Commentary

50 years later, York teacher still answering JFK’s call

November 22, 2013 

— Jane Gilfillan started her third-block history class on Friday with a video about Air Force One.

The plane that in 1963 carried America’s slain president to Washington from Dallas.

Gilfillan, more than three decades a teacher of American history, then told these kids about herself, because she was not always a teacher.

“I was in the first grade at Hickory Grove Elementary School – way out in the country,” Gilfillan said. “It was afternoon, and we were outside at recess. Next to the school in those days there was this little building where you could get an ice cream for 10 cents or 5 cents. It was a Friday. It was November 22, 1963.”

The 24 ninth-graders sat, mesmerized, as she continued.

“A car drove by the school and the person called out that the president had been shot. It was terrible. People were crying.”

Gilfillan then told her students about watching the funeral on a black-and-white television, and how people cried openly because President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

She showed the famous picture of John F. Kennedy Jr., tiny “John-John,” saluting his father’s casket as it rolled by in Washington days later. The picture prompted Victoria Schult to raise her hand.

“My grandmother worked in Washington, D.C., then and walked by the White House every day on her way to work,” Victoria said.

The young President Kennedy and his young daughter and son were famous for carousing outside on the White House lawn.

Alice Kirkman, that grandmother Victoria mentioned, was 22 in 1963.

“It was a free time,” she said. “I saw the family that lived in the White House. Sometimes the kids would be playing with the security guards. Sometimes the president was out there. He was a father with kids. You might see them chasing a ball around.”

That freedom and innocence has been eroded over time, from the use of a gun to kill a president to the use of planes as bombs to kill Americans.

“She always walked past,” Victoria told her classmates Friday of her grandmother. “She saw them herself: She saw the president playing with his kids. And when he got killed, it hurt her because she felt like she knew him.”

Gilfillan showed pictures of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, her coat still peppered with her dead husband’s blood, standing next to Lyndon Baines Johnson as he took the oath of office on Air Force One.

“You taught us the coat was pink,” called out one sharp student.

The class had spent part of each day this week watching footage of the killing, studying the similarities between Kennedy’s assassination and Abraham Lincoln’s.

Gilfillan showed the famous picture of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, the man accused of killing Kennedy, as he was led out of jail by the police.

“Jack Ruby just pulls out a gun and shoots him,” Gilfillan told the class.

She then told them how Ruby was sent to prison for murder.

A girl raised her hand.

“If he shot the man who killed the president, why did he get in trouble?” the girl wanted to know.

“Yeah, why?” came a chorus from so many kids.

Gilfillan told them why: “You can’t have anarchy. You can’t take the law into your own hands.”

She told her students how, when she was in high school all those years ago, she was an officer with the Future Homemakers of America student group that traveled to Dallas for its convention. While there, she stood on the spot where JFK was killed, toured the hospital where doctors could not save him, and saw the building Oswald shot JFK from.

Gilfillan showed the picture of JFK again and told the class how he was a young, handsome president. She never mentioned what political party Kennedy was in, and nobody asked.

It did not matter.

“He was someone who gave his life for his country,” Gilfillan said.

After high school, Gilfillan would become a mother and wife and teacher. She has taken hundreds of high school students from York to Washington every four years to witness presidential inaugurations. On those trips, she makes a point of showing them the Eternal Flame at Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

Around the room there were football players wearing jerseys for Friday night’s playoff game against Northwestern. There were girls with braids and cowboy boots. Black and white and brown students all sat together in a classroom that – unlike schools 50 years ago – was for all children.

Gilfillan told them how the country was different when she was a child, with the Cold War raging and segregation of blacks and whites and more. She showed on a screen the famous line from Kennedy’s inauguration: “And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

“When I tell you to use that line in your life and at school and at home and in your community and your state and your world, that’s where it comes from,” Gilfillan said. “It is your country.”

Then the class returned to its regular curriculum to learn about other calamities of history.

And Gilfillan, 50 years later, went back to answering that question her president had asked her when she was a child.

What she could do for her country is to teach, so kids will know what their country was, is and can be.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •  adys@heraldonline.com

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