Stories from My Life, #9: The memory is old and faint—am I only imagining that I once stood in the audience of President John F. Kennedy?

January 19, 2017 1:10 am Published by 3 Comments

Kennedy Diary_18Jan17

Copy from President John F. Kennedy’s diary: Tuesday, August 27, 1963


I remember the setting, the White House lawn. I stood only feet from the 35th President of the United States—and he spoke to me. It was in the morning.

Have you ever stumbled across a memory so old that you begin to question whether it actually happened?

The year was 1963, and I had just graduated from high school in Somerset, Pennsylvania. I would be starting college that fall at Pennsylvania State University—a big deal for my family because I would be the first to go to college.

But during that intervening summer, thanks to my father, I had the first of a four-year summer job stint working for the federal government. I had been accepted as a Student Trainee for the Weather Bureau, as the National Weather Service was called back then. This opportunity meshed perfectly with my planned major at Penn State: meteorology.

I remember riding a bus to Washington, DC, my first assignment, the Weather Bureau’s original main office at 24th and M Street. All I had going for me was an address where a relative said that I could rent a room. For a week or so, I walked the couple miles to work, the stifling city heat leaving me soaked with perspiration at the end of each day. To my surprise, it wasn’t long before my handlers realized that they had nothing for me to do. Off they sent me to the Sterling Observational Test and Development Center, adjacent to Dulles Airport, which President Kennedy had dedicated only the previous November. For the remainder of that summer, I left my distinctive mark on the city—I painted every weather shelter within driving distance.

Enough background. Sometime during that summer, I remember being invited, along with other students, to the White House to be addressed by President Kennedy. I recall standing not far from him. Trouble was, I hadn’t revisited this memory in decades and was worried that my imagination had gotten the better of me. I had no proof to document this significant event: no diary notation or pictures. One person who I think was there with me that summer was my roommate, Doug Downen. Sadly, he passed away recently.

Determined to prove that I had not lost my mind, I took to the Internet. Some three hours later I struck pay dirt, the personal diaries of President Kennedy. My cherished reminiscence occurred on the 27th of August, and you see above a copy of the first page for that day. It says that between 10:00 and 10:12 that morning, “The President went to the South Grounds and greeted The White House Seminar Group – students who are working in the various governmental departments during the summer months.”

At Penn State less than three months later, I found myself walking to a swimming class when I heard a radio blaring from a window. I soon learned that our President had been shot. Shortly thereafter, while we were in the water, our instructor told us to go home. President Kennedy had died. I can still remember the absolute silence that consumed the venue.

Upcoming: Stories from my life, #10: A thank-you note on my wife’s birthday

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This post was written by paulmarktag


  • Lee Fieldson says:

    Paul, interesting story. Looking forward to seeing you in February.

  • Kay Olson says:

    You never mentioned this when we were in college together from 1965-67! Maybe you would have considered it bragging. Maybe you knew I was still living in my parents’ Republican world. I’m glad you were able to track down this amazing memory.

  • Linda Toyota says:

    I still remember that day! I was in 5th grade at the time and our teacher gathered us together on the playground and told us our president had just been shot and we were all to go home. I remember seeing the lady teachers standing in a group crying and my only thought at the time I walked home was that our country’s president wasn’t there to protect us…the mind of an 10 year old 🙂