Friday night, November 22, 1963, Dessie, Ethiopia
A group of us were chatting at the guys’ house after a tough week of teaching when my housemate, Peace Corps Volunteer Arwilda Bryant, ran in.
Everyone shut up as she gasped for breath. Arwilda wouldn’t have come out alone late at night and risked attacks by hyenas or feral dogs without good reason.
“Kennedy’s been shot,” she choked out. “I just heard it on the radio.” She told us all she knew: The President had been shot while riding in an open car in Dallas and taken to a hospital.
We called the other half dozen Peace Corps Volunteers in Dessie, Ethiopia, a mountainous provincial capital, and huddled around the guys’ short-wave radio, straining to hear through the static. Well after midnight, on November 23, we heard the shocking news that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had died.
We felt a special connection to the man. He spoke to our 300-plus Ethiopia I Peace Corps group on the soggy White House lawn during our training. The press called us Kennedy’s kids.
The next morning Arwilda, my other housemate (Pat Summers), and I slept late. A little after eight someone knocked on our door. A student who lived in the shed behind our house let the person in. I dressed quickly and went to the living room.
An Indian colleague at the Woizero Siheen High School had heard the radio report that morning and come to our house immediately to express his sympathy. He gave us the latest news and addressed us as though we were members of JFK’s family.
Over cups of tea, Mr. Singh recounted with great emotion his memories of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, drawing parallels between the two leaders and the grief and uncertainty their violent deaths evoked in their home countries and around the world.
He asked what the President’s death would mean to the United States. Was the vice president involved? After all, the assassination took place in his home state. We assured him that Lyndon Johnson had no connection to the killer and the American people would accept the new president. Would we Volunteers be recalled? Kennedy had sent us. We assured him that JFK’s death would not end our service.
All that day faculty members—Ethiopian, Indian, and South African—and students came to the Peace Corps houses with the same expressions of sympathy and the same questions. That afternoon we received word that the governor had arranged a special mass the next morning for us, local dignitaries, and faculty members.
The assassination of the dynamic young President had stunned, saddened, and alarmed even our isolated mountain-top town. More surprising to us, Ethiopians and the few foreigners in Dessie regarded the Peace Corps Volunteers not just as Kennedy’s representatives but as his family. Years later in the Capitol Rotunda, I took part in a returned PCVs’ marathon reading of accounts of those days. All had similar experiences.
In Dessie, the PCVs met to discuss what we could do as representatives of our country. The only thing we could come with was to wear black for a few days. We assured the students, and the headmaster, that we would be in our classrooms Monday.
With no television or movie newsreels, no international newspapers, limited radio, and little possibility of international telephone contact, we had little idea what was happening in the United States and the rest of the world. Our main news source, Newsweek, wouldn’t come for days. One of the first photos we saw showed the diminutive Haile Selassie marching behind the cortege with towering Charles de Gaulle.
On Monday, the students in my first eleventh grade English class sat somber and silent. I told them, and each succeeding class, what had happened in Dallas and explained the Constitutional provision for the vice president to succeed the president. Then I invited them to ask questions. They were expecting civil war in the United States. No matter what I said, they remained convinced that Lyndon Johnson engineered the assassination and that Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald to cover up the conspiracy. They expected the PCVs, half the school’s faculty, to be recalled or abandoned by the U.S. government.
The students remained tense all week. Eventually they recognized that in the United States a leader’s violent death didn’t signal war.
The assassination disillusioned people everywhere. Through the Peace Corps and other programs, John Fitzgerald Kennedy projected hope that democratic government and economic betterment, the American dream, could flourish in the Third World. The world looked to the United States as a beacon of hope and generosity.
Over the last 50 years that image has faded. Yet in the United States and elsewhere, people remember President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and these words: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”