distracted. All I could make out was “Jacqueline lloraba, Jacqueline lloraba. . . .” I tried to get the driver to tell me what was happening, but I remember him shaking his head, dropping me off at Citibank and waving me on—refusing to take my fare.
When I got inside, everyone was talking. All sorts of accounts were being put forth but all agreed, Kennedy had been shot during a trip to Dallas and apparently had died. When I got back to our apartment, my roommate, Faith Carman (who had come to Bogotá on a two-year contract with the National Symphony) seemed even more distressed than I was. She had been getting calls from her colleagues, and I received one from my boss at the Javeriana, where I was teaching. The following week my students could not stop talking about it, embracing me, and offering condolences.”
— Ruth Ann Gieser, Bogotá
- “Dona Graciela, tears streaming down her face….”
My partner (Dee Jimenez) and I were congratulating ourselves. We had just demonstrated preparing CARE powdered milk sweetened with panela to a mothers’ class at our barrio health center. The women were finally beginning to use CARE food products to nourish their families rather than selling their allotments at the local markets. It had taken nearly a year to reach this goal.
We had packed our supplies and departed, walking to our apartment for lunch. Dona Graciela, who lived nearby, came running toward us, tears streaming down her face. Several street children were her posse.
“Su presidente ya esta muerto! Esta muerto!” she sobbed. “Esta en my televisor. Es la verdad.”
Unable to believe what Dona was telling us, we dropped our baskets at our doorstep and followed her home. She shooed away her other family members and pulled chairs for us directly in front of the television. We heard and saw Walter Cronkite, with a tear in his eye, announce the death of President Kennedy, then followed the video of the fatal motorcade. Mesmerized, we sat there for a short time as the video played and replayed.
Eventually we returned to our apartment and turned on our transistor radio, hoping for any positive news. All our meeting commitments stopped. We found ways to connect with other Volunteers who lived in Medellin. One group had a shortwave radio and got updates. We went to the U.S. consulate’s office to sign a condolence book for President Kennedy—the appropriate way to honor a deceased world leader.
— Kay Dixon, Medellin (Colombia III)
- “Kennedy would want us to continue”
“I got into a cab with Don Torrence to travel from Pereira to Manizales for a Saturday seminar on track and field. Pereira to Manizales was normally about an hour trip.
Shortly after leaving, we began hearing over the radio that Kennedy had been shot. My first reaction was that it was an exaggeration and might not be as serious as reported. My optimism quickly dissipated. The broadcaster was clearly reading right off the UPI ticker and getting more somber by the minute. Within 30 minutes came the announcement, ‘Kennedy dead,’ ‘Kennedy murió,’ ‘Kennedy múrido.’
[UPI/United Press International was first to report on the assassination of President Kennedy.]
On arrival in Manizales we went directly to Gale Gibson’s house (he was also to be one of the presenters) to discuss whether to hold the seminar. We quickly met with our Colombian counterparts, who were led by Marco Tulio Castro. He saw the issue in moral terms, and felt, out of respect—mourning for Kennedy—we should cancel or at least postpone the event. We thought Kennedy would want us to go on. Gale’s persuasiveness with his counterparts carried the day and we all agreed
to continue as scheduled.”
— Norm Olsen, Pereira
- “The reason we volunteered”
As soon as I heard that President Kennedy had been shot, I grabbed my shortwave radio and hopped on a bus to visit with other Volunteers in Bogotá, who were living in a dorm supervised by a Catholic order of priests.
We listened intently the rest of the day to the Voice of America and other stations in the U.S. and Europe, as the news of President Kennedy’s murder was reported. By evening, the city was in mourning. Thousands had gathered to mourn the death a man loved in Colombia. For many of us, Kennedy had been the reason we volunteered to serve in the Peace Corps.
— Mike Haviland, Bogotá
[In 1961, Kennedy visited Colombia and led a motorcade, standing in an Oldsmobile convertible and waving to the crowds on Bogotá’s main street, Avenida Séptima.]
- “Face of the USA”
“The word spread via my students at the Universidad del Cauca. My reaction was probably disbelief and shock. The Colombian people truly were in mourning, and I remember many stopping me and giving me their tearful, heartfelt condolences.
There was a memorial mass at the cathedral church at the town square. I walked in as probably the only American there, and they escorted me into the sanctuary and gave me a special seat. It was like I was the face of the USA for that service, and the bishop eulogized Kennedy as a great man, using the Peace Corps as an example. He and other priests loved JFK not only because he was Catholic but as a leader and man who obviously had a huge impact on all our lives.”
— Mike Town, Popayán
- “Impossible, incomprehensible”
We had returned from teaching that morning at the Universidad Industrial de Santander in Bucaramanga. My apartment room above El Teatro Analucia was on the third floor, facing the street. I heard my future wife, Teresa, out in front on her motor scooter, honking the horn. It would have been improper for her to come to our apartment. When I opened the window and looked out, she shouted that Kennedy had been shot and that he was “agonizando” (in his death throes).
My initial reaction was that it was an exaggeration — that such a thing was totally impossible, incomprehensible. We all went to Jim’s shortwave radio and searched for news.
The four of us (Dan Friedman, Bob Bergstrom, Jim Brown, and I) went out to eat that night and dressed more formally than we normally did. Several people approached us at dinner to say how badly they felt for us.
Many of our students, as well as acquaintances and strangers on the street, commiserated with us and said how shocked and sorry they were to learn of Kennedy’s death.
For years afterward, when I thought or talked about the assassination, I’d get emotional. We might have thought we were too cool to admit it at the time, but we were, indeed, “hijos de Kennedy.”
— Tom Tollman, Bucaramanga
A Letter From the President—After his Death
The Volunteers didn’t know it at the time, but on Friday, October 29th, 1963, President Kennedy had written a letter to each person in Colombia IV, expressing his appreciation for their first year of service.
The letters weren’t postmarked in Washington until Wednesday, November 13th.
Nine days later, Friday, November 22nd, Kennedy was assassinated.
The Volunteers received their letters in early December—more than a month since it had been written and at least two weeks after the President died.