Remembering John F. Kennedy: Retired Teacher Compiled Recollections From Students, Others

by Debra Lawless

Where were you when you learned that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, 60 years ago this Nov. 22?

Those over the age of 65 or so will probably be able to answer the famous question with some precision.

Ethel de Bakker, 82, of Harwich knows exactly where she was. She was a rookie teacher, age 22, at Bowie Memorial School at Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee. She was seated in her classroom when the principal phoned over to the annex where de Bakker’s fourth grade met, informing the teachers that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. That was probably a little after 1:40 p.m. when the first reports were broadcast by Walter Cronkite on CBS. After 2:38 p.m., when Cronkite told the nation that the president was dead, the principal phoned again with the grim update.

“All the teachers were crying,” de Bakker recalls. “Everyone at the time loved Kennedy.” Someone asked the principal if the teachers should inform the children, and she said yes.

Addressing de Bakker by her birth name, the students said, “Oh Miss Welch, what? What did you say?” They were shocked.

A year later, in 1964, de Bakker asked her class of fourth graders, ages 9 and 10, to write “a little composition about their own reflections and thoughts about that horrific shooting,” she says. “The writings were so very poignant I had kept them.”

In fact, de Bakker still has them, 59 years later.

“They’re beautiful,” de Bakker says of the children’s short essays, which are written in the script that they had recently mastered. “They are very touching. They had some emotions.”

A fourth grader named Richard wrote that when his teacher said the president had been assassinated “I felt chills running through my body. I could not believe it.” Richard’s classmate Marsha wrote that when she got home from school “I started to cry and cry.” And “now soon it will be a year since he has been dead. We all will miss him very much.”

Many of the other children said they cried, their older sisters cried, their mothers cried. Some spoke of First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s sadness, and the sadness of Kennedy’s two children. And, they asked, why did it happen?

Jonathan wrote, “he was a great man before he died.” Others called Kennedy brave and kind.

In 1988, on the 25th anniversary of the assassination, de Bakker was teaching an eighth grade class at Marlborough Middle School. As a class project, she had those students embark on an extensive study of Kennedy. Then the 13-year-olds, all born over a decade after the assassination, wrote their impressions and also drew sketches. De Bakker didn’t yet know it, but she was on her way to compiling a special book, “President John F. Kennedy ‘Remembered:’ A Children’s Literary and Artistic Tribute to John F. Kennedy,” about the assassination.

De Bakker’s book consists of the original compositions by the fourth graders in 1964 and the compositions and drawings by the eighth graders in 1988. The book includes an illustrated and condensed version of JFK’s life, and responses to a questionnaire that de Bakker sent to staff at her school, with follow-up interviews done by the students. She received 50 responses to the question “what were you doing?” Some of the teachers were children in 1963, while many were in college. De Bakker also wrote two poems about Kennedy in 1988.

The local technical high school printed 150 copies of the book, and in the fall of 1988 de Bakker sent out copies. Of the 20 or so responses in her green binder are three letters on the stationery of the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, including one from the library’s director, Charles U. Daly, now of Chatham. Daly assured de Bakker the book would be placed in the library’s archives.

“You asked what we are going to do at the library on this Nov. 22,” he wrote. “We are having a peaceful day of remembrance without a formal program.”

De Bakker also received signed letters from Ted Koppel, who was then hosting “Nightline” at ABC News, and from an assistant to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at 1040 Fifth Ave., New York. She heard from school superintendents and principals, and the book was even written up in local newspapers.

She plans to reprint the book in a hardcover format to give to her two sons, four grandchildren and friends. “It’s my legacy to my grandchildren,” she says.

When asked what lesson Kennedy’s assassination and reactions to it might offer us today, de Bakker chooses her words carefully as she doesn’t want to offend, but she notes she has been rereading George Orwell’s political allegory “Animal Farm” about the Russian Revolution of 1917.

“There have always been political skirmishes centered on presidential elections, but it causes us who lived in the time of Kennedy’s 1,000 days in office to become quite nostalgic, to say the least,” she says.

De Bakker’s poem “We Remember” ends with these words: “Those in their senior years/ Are a special lot/We share those memories/We carry the torch./He belonged to us./And now ‘we remember’/All over again.”