Barbara K. Rimer is similar to many other baby boomers who have vivid recollections of a Friday 50 years ago today that started out so ordinary and ended with such an extraordinary – and heartrending – moment suspended in time.
Half a century has passed since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while traveling in a motorcade through Dallas.
Rimer, now dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill school of public health, has seen and done much since that day. But a letter of condolence she wrote as a grieving 15-year-old in January 1964 serves as a reminder of how the handsome, charismatic Kennedy captivated young Americans – and how his death inspired many to dedicate themselves to public service.
The Kennedy mystique was prominent in the Northeast – where Rimer was growing up in Levittown, Pa. – but also here in North Carolina.
Many in the state remember Kennedy campaigning in 1960, making speeches and campaign stops in Greenville, Raleigh, Charlotte, Winston-Salem and other parts of the state.
John Tucker, a history professor at East Carolina University, has written a book about Kennedy’s campaign visit to Greenville. He said the candidate visited a tobacco warehouse before going to the college campus and enamoring a crowd.
“If you look at the faces in the crowds, you don’t see neutral,” Tucker said.
In the end, North Carolina went for the Democrat Kennedy over Republican Richard Nixon.
“He had to have most of the state, and he did have most of the state,” Tucker said. “If Kennedy had not had the east, he would not have won the state. That made the difference.”
Nearly a year after his election, on Oct. 12, 1961, Kennedy spoke for nearly 15 minutes to a crowd of about 32,000 in Kenan Stadium at UNC-Chapel Hill to commemorate the university’s founding.
During the speech, he talked of North Carolina’s “enlightened” and “progressive” leaders and the school’s “liberal tradition.”
That was nearly 42 years before Rimer joined the UNC faculty, but as she looks back now on her career in public health, she reflects on the promise she made in that letter to Kennedy’s grieving widow, Jackie.
‘People were just silent’
Rimer had waited with throngs to catch a fleeting glimpse of Kennedy in 1960 while at a campaign whistle stop near Philadelphia. She had read much and watched much on the three network TV stations about him since then.
So when the news of his death came to her ninth-grade classroom – “probably over the loudspeaker,” Rimer recalled – the shaken teenager followed the path of many that day, home to a black-and-white TV screen where the family huddled with a great sense of loss.
“People were just silent,” Rimer, now 64, recalled this week. “I just don’t think people can understand today about how one event can move a whole country.”
In the days to come – long before the world had any inkling of 24-hour cable news, YouTube and smartphone videos capturing every angle of a momentous event – the Rimer family watched the riderless black horse, John-John’s salute to his father’s casket and Lee Harvey Oswald killed on live TV.
Rimer’s father, an executive with the American Cancer Society, and her mother, a social worker, stayed home in the days after the assassination, as did many Americans.
“Everything stopped,” Rimer recalled.
No memory of letter
Several years ago, Ellen Fitzpatrick, a historian at the University of New Hampshire, compiled about 250 of the nearly 1 million letters written to Jackie Kennedy in the months after her husband’s death.
Though Rimer has vivid memories of where she was and how she felt on Nov. 22, 1963, she has no recollection of taking out a sheet of paper and handwriting a condolence letter to the former first lady.
Fitzpatrick found the three-paragraph note among the many and included it in her book, “Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation,” released in 2010 by HarperCollins.
Rimer, who was appointed in 2011 by President Barack Obama to lead the president’s Cancer Panel, reads her letter today and bristles at some of what she wrote.
“When I read it, I think, ‘Wow, was I naive!’” Rimer said Thursday. “It seems incredibly naive.”
But in many ways, the words on the paper – even with one crossed out – belie the youth of the hand that wrote them.
“Something vital is missing from the house on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” Rimer wrote on Jan. 17, 1964. “Maybe it is youthfulness, a lovely young couple, two charming children, or maybe a guiding hand, a gay wit, and a special security people drew from his presence, all these things and more, Americans lost when Lee Harvey Oswald committed his heinous crime. These losses are irreplaceable.”
‘I promise you’
The country, Rimer wrote, would not forget John Fitzgerald Kennedy, nor would his ideals “die,” though she crossed through that word, and wrote instead that his ideals would not “be buried” with him.
“I promise you I will give body and soul to perpetuate the very ideals President Kennedy lived for. And, I am sure he would wish to be remembered for his humanitarian beliefs,” Rimer wrote. “So now, in your time of grief, I offer to you and your children all I can, my deepest sympathy and a solemn promise for the future.”
Rimer, who has long worked in the field of public health, encouraging students and trying to extend herself at a local, national and global level, set her path early.
Though she and others in her family are prolific letter writers, Rimer said she was not then nor now a person who wrote to celebrities.
But she reached out to a first family that had given her and many others in the nation a sense that – whatever their wealth and social status – they had much in common.
“When I saw the letter,” Rimer said, “the interesting thing to me was how true it was to my life course. It made me realize how long I’ve been on this path that I had not really been aware I had been on. It has been interesting.”
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1