WASHINGTON – Some were in college, some were barely walking. Some still have memories of the day, while others know only the legacy.
But members of Arizona’s congressional delegation, young and old, Democrat and Republican, all say they were touched in one way or another by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago Friday.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Phoenix, who was a junior at Arizona State University when the news came that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. “I was walking toward Old Main and somebody yelled out, ‘They just shot the president.'”
Pastor, who was a chemistry major at the time, said that even before the shooting the Kennedy presidency led him to realize his true passion.
“He was probably the first political figure that I even got excited about,” Pastor said from Washington, where he has served in Congress now for more than 20 years. “The days of Camelot were days of hope, days of great expectations … of joy.”
Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, remembers being a young woman who was especially impressed at the way the first lady responded to the burden she had to take on in that one, mournful day.
“Across the nation, we all grieved together,” she said in an email. “As a young woman, I was especially struck by Jackie Kennedy’s resilience and grace in the aftermath. She became a role model for so many of us.”
Others were too young to have anything but vague memories of the day.
“I remember being at my grandma’s house and watching the casket, the funeral procession, and remember everybody in a very somber mood,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott.
While he does not remember details of the day, Gosar said the shooting allowed the country to embrace its strong resilience.
“It’s a time to remember, a time to reflect, and a time to move forward,” he said of the anniversary.
For Rep. David Schweikert, R-Scottsdale, there are lessons to be learned from the era, separate from the shooting.
“It’s more than just the Kennedy presidency. It’s the tensions and the difficulties,” Schweikert said. “There’s this amazing historical context and content. The world really was almost on knife’s-edge.”
Schweikert, who was also too young to remember the shooting, is skeptical of conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination and hopes the anniversary will bring clarity to the tragic event.
“I’m hoping there’ll be a gathering of facts and re-educating ourselves in the life, times, and death,” of Kennedy, Schweikert said.
Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Mesa, was just past his toddler years when Kennedy was shot.
“I was a little boy … either in preschool or kindergarten at the time, and one of the teachers came in to the class and she was crying,” he said. “She said that the president had been shot.
“As little children we didn’t really understand what all that meant, but we started to cry, too,” Salmon said.
While the assassination remains a significant memory, Salmon prefers to quote one of Kennedy’s most-famous lines – “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” – in remembrance of that era’s unity.
“The president’s phrase just resounds so well with me right now,” he said. “I wish that more people would take that attitude and remember that.”
While the memories may be painful, Salmon said it is important to remember.
“It was a day that we’ll all remember,” he said. “We’re stronger by looking back.”