NOVEMBER 22, 1963

I had been an ordained Presbyterian minister exactly five months and was serving my first congregation, the Presbyterian Church in Dyer, Indiana, a small town in the Calumet region of Northwestern Indiana, 30 miles from downtown Chicago. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing that morning. I was at my desk in my office – actually it was the small living room of a three room apartment the church had rented behind Kathleen Eberly’s Beauty Shoppe on Rt. 30, Dyer’s Main Street. I had an office there and we used the other two rooms for badly needed classrooms for our growing congregation. Kathleen, as she often did, had just knocked on the door and brought me a cup of coffee and a pastry which she always had on hand for her customers.

The phone rang. It was Sue, home with our two little daughters, Diane – 4 and Susan -2. “Please come home right away. President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas.” And so began several days of sitting in front of our small black and white television, day and night, as the week of the assassination, the arrest and then shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald – which we also saw – live- on television, and the beautifully somber funeral cortege, the riderless horse, the Navy Band playing the Naval Hymn, Eternal Father, Strong to Save.

I had come to admire JFK. I had actually voted for his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, mostly out of family tradition. But it didn’t take long for Kennedy to change my mind and my thinking. He was young, energetic, athletic, eloquent, an authentic war hero with a beautiful wife and two dear little children about the ages of our daughters. When he said, in his inaugural address “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country” it resonated deeply in my soul. Then came the New Frontier, the Peace Corps, a new commitment to racial justice and education and space exploration. He said America would put a man on the moon. Kennedy touched the altruism and hopefulness that is a part of all of us and spoke to my generation’s need to believe in the future and to believe that America could do great things again.

His assassination that day 50 years ago was devastating, my first experience of real loss. To this day I can feel the shock and grief which remans sharp and vivd for me. We sat watching for hours, the solemn cortege, Mrs. Kennedy in her black veil, holding her small children’s hands, two year old John Jr. bravely saluting as his father’s casket passed by. The strains of Eternal Father, Strong to Save, still, to this day, call up that time and my grief, fifty years later.

I wasn’t sure what the church ought to do but it seemed to me that we ought to do something. So we planned a Memorial Service and posted a few signs around town. The local High School Principal heard about it and announced that students were free to leave school in order to attend the service. They did and filled our little church, standing in the aisles and on the front porch. I learned that day what it means to be a Public Church serving its community in time of need.

We sang the Navy Hymn. I read a few Psalms, said a few words about hope and read a Robert Frost poem. It is still my favorite.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth….

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

It was a profoundly important time in my life and in the life of the nation.


  1. Yes – unforgettable day for all of us who were there. And it sounds like an important day in the life of your first church community. Thanks for sharing this!
    I’m sure you know Randall Thompson’s “Frostiana” song cycle, which includes “The Road Not Taken.”

  2. Larry McCracken says:

    John — Thanks. As I watch the elementary kids play on the playground below us, I try to fathom how, say 10 year-olds, can possibly appreciate what this means to us over our mid-50s. I was born in 1943. So I was 10 in 1953. 50 years prior to that was 1903, which marked the Wright brother’s first flight. Events that happened 50 years ago — then and now — are hard to comprehend.

  3. Thank you for your words …it sums up what many of us felt. How fitting to use the Frost poem! A favorite. Perfect.

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