By Josette Keelor
QUICKSBURG -- On the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, 11th graders at Stonewall Jackson High School learned about the impact the 35th president's death had on this nation.
Quicksburg author Philip Bigler spoke to several history classes throughout the day about who Kennedy was, how he died and the stories that survived him.
Tyler McAvaddy and Hannah Marston, 16 year olds in Joseph Spory's U.S. history class, said they enjoyed learning about a president who has been mysterious to them.
Hannah had heard he had a big influence on the country.
"And I knew that when he died, a lot of people were upset, Democrats and Republicans," she said. "I'm a Republican, but I really like JFK," she said. "I think he was amazing."
Bigler, who's retired from teaching history at James Madison University and in Fairfax County Public Schools, showed slides from a presentation he's been doing since 1977. What started on slides with an 8-mm projector has grown with the times to something more high tech.
His presentation started with conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy's death, such as it being a government cover-up or the result of the mafia, Fidel Castor or the Soviets,
Bigler called it all ridiculous, but said none of that really matters anymore.
"Today John F. Kennedy is as much a myth as George Washington chopping down the cherry tree," he said.
"Nothing matters about the truth anymore. He is forever etched in our memory on Nov. 22, 1963, a handsome and attractive dynamic speaker, 46 years old in the prime of life and dead in an instant," he said. "It's pretty cosmic."
His wife Jackie Kennedy was 34 years old, Bigler said. Their son John Jr. turned 3 the day of the funeral, and their daughter Caroline was 6. That was the day people say America lost its innocence, because everything that followed -- the Vietnam War, the racial riots of 1964, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert "Bobby" Kennedy, or the Watergate Scandals -- could be considered a result of the assassination.
"There's no way to argue something that didn't happen," Bigler said. "We have no idea. It could have been worse."
"This is one of the reasons why Kennedy is such a myth. ... He's always going to be 46 years old."
But myths are OK, he told the students, because the myth in many ways is more powerful than the truth.
"They're what we want to believe about ourselves," he said.
Throughout the presentation, he offered documentaries of Kennedy's assassination, images of the funeral procession through Washington, D.C., and an 8-mm silent film that Abraham Zapruder made of Kennedy's motorcade as it passed through Dealey Plaza in Dallas the day Kennedy died.
As Bigler talked, he passed around laminated copies of newspapers telling the world of Kennedy's death. He told the class that to find out as much of the truth as possible, they should read books, watch documentaries and learn as much as they can.
After class, Tyler said it was "nice to actually see that kind of thing [rather] than just hear about it, like hear our parents say, 'Oh, things were different back then.'"
Seeing people crying at the funeral affected her, she said. "Like they didn't even know him, and they're balling their eyes out."
Hannah said, "It was good to hear that people felt like he was part of their family. He wasn't just the president. He was somebody who people reacted to and felt comfortable with."
"I wish in today's time that we could have another president like him."
Philip Bigler's latest book, "Remembering John F. Kennedy: The New Frontier and the Nation's Capital," is a time capsule book that shows images from Kennedy's presidency. It's available on his website at www.philipbigler.com or at www.amazon.com.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org