Where were you when Kennedy was shot?

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Her footsteps — usually subdued — pounded the second floor corridor with an overwhelming sense of urgency. Peeking from my classroom, I could see Sister Louise rush from teacher to teacher, uttering not-so-muffled sounds.

By the time she reached my doorway, 55 sixth-graders sat erect at their desks with hands folded Catholic school-style — their eyes focused on my superior.

An ominous atmosphere rolled into the room like a dark storm cloud, as Sister Louise — in her navy blue habit and floppy cornette wings — stood there. Her body trembled.

“The president’s been shot!” she said. “The president’s been shot!”

With a look of disbelief I asked, “Is he going to all right?”

“I don’t know. He’s in a Dallas hospital. Pray. Have your students pray.”

Just as quickly, the nun disappeared.

So many questions resounded in my brain like a blender blasting away. I felt frustrated, since we had no access to a radio or television, and personal phone calls were not allowed.

Back at the convent, our superior gathered us together and shared the shocking news: President Kennedy was dead.

We entered a state of mourning for our first Catholic president — the charismatic leader who was so young. President Kennedy and his family had been generous to our religious order, supporting our social works and helping the disadvantaged. He seemed irreplaceable. We were even allowed to go to the polls and vote for him.

The decision to shut down the school came quickly.

Sister Louise announced that the ban on watching television was being lifted temporarily. We could watch the week’s events up to, and including, our president’s funeral.

And so, I tearfully joined the other sisters whose eyes stayed glued to the TV set. An anonymous assortment of sisters in headdresses like sailboats, we sat there, hiding our grief on our concealed faces.

We watched the president lie in state in the Capitol rotunda, as officials and thousands of ordinary citizens filed past his casket. Military personnel stood guard over their commander in chief, joining the others in a silent and poignant farewell.
On the day of the funeral we watched the flag-draped coffin roll along on the caisson with a riderless horse behind. We watched young Caroline stand beside her grieving mother, while little John John saluted his father’s casket.

The whole experience of those days made me feel as if a family member had died.

A few years later, when I was teaching fifth-graders in Maryland, I took the class on a field trip to the National Arlington Cemetery in Virginia.

As we stood at President Kennedy’s grave and focused on the “Eternal Flame,” his life and tragic death flashed before me.
I thanked him for what he did to improve the lives of Americans and for inspiring all of us to do more and be more.
“I won’t forget you, Mister President,” I whispered, as I turned and walked away.

Pat Beasley has been a resident of Magdalena since 1989. She was serving as a nun at St. Ambrose convent, teaching at St. Ambrose School in Endicott, N.Y., at the time of Kennedy’s death. Beasley was a nun with the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul for 22 years.