40 years: An important marker for a critical event

People remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news that President John F. Kennedy was dead. Educators, politicians and even young people who came of age long after the 1960s say JFK's assassination may be as meaningful now as on that tragic Dallas afternoon 40 years ago today.

University of Washington history professor William Rorabaugh says it is the perfect time to appreciate the stories and reflections of people who lived through it.

"It's the point at which the society starts to lose touch with past events," Rorabaugh said of the 40-year mark. "Ten years from now, this will clearly be history."

Kennedy's presidency and assassination have fascinated Americans for myriad reasons. Small children lived in the White House. John and Jacqueline Kennedy seemed to have a fairy-tale marriage. The entire Kennedy clan was called America's royalty. But most important, the president of the United States was killed.

"One way to explain it to young people is: For a generation of Americans, the Kennedy assassination had the same kind of impact on them that 9/11 had for you," Rorabaugh said.

He noted that plans for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., started to take shape about 40 years after President Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. Not long after that, in 1909, the Lincoln penny was first minted to mark what would have been the president's 100th birthday.

Campaigns for memorials honoring Holocaust survivors and D-Day veterans gained momentum about 40 years after World War II.

In many cases, the Kennedy legacy is not passed down in classrooms, but by parents who admired the nation's 35th president. In fact, many schools had no plans to address the assassination in civics classes this week.

Several social-studies teachers in the Seattle area said the anniversary comes at a time when they are covering events earlier in American history. Lessons on the 1960s come near the end of the school year, if there is still time.

Karen Hart, a seventh-grade social-studies teacher at Tops K-8 school in Seattle's Eastlake neighborhood, said 2003 has been a year packed with anniversaries, from the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech on Aug. 28, 1963, to the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' historic airplane flight on Dec. 17, 1903.

A military daughter who was living with her parents in Japan when Kennedy was assassinated, Hart agrees it was a turning point in U.S. history. But "so many things have happened, and you have to decide which ones are relevant at the time," she said of the classroom experience.

The Kennedy legacy lives on among many young adults, some of whom feel a tinge of regret when they think of him, said Tara Lee, an administrator at the UW Women's Center.

Lee, 33, majored in American history at Western Washington University and later worked on local Democratic political campaigns in Los Angeles and Seattle.

She says there is a lack of nationally prominent leaders who inspire the optimism often said to be part of Kennedy's appeal.

"I have the most profound sense of what could have been," Lee said. "That sense of promise, idealism and hope that was present during the Kennedy era has never existed for my generation, or subsequent generations. For those of us born after the assassination, what followed — Vietnam War, Watergate, Cold War, Reaganomics, Clinton scandals, etc. — made 'younger people' deeply cynical and disassociated from the political process."

Still, many people say the assassination prompted them to enter public service, to live out the principles Kennedy espoused.

"The assassination gave me a foundation of inspiration and empowerment," said Don Barbieri, a corporate executive and Spokane Democrat who's running for Congress in the state's 5th District.

Barbieri, who was in high school in 1963, went on to start a mentoring program for Hispanic teens in the Bay Area, and worked on Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's fateful presidential campaign in 1968; the senator was fatally shot in June of that year.

He attributed his current political ambitions to the lessons about public service that he learned from both Kennedy brothers.

The significance of President Kennedy's assassination also isn't lost on Kirstin Brost, 26, the communications director for the Washington State Democratic Party, which is based in Seattle.

"While it was a devastating moment in American history, there is also something sacred about his presidency because of it," Brost said. "It was a call to service that's still being heard."

Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or tbeason@seattletimes.com