On the day President John F. Kennedy was gunned down, I was sitting inside a construction trailer at Boston’s Prudential Center, shuffling some papers around at my desk.
I had been working as an office clerk, deciding what to do with the rest of my working life, when a bulletin came over my radio:
“President John F. Kennedy has been shot in a Dallas motorcade.”
There was no one inside my cubicle I could turn to for solace. I ran outdoors like the town crier and yelled over to anybody I could see.
“The president’s been shot! Somebody tried to kill JFK!”
The date was Nov. 22, 1963—a day of infamy. Before long, news of his death filtered over the airwaves, paralyzing an entire universe. Who among us—Armenian or otherwise—was not affected by the young president’s assassination, whether you were a Democrat, Republican, or non-partisan?
Former ANC director Harry Derderian, of Farmington Hills, Mich., was a student at Boston University the day a sniper’s bullet found Kennedy. He was walking into a sociology class at 2 p.m. when his professor relayed the bad news.
Derderian, like others, was mortified, startled, numb.
“I wanted to be with my fellow Armenians,” he recalled. “So I hopped a trolley to the old Hairenik Building on Stuart Street, and went up the stairs to Jimmy Tashjian’s office.
“Have you heard that Kennedy has been shot,” he asked the Hairenik Weekly editor.
Tashjian immediately gave the student a hug, consoling him, saying, “Harry. Things like this happen.”
“Boston had a massive black cloud over its shoulders for having lost its native son,” Derderian added. “I never forgot the depth of despair. The loss took away our Massachusetts president who was advocating a cause that many of us tried to do—make the world a better place.”
Given the fact that Tashjian and JFK attended the same school at Harvard University might have created an even bigger impact.
At an AYF meeting later that week, members of the Somerville “Nejdeh” Chapter held hands in a circle at the Watertown Agoump and prayed together openly, offering words of comfort to one another.
JFK’s death touched other parameters, other continents. Sossy Jeknavorian, a Merrimack Valley community activist, was a teenager living in Beirut. She recalls coming home from school and learning of Kennedy’s death from her parents.
“They had shock written over their faces,” she traced back. “It was a very emotional time in Lebanon. Like other places throughout the world, President Kennedy touched everyone’s heart. When I heard the news, I cried.”
Theater producer Hourig Sahagian-Papazian was Christmas shopping in New York City when the big news broke. She feared for her children who were being dismissed early from school.
“A feeling of panic gripped me,” she related. “Being apart from my children at such a terrifying moment that I couldn’t comfort them bothered me. Later that evening friends gathered from New York to mourn and weep together.”
Levon Saryan was a sophomore at Mount Pleasant High School in Wilmington, Del. “It was a Friday afternoon and I was walking through the hall when someone said the president had been shot,” he recalled. “The following day we had Armenian school but the teachers (my parents) simply brought along a recording of the Armenian Divine Liturgy. We said a prayer and school was dismissed.”
On Sunday, Saryan attended a special service in church. The place was steeped in misery.
“Although I had strongly supported VP Richard Nixon in the 1960 election, I came to respect and appreciate JFK for his resolute stand during the Cuban Missile Crisis and his appeal to Americans to serve their country rather than expect a government handout.”
Church activist Jimmy Apovian, Jr. was working in the missiles division of Raytheon when employees were informed of JFK’s death over the loud speaker.
“Because we were working on government projects, they gave us the option of leaving or staying at work,” Apovian reflected. “I can remember how sad that day was. My aunt lived in Washington and was home for the holiday. It put a damper on any intentions of having a family reunion. We were glued to the television and in disbelief as to what had transpired. Then the shock of watching assassin Lee Harvey Oswald being brought into the jail and seeing him murdered. It was mind-boggling.”
Deacon Avedis Garavanian was attending football practice in Peabody when his equipment manager broke the bad news.
“I was shocked that such a terrible event could take place in the USA,” he noted. “Sadness and disappointment engulfed me—sadness for the loss of a potentially great world leader, disappointment that NFL and NBA games were being played that weekend.”
Deacon Ara Jeknavorian was a freshman and remembers school being dismissed early.
“Word spread like wildfire,” he said. “Everyone was in shock and we didn’t want to leave school. Some of us feared this would be the beginning of a war or invasion of America. It was really beyond our comprehension.”
The assassination day started off normally for Rivier writing coach Violet Dagdigian. She was a college student at Kent State University. After classes that fateful day, she headed for the school newspaper office where she worked as a page editor.
She checked the teletype for any wire stories and out rolled the breaking news bulletin.
“I gasped,” she said, thinking back with sorrow. “I tore the sheet off the machine and slowly made my way back to show the staff. The room was filled with laughter and the loud clacking of typewriters at work.”
The look on Dagdigian’s face brought the room to a standstill. The grapevine worked throughout Kent State and in a matter of minutes, phones were ringing everywhere.
“Tears were rolling down the faces of students as people walked around in a daze,” she recalled. “All the nearby churches were filled with mourners who just needed to be together during a senseless time for all of us. Now, as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of this horrific event, I remember how we all aged that day, much more quickly than any of us ever thought.”
An oral history interview conducted with Charles B. Garabedian on June 19, 1964 revealed an unfamiliar side of JFK—his association with Armenians throughout the Commonwealth.
Seems the president had an affinity with Armenians and once attended a picnic at Camp Ararat in Maynard, attended by 15,000 revelers, during which time he shook practically everyone’s hand. No doubt, he got to see Armenians dancing and took advantage of the food and hospitality offered him.
Garabedian (1917-91) was a Massachusetts political figure—a law professor at Suffolk University, and a close friend to the then-imminent president at Harvard University. During the interview, he discussed his personal relationship with the Kennedys and his participation in JFK’s campaigns.
Garabedian was there with the president that day in Maynard along with Governor Christian A. Herter, and said how JFK had prepared a 6-or-7-page speech. Kennedy was scheduled to be the first speaker on the agenda.
Garabedian also taught Kennedy some Armenian words to speak and took the crowd by storm. He didn’t use one sentence of his canned speech.
According to documents, the people vociferously applauded Kennedy, had pictures taken with him, and embraced the moment.
“I visited him in 1963 at the White House,” Garabedian had recalled. “He told me he never forgot that crowd. Three weeks later, he visited Haverhill. Someone from the crowd went up to him and said how they shook hands together at one of the biggest picnics ever north of Boston.”
The biggest laugh you might ever imagine came from a joke JFK had made. He told the mob scene at Camp Ararat that if his Armenian wasn’t perfect, then “blame it on Charlie Garabedian.”
The documents also show that Edward “Ted” Kennedy, the president’s brother, danced at an Armenian affair during a tour. Senator Ted Kennedy’s drive to help get the Armenian Heritage Park in place at the Rose Kennedy Greenway was most appreciated.
As the years trickled forward and journalism became more of a vocation than avocation with me, two other events also made an imprint upon my life: the Challenger explosion with Christa McAuliffe aboard and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
They are moments in our nation’s tragic past meant to be remembered but hopefully never repeated. As JFK so aptly told an audience once, “Change is the law of life. Those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”