Harvard reacts to JFK’s slaying

Editor’s note: In the fall of 1963, Terrence Dwyer, a 1963 graduate of Humboldt High School who is today the editorial page coordinator at The Messenger, was a freshman at Harvard University. On Nov. 23, 1963, he wrote a letter to his mother, Maxine Dwyer, describing the reaction on the Harvard campus to the assassination of the president. Maxine Dwyer, then the principal at Lincoln Elementary School in Fort Dodge, shared the letter with Walter Stevens, then the editor of The Messenger. Stevens published the following excerpts from Terry Dwyer’s letter a few days later. It begins with his description of a gathering of several classmates in his room in Thayer Hall in Harvard Yard to listen to the radio news coverage of the shooting in Dallas.

“The reaction to the president’s death was very moving here at Harvard. … A silence of disbelief fell over the room. We all sat and waited for someone to say that it was not true.

“Shortly after the shocking announcement the giant bell in the tower of Memorial Church began to toll sadly. In the Yard students came out of classrooms and stood staring at the bell in bewilderment. Students gathered in little groups in the Yard and those who had heard the tragic news greeted their fellows with the simple phrase, ‘He is dead. The president is dead.’ Students and professors stood about the Yard in silence. Many walked slowly back to their rooms, eyes swollen with tears. On the ground a man was lying face down – quietly sobbing into the grass. Slowly the giant American flag on University Hall was lowered to half staff.

“The whole nation was shocked by the death of President Kennedy, but Harvard was hit especially hard. Few Harvard students have ever experienced a national catastrophe as severe as the murder of a president. Most have no remembrance of World War II, and in their lifetimes no president has been assassinated and only one, President Roosevelt, has died. Most, however, were infants at the time of Franklin Roosevelt’s death or had not yet been born.

“The Harvard Crimson hit the streets with an extra late in the afternoon. Students and proctors gathered at the Union to view the coverage of the terrible event on television. The small TV room of the Harvard Union was crowded as the cameras focused on the presidential plane as it landed in Washington. Looking about the room, one could see tears streaming down the faces of many Harvard men as the bronze casket bearing the body of the late president was lowered to the ground. From the back of the room came the muffled sound of choked-back sobs.

“Harvard and Cambridge were even more shocked and grieved by the murder of the president than were many other areas of the country. Kennedy was unbelievably popular here. Harvard is part of the congressional district from which young John Kennedy was elected to the House of Representatives many years ago. Students and professors at Harvard had seen a young and gay John Kennedy root for Harvard in a closely fought football game in Cambridge just a few short weeks ago. To Harvard men, who had so recently seen the vibrant young president here in Cambridge, it seemed inconceivable that he could be dead.

“Harvard has closed down for a period of mourning. Friday night as I walked to dinner the sun had just set and the last orange streaks of sunlight gave a strange aura to the Yard. The very sky seemed to be filled with blood and across the Yard the lights of the university went out. Harvard will reopen on Tuesday (Nov. 26) but for the time being the Yard is quiet and the great libraries are dark. … “