NORMAL — Ross Griffiths wanted to capture the “raw sense of grief and shock” in selecting items for a display of artifacts related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.
The 50th anniversary is an important one, said Griffiths, a preservationist and Illinois State University archivist.
“This is the last big anniversary for this, even when we have a large number of witnesses who really remember the event and where they were when they heard,” said Griffiths. “This is a real important milestone anniversary.”
By the time the 75th anniversary arrives, the assassination will become more of a “historical event rather than one that people actively remember,” he said, adding the assassination “impacted an entire generation” and noting that nearly every community had a memorial observance of some kind after it happened.
Michael Weis, professor of history and chairman of the history department at Illinois Wesleyan University, agreed, saying the JFK assassination had a profound impact on his generation, similar to how Pearl Harbor affected his parents’ generation and how the 9/11 terrorist attacks are impacting the current generation.
“9/11 and Pearl Harbor shocked us out of our belief that we were invulnerable,” Weis said. “Kennedy’s assassination shocked us from our belief that we are virtuous.”
Among items on display at Milner Library are an Illinois State Normal University yearbook with photos of a memorial service held at Horton Field House, a reproduction of the front page of the Vidette campus newspaper, a special edition of Life magazine and a TV Guide.
The items are from ISU’s Jo Ann Rayfield Archives.
“I think the items I selected helped represent the event locally as well as the national mood in the days and weeks immediately following it,” Griffiths said.
The display also includes the text of a statement from Robert Bone, then ISNU president.
“In a time already fraught with national as well as local problems, the event of Friday has increased our attitude of frustration and bewilderment,” Bone said in 1963. “At the same time, it brings all Americans together in a sense of unity and should instill in all of us the desire to make greater efforts to live up to the ideals of President Kennedy.”
Although the university observed a period of mourning and called off social events, classes continued as scheduled.
In his statement, Bone called the decision not to cancel classes “a reflection of the dynamism and character of our late president.”
Weiss said Kennedy was both pragmatic and optimistic, which he called “a good combination.”
Asked if any presidents since then have had that combination, Weiss said, “I think Ronald Reagan had some of those characteristics as well. He was more pragmatic than he gets credit for, and he was certainly idealistic.”
American presidents aren’t the only ones who have changed, in his view.
Weiss, who teaches courses on recent U.S. history, said “I think we’re a lot more cynical today and a lot less optimistic.”
Part of that is a result of “the lies of the government in Vietnam and Watergate,” said Weiss, but he said it started with the assassinations of leaders such as Kennedy, his brother Robert and Martin Luther King Jr.
“We lost our naivete,” he said.