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Area teachers strive to convey shock, impact of assassination

Thursday, November 21, 2013

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

On Nov. 22, 1963, 7-year-old Don Bredamus of Irvington, N.J., missed school because he was sick. He was watching TV when his mom came home from work at lunch.

Bredamus, now a U.S. history teacher at Magna Vista High School, said he told her about the fatal shooting of the president.

“My mom was (usually) pretty tough. She started crying,” Bredamus recalled. “I had no idea of the significance.”

But her reaction helped him understand, he said.

Bredamus plans to tell his personal story to his students as part of a lesson on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago.

Willie Martin, an Advanced Placement U.S. history teacher at Bassett High School, also plans to share his memories of the event, and Heather Tolbut, a U.S. history teacher at Martinsville High School, who was not alive 50 years ago, plans to tell her grandmother’s story.

Martin said he was in the first grade in Mrs. English’s class at Axton Elementary. “I was going to the dentist. Mom came in and said President Kennedy has just been assassinated.”

After he got home, Martin said, “I was glued to the television.”

“I was enthralled,” he said. “I had never seen something so outlandish. I was totally devastated even though I was a child.”

Tolbut said her grandmother Pauline Jones was painting her kitchen cabinets when she heard a newscast about the shooting of Kennedy. She went to schools to get her children.

Bredamus said he will teach about the Kennedy assassination in the context of the loss of America’s innocence.

He referred to Jon Margolis’ book “The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964: The Beginning of the Sixties.” says of that book: “The year 1964 marked a change in American history: John Kennedy was dead, and in the aftermath of his assassination, the country was trying to figure out what to do with itself. The Warren Commission was busily sifting evidence, Jackie Kennedy was fast on her way to becoming an icon of dignified widowhood, and Lyndon Johnson was tearing down Camelot to build the Great Society. Young men started burning draft cards, rioting blacks burned whole neighborhoods, women began to wonder if the male sex was their oppressor, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (which escalated the war in Vietnam), and three civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi.”

“I see the assassination as being the tipping point,” Bredamus said. “The fact that a president could be killed, with his optimism and youthfulness. Nothing was stable ....”

It was a transition from the optimism of the 1950s to a period of pessimism, from innocence to skepticism and questioning of authority, to the Vietnam era, Bredamus said.

His students will learn about the facts of the assassination, interview older relatives about their recollections and present their findings to the class. Bredamus also will display newspapers from the time.

Whether gunman Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of Kennedy or whether there was a conspiracy could come up in the discussion. Students “love” the conspiracy theories, Bredamus said, but he added, “I’d go with the Warren Commission” conclusion that Oswald acted alone.

Martin had not yet completed his plans for teaching about the JFK assassination when he was interviewed last week.

“I know when he died he was revered as one of the greatest presidents,” Martin said.

But the Bay of Pigs “debacle”; Kennedy’s drawing “the line in the sand” with the Cuban missile crisis, at the brink of nuclear holocaust; and Kennedy’s possible extra-marital affairs “tend to make me think that he wasn’t as great as we made him out to be in 1963,” Martin said.

On the other hand, “I think he set (Vice President Lyndon) Johnson on his way to become the civil rights president,” Martin said. “He (Kennedy) died before that came to fruition.”

Kennedy charted the United States on a course to the moon, Martin said. The moon landing occurred in 1969.

“He headed us toward a better America, a more civilly conscious America,” Martin said. “Maybe he could have been a much better president than he was” had he continued.

Martin also mentioned that as a Catholic, Kennedy “opened the door for the non-Protestant world.”

Both Tolbut and Bredamus compared the impact of the Kennedy assassination to that of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Tolbut said she will teach the facts of the assassination, and there could be a discussion of the various conspiracy theories, which students liken to “a murder mystery.”

Denise Morrison, chair of the social studies department at Martinsville High School, said that students in her AP government and politics class already have had U.S. history, and they discuss various aspects of presidents and their presidencies throughout the course, not just on one day.

Morrison said Kennedy was the first president to really understand the power of television and avail himself of it.

She said her students usually rank Kennedy as the fourth or fifth greatest American president, behind Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Kennedy’s vision, his handling of the Cuban missile crisis and his ability to inspire people typically are mentioned by students as among Kennedy’s strong points, she said.

For instance, she said, “They think it’s amazing people would give up two years of their lives” and go live and work in a foreign country as members of the Peace Corps, Morrison said. The Peace Corps began under Kennedy.

Morrison said one of the long-lasting impacts of the Kennedy assassination was beefed-up presidential security.

Morrison said, in her view, Kennedy’s legacy includes learning from mistakes in the Bay of Pigs invasion (she said Kennedy didn’t ask enough questions before the invasion); his restraint in the Cuban missile crisis, avoiding nuclear war; and space exploration with its resulting technological benefits to American society.

But she wonders how some initiatives under Kennedy would have turned out had he continued as president. For example, she said she doesn’t know if major civil rights legislation passed after the Kennedy assassination under President Lyndon Johnson would have passed under Kennedy’s administration, or how the Vietnam War would have turned out under Kennedy.


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