Mary Anne Hartigan Schrank ’59 (center), is shown here with some of the Peace Corps recruits on the day President Kennedy was assassinated. With her are students Elizabeth Koch ’64, who went to Nigeria (left), and Maureen McCudden ’64, who went to Costa Rica (right).
Memories of the Day JFK Died
By Mary Anne Hartigan Schrank ’59
Alumna Mary Anne Hartigan Schrank ’59 recently shared with us her memories of the day President John F. Kennedy was shot—53 years ago today.
November 22, 1963, was a dazzling autumn day at Georgian Court University in Lakewood, New Jersey, where I was an associate professor of classical languages, advisor to the college newspaper and yearbook, and recruiter of young idealists for the newly rolled out and very exciting Peace Corps.
The Trenton Times had called . . . a telephone interview and request that I and several of our Peace Corps candidates assemble for a photograph shortly after noon on November 22. The photographer who’d been sent was posing us on the piano bench in the gorgeous Gould Mansion. Our New Jersey Sisters of Mercy, still semi-cloistered, had only recently received minimal TV privileges . . . news after meals in the salon, for example. The music professor, Sister Mary Sheila , brilliant, funny, and somewhat high-strung, suddenly ran screaming through the hall, “The president’s been shot!” I assumed our head, Sister Mary Pierre , and gave no thought to President Kennedy until the photographer whipped off one or two shots and fairly flew out of the Mansion, dragging his hastily assembled gear through the never-trod-upon garden beds to his clunker on the far side of the circle. Aspirants and I were invited to join the nuns in their lounge to watch the initial confused, and then horribly accurate, reporting—culminating with a shocked and devastated Walter Cronkite glancing at the clock and informing the nation, “President Kennedy died at 1:00 p.m. Central Standard Time, two o’clock Eastern Standard Time.” I believe he added, “about 30 minutes ago.”
I don’t have to tell you that classes were cancelled; life was cancelled that afternoon. I’ve no recollection of jumping in my VW Bug and driving 75 miles to 116th and Clermont Avenue, to the apartment I’d sublet that summer while doing doctoral work at Columbia and where I was to spend the weekend and catch up with its rightful lessees—one, like me, a GCU alumna. My first memory after Uncle Walter’s announcement was arriving simultaneously with my fiancé, who’d rushed from Albany. We couldn’t speak; for hours, we and our friends, Europeans, stared in stunned silence at a tiny black and white TV. After dark, we needed food, human beings. We walked to 125th and Broadway, nodding, accepting empathetic nods in return, as though at a massive wake, and climbed the stairs to the train to Times Square.
Perhaps we dined; perhaps we drank; I’ve no recall. We joined the throng, a New Year’s Eve-sized crowd devoid of merrymakers, all there for one reason, I suspect: to touch each other, to assure ourselves, to be assured, that though earth’s tectonic plate had shifted that afternoon, we’d be okay if we but held on to each other, that this was some horrible anomaly. Every window in that huge square had managed to acquire an iconic Camelot image: JFK at work or sailing; Caroline peeking from under his White House desk; Jack and Jackie at their wedding, or on Inauguration Day, or wowing Berlin; or Jack, Jackie, and the children . . . enlarged, framed, draped in bunting. We walked from one to the other, as though on a pilgrimage. Say it isn’t so!
The most lasting impression, the one that will be with me until I die, is the pin-drop silence. I felt as though I’d gone suddenly deaf, but in truth, New York City had been rendered speechless.
Early in the morning, we and our hosts returned to Harlem. The remainder of the weekend, indeed of the following weeks, blurs: shock, grief, innuendo, accusations, mystery, another killing, a funeral on TV from Washington and Arlington, a magnificent Mass with orchestra and voice in full throttle in the Casino . . . and the absolute belief that nothing would ever be the same again!