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Antioch College's reaction to JFK assassination (1963)

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The commemorative exhibit at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum that opened on the 50th anniversary of the 35th president’s assassination describes the three days that followed as a national state of “suspended animation.” The reaction at Antioch College was certainly no exception as classes were cancelled and extracurricular activities rescheduled to allow the community time to grieve. Even though the campus weekly, the Antioch College Record, came out on November 22nd that year, the editors managed to hold up its printing long enough to lead with the tragic headline “Kennedy is assassinated” on the same day JFK was murdered (the nation did not learn that its president was dead until Walter Cronkite announced it on CBS at 2:38 pm EST). Additionally, the Nov. 22nd Record reported on the reaction from Fidel Castro, broadcast on Radio Havana. Neither story is indicative of the collective response in Yellow Springs. Reprinted below are two articles from the Record detailing how this national tragedy was observed locally: with a memorial service and a panel discussion. Both events were held in Kelly Hall, the former on the day the President died and the latter on the first Monday following the Thanksgiving holiday.

Many readers will recognize most of the Antioch personalities mentioned. Officiating the memorial was Howard Johnson, College Pastor between the terms of Morris Keeton and Al Denman. The organist, Walter Anderson, was chair of the Music department and the first African American member of the Antioch College faculty, and he has an alumni association award named in his honor. The majority of the assembly panelists are just as well known to Antiochians: Jim Dixon (class of 1939) held the second longest tenure as president in Antioch College history, 1959-1975. Louis Filler and John Sparks taught a combined 65 years at the College (subsequent generations of Antiochians would know “Filler” as a default nickname given by Librarian Joe Cali until he came up with something more appropriate). Kagan, on the other hand, would make his reputation as a pioneering developmental psychologist after his tenure at Antioch: in a 2002 Review of General Psychology article, Kagan rated 22nd and ahead of Carl Jung on a list of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century.

Over 90 percent of all American households with televisions, including the scores of faculty homes mentioned in the first article, watched Kennedy’s funeral, by far the largest viewing audience to date of any national broadcast. The first article also takes note of specious accusations in the press that connect Antioch College with Lee Harvey Oswald (to this day the only “announced suspect in Kennedy’s murder”) through the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, an activist group dedicated to ending the US economic boycott of Cuba in place since the revolution in 1960. However, neither of the recent Antioch related pro-Cuba events of the time—a trip to Cuba by 15 students over the Christmas holiday of 1960-61 and a mass demonstration against the blockade at the Ohio statehouse in 1962 in which nearly 100 Antiochians participated—were organized by FPCC.

The assessments and predictions made at the assembly are especially interesting. Sparks is largely correct at how Kennedy is remembered fifty years after his death, and even moreso about what is not recalled about him. Kagan presents a compelling psychological analysis of Kennedy as the nation’s prince and the reasons for such a profound sense of loss felt across the county. Speculating on what Lyndon Johnson will do with the presidency, Sparks knows his subject well, for the consummate Capitol Hill deal maker could indeed boast prodigious legislative accomplishment early, particularly passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, Johnson largely maintained the Kennedy cabinet as well as Kennedy’s agenda despite the panel’s predictions, an intent the new president revealed in his first speech to a joint session of Congress on Nov. 27th with: “Let us begin. Let us continue.”

From the Antioch College Record, vol. 19, #20, Friday, November 29 1963

College Joins in Mourning JFK; Assembly Planned Monday

Like much of the world, Antioch paused this week to mourn the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

A special assembly will be held Monday at 4:30 PM in the auditorium, associate dean of faculty Everett Wilson said, “on the heritage from President Kennedy and the prospects with President Johnson.”

A panel chaired by American civilization professor Louis Filler will include President James P. Dixon, political science professor John Sparks, and psychology professor Jerome Kagan.

The college was closed Monday, and activities were suspended or slowed for several days, but by Thursday, when the college closed again to observe Thanksgiving, the tempo had begun to pick up once more.

More than a score of faculty families opened their homes Monday so students could view the President’s funeral on television.

At a memorial service last Friday, hours after Kennedy was murdered, college pastor Howard Johnson told a gathering that nearly filled the auditorium:

“When we face the unspeakable, to speak is always to speak falsely, and yet…not to speak is an even greater falsehood.”

Johnson said, “one of the greatest things about our country today is that…we are aware that it is not the death of the official that counts, but the man.

“We are gathered here tonight because John Kennedy died today.”

Director of music Walter Anderson, who played organ music for the service, closed with “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” The meeting broke up in silence.

College officials said a second assembly, slated for Sunday in President Dixon’s absence, was cancelled because they felt more time was needed to plan a fitting evaluation of Kennedy’s life.

The Dayton Daily News Monday quoted an unnamed college spokesman as saying the service was cancelled because Kennedy was being “over-memorialized.” After protests, the News carried a front page apology Tuesday.

The News also printed a feature on the rise and fall of Antioch’s Fair Play for Cuba chapter, pointing out that Lee Oswald, the only announced suspect in Kennedy’s murder, had claimed connection with the organization elsewhere. The story appeared Sunday, before Oswald was killed in the custody of Dallas (Tex.) police.

Answering queries, college news bureau director Marjorie Freed said Oswald was never a student here and she had no recollection that he had ever been on campus.

From the Antioch College Record, vol. 19, #21, Friday, December 6, 1963

Speakers Discuss Kennedy, Johnson
By Tammy Curtis

College president James P. Dixon said Monday president Kennedy carried his concern for the intellectual mind “almost to the subversive level.”

Dixon, along with Professors Louis Filler, Jerome Kagan, and John Sparks, spoke on “The Presidency in Transition” at the assembly scheduled after Kennedy’s assassination.

Dixon, a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Narcotic and Drug Abuse, said Kennedy placed no restraints on what the group might report. “He cherished openness in public affairs,” Dixon said.

He questioned whether President Johnson will open or close the access of the intellectual community to government.

Government professor John Sparks found himself struck by President Kennedy’s “awesome informed intelligence,” “monumental, irrepressible sense of humor,” and “lack of preoccupation with his own importance.”

Sparks said the fact that Kennedy was inordinately ambitious and at times politically ruthless would not be remembered so much as “the energy, aliveness, sense of mission…and expansion of vision” which he injected into the presidency.

Jerome Kagan, psychology professor, said man has created two images for his heroes—the “king” and the “prince.” While the first engenders dependence, he explained that the second gives rise to identification with the hero.

Kagan said he believes Kennedy was significant in American history because he was its first “prince” symbol.

Kagan said the assassination of Kennedy, because “he was more dashing, and had more social poise and wit” than most of his predecessors, created “a love object loss unique in the American presidency.” That his death brought on so much mourning may be explained by the fact that as a model he fulfilled so many roles and “was such a good hero,” Kagan said.

History professor Louis Filler discussed the “curious sense of unity” that seems to grip the nation after such a crisis.

Speculating on President Johnson, Dixon suggested that his administration will probably be more pragmatic than Kennedy’s.

Sparks said, “The most notable characteristic of the presidency is that it is impossible.” Nonetheless, he predicted that before a year is out Johnson will have achieved “a prodigious amount” in concrete legislative accomplishments.

The panel seemed agreed that Johnson will select as advisors “men of his own style,” thereby altering, thereby altering, as each chief executive has, the nature of the presidency.