Simpson remembers JFK assassination

KENNEDY DISPLAY: Dunn Library is featuring a display of original Des Moines Register and Tribune newspapers from both Nov. 23 and Nov. 25th, 1963, as well as Life magazine from Dec. 6. These items are a gift from Harry L. Browne, who attended Simpson from 1904 to 1906. The display will remain available through Dec. 13.


As they did most weekdays, 4-year-old Brian Steffen and his younger brother settled in front of the TV after lunch to watch “The Floppy Show” in their family’s Des Moines home.

It was Nov 22, 1963.

“At some point, the WHO-TV broadcast broke in with the bulletin,” he remembers. “Being only four, I didn’t understand what was happening, but I do remember my mother’s shock and horror as the afternoon unfolded and in the days afterward.

“When my father came home early from work and was emotional, too, I knew something horrible had happened. That day has stuck with me ever since – the first historical memory I have.”

It has become a cliché to suggest that everyone above a certain age remembers what they were doing when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas, but it’s nonetheless true.

The Simpson College community remembers as well.

Henry Christowski, head softball coach, was teaching a class. Ron Warnet, professor emeritus, was a junior in college. Cole Zimmerman, director of recruitment was in his seventh-grade math class, and he remembers how his teacher shook as he informed the students.

“Boys and girls, a horrible thing has happened,” the teacher said. “President Kennedy has been shot and killed. We are now going to pack up our books and I want all of you to go straight home, help take care of your brothers and sisters, and watch TV.”

Fifty years later, Steffen is a professor of communication and media studies at Simpson. For the past several years, he has led groups of students to Dallas to study various aspects of the Kennedy assassination as part of a May Term course.

“A student in the class told me that she thought the assassination would make for a fascinating course that Simpson students would be interested in, “ he said. “Knowing that the Kennedy assassination was about as current to today’s students as the Civil War, I had my doubts. But when I scheduled the course, and it filled instantly I knew we had a winner.”

Among other activities, the class visits the Sixth Floor Museum and retraces Lee Harvey Oswald’s steps in Oak Cliff. They visit the Texas Theatre where Oswald was arrested and have met everyone from Detective Jim Leavelle (the man wearing the Stetson in the famous photograph that captures the moment Oswald was shot) to Marie Tippet, the widow of slain Dallas police officer J.D. Tippet.

“The class fits in well with our Critical Thinking perspective at Simpson,” Steffen said. “We talk about the importance of facts in making decisions and how many, many, many errors the journalists made on the afternoon of Nov. 22 and afterward, and how those errors have led to doubts about the ‘official’ story that remains to this day.”

For Simpson faculty, administrators and staff members who are old enough to remember that tragic day 50 years ago, the memories remain fresh and potent. Consider:

I was in high school. My father was in the Air Force and was stationed in Germany.

We had no television at the time, but I did have my trusty crystal radio. It was early evening in Germany and I was in my bedroom listening to music on Armed Forces Radio. The disc jockey interrupted the broadcast to announce that there had been an attempt on the president’s life. My parents were not listening to the radio, so I ran to the living room to share what I had heard. Shortly after, we all heard of Kennedy’s death.

An interesting, connected event occurred the next day. Since Kennedy had given his famous speech at the Berlin Wall, the German people adored him. On a bus leaving our base, an American GI made a derogatory comment about Kennedy and said something like “good, they got him.” Many of the Germans on the bus, most of the passengers, attacked the GI and then physically threw him off the bus.

–Jack Gittinger

Professor of Education

I was a junior in college when JFK was assassinated. It was a tremendous shock. The event provoked a lot of discussion and anxiety about what would happen on campus. That event and the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile crisis all contributed to a worrisome time for the country and for those of us who were eligible for the draft. These topics dominated our dinnertime conversations, discussions in class and in the dorms.

–Ron Warnet

Professor Emeritus

I was in fifth grade in Hall Elementary School, a four-room school house north of North Platte, Neb. The fifth- and sixth-graders shared a space which was partitioned off from another “room” housing the seventh- and eighth-graders.  One of the teachers opened the partition and then turned on a TV.  I don’t remember if they announced that Kennedy was dead or just that he was shot, and I remember footage of Jackie Kennedy looking grief-stricken.  As the TV played, one of the seventh-grade boys laughed and clapped.  For as long as I shared school with him, at Hall and later in North Platte High, I wanted to hit him!
They then turned us loose and we milled around the playground.  I remember kids standing by the swing set, but no one using it.
FYI, eventually the “laugher” sent me a Facebook request; I decided to “friend” him.  Life’s too short to hate someone forever.  I wonder if he remembers his display.

–Steve Rose

Professor of Education 


My second grade teacher went out into the hall to talk with the school principal, who made his rounds to speak individually with each teacher. We could tell the adults around us were very upset. When I got home, my great-grandmother, who had come to spend Thanksgiving with us, was glued to the radio in her room. Her demeanor, and that of all the adults, told me that something really significant had happened. I responded more to the reaction of the adults around me than to the event itself.

–Jan Everhart

Associate Professor of Religion

I was ten years old and home from school with a cold. I was watching television when the first news bulletins came on the television. I ran to my mom, who was in the kitchen and told her to come to the television because something had happened to the president in Dallas. It wasn’t clear at first, what had happened.

I remember watching non-stop television for the next three days and the atmosphere around the house was very somber.

With the killing of JFK, Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, all happening within the formative years of my life, I still have a very difficult time watching live speeches by public figures on television.

–Steve Griffith

Senior Vice President and Academic Dean

Where was I when I found out? I was wearing a Hawkeye sweatshirt and jeans, sitting in the fourth of six rows, 5 seats back, facing east in my seventh grade math class on the second floor of the Junior High School.

Everything was exactly as it should be. Our teacher, Mr. Tom Walljasper, was barking out commands to hand in homework assignments, get your notebooks out, be quiet, just as if he were coaching one of the athletic teams he coached throughout the school year. If you were out for a varsity sport chances are you had lantern-jawed, flat top-wearing, tough-as-a-goat Coach Walljasper in your ear regularly.

Then there was a knock at the door and our principal asked to see Mr. Walljasper in the hall. I don’t recall him being out there very long but I’ll always remember that it seemed as if when the door reopened it was in slow motion. Mr. Walljasper walked back in and up to the blackboard, picked up then replaced his pointer in the chalk tray, went over and sat at his desk, then immediately stood back up and stared at a room full of silent 12 year old kids staring back at him.

”Boys and girls a horrible thing has happened,” he said. “President Kennedy has been shot and killed We are now going to pack up our books and I want all of you to go straight home, help take care of your brothers and sisters, and watch T.V.”

And as he made that terrible statement he began to shake. which probably had more of an effect on all of us than what he had actually said. As we silently filed out I will always remember seeing Mr. Walljasper sitting at his desk staring down at his hands, but over the years I’ve come to believe he was saying a prayer.

–Cole Zimmerman

Director of Recruitment

I was in the seventh grade at Southern Junior High School in Owensboro, Kentucky, walking to Mr. Farmer’s science class along something called the “breezeway” (a covered walkway connecting the two wings of a U-shaped building) when someone shouted out that Kennedy had been shot.  When I got to class the radio was playing over the intercom and shortly after we arrived there was the bulletin that Kennedy had died.  I remember a girl sitting in the back row to my right (I can remember exactly where I was sitting—second row from the windows In the third seat from the front) starting to softly cry.  Mr. Farmer was a tough (one might even say mean—he had a paddle and took what I thought was particular delight in using it; ahh, those were the days!) SOB and he seemed ashen, even stricken to me.  I think they dismissed school early although I can’t be sure.  I would have walked home as I lived only a high mile or so from school.

I can remember a lot from that long weekend which is telling I think because my family was not particularly a fan of Kennedy (truth be told my father hated him, too Catholic and too liberal, and my mother was too good of a cloth coat Republican to like him much although she did like Jackie)—coming out of church, getting in the car and hearing on the radio that Oswald had been shot and the funeral of course—the beat of the drums is still with me and if I hear “Hail to the Chief” that is what I almost always think of especially because they repeatedly played the whole thing and not just a verse or two.

–John Epperson

Professor of Political Science

I was teaching a class when a young man was sent to my classroom with some paperwork from the office and he asked me if I knew the President had been shot. The young man was not exactly the type you could rely on totally as he had a tendency to exaggerate on occasion. He was in the office because he had been sent from a class. (I found this out later).

I accepted the paperwork and his message (with a grain of salt) and continued on with the class. I had a number of radios in my classroom, as I taught a class in Electronics, where we did some repair work on radios and small electrical appliances.

One of the boys in the class, who had overheard what had been said, suggested we turn on one of the radios and see what had happened. Since the period was about over, I agreed, and he turned on a particular radio that he knew worked. The radio broadcast confirmed that the President had been shot in Dallas. There was little more than a “lot of speculation” at that time about exactly what had happened, but I can assure you that the radio “stayed on.”

It was difficult to believe that this was really happening and the question of “why?” kept being repeated by my students….a question I really couldn’t answer. Even now with all the speculations, I don’t believe I or anyone else can truly answer that question.

The assassination of Bobby Kennedy, in my mind, only strengthened my feeling that those responsible for the assassination of President John Kennedy were never found or brought to justice.

I have walked Dealey Plaza years after the shooting, and did not gain any comfort or understanding of how this could have happened.

–Henry Christowski

Head Softball Coach


I was a Simpson student when Kennedy was killed and was shaving in the third floor bathroom of the SAE house when I heard the news. It was a horrific moment of my life as I was a strong supporter of Kennedy and the hope he generated in so many of my generation.

–Fred Jones

Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice


I was in the eighth grade at Prairie City, Iowa. We were in the gym for some type of program and we were called back to our classrooms and then school was dismissed and we were sent home.

On that day I particularly remember my father’s reaction – how could someone so inconsequential as Oswald do something with such a grave impact.

Kennedy was elected when I was in the fifth grade. I recall that I was one of the few in my class that supported Kennedy – at least as much as any fifth-grader could. His Catholic religion was a significant issue, especially in a small farming town like Prairie City where in my class of approximately 40 we had one Catholic student.

–Ken Birkenholtz

Vice President or Business & Finance

I was in elementary school when President Kennedy was assassinated. The principal came to our classroom to make the announcement. She said school would be dismissed early. We were asked to put our work away and sit quietly until the bell rang. The teachers were clearly upset, so we didn’t make any noise. I didn’t really understand the enormity of what had happened, but I knew being sent home from school early indicated it was important. My parents talked to me and my siblings about what had happened. My family watched the funeral on television, wearing our Sunday best. This was the first time I had ever seen my dad (a WWII veteran) cry.

–Rita Birkenholtz

Manager of Development Services


I was playing in the neighbors’ sandbox. I am not sure that this was exactly the first time that I heard about it because I was seven years old, but we were talking about the burial process. We were speculating on how people were buried and we were all giving our uneducated perceptions of the process.

–David Richmond

Professor of Art

I was in first grade. The PE teacher came into the gym and told us. None of us really knew who the President was, or what a President was, for that matter, and when one boy spontaneously cheered, the rest of us did, too. The PE teacher quickly explained why that was such an inappropriate reaction, and I remember feeling terrible about it. Back in class, our teacher asked us if we knew who would be the next president, and I excitedly shouted the only name I could think of: “Rockefeller?” What I most remember was the news coverage. I was mesmerized, and developed such a fear of news bulletins that I would leave the room (and sometimes the house) when one appeared on television. I also distinctly remember coming home from church that Sunday, turning on the television, and watching Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. My mother made me turn off the television, which only made it scarier (she eventually relented). I also remember watching President Kennedy’s funeral at my grandmother’s house on Monday afternoon. Everyone was very quiet, for a very long time, as if we were in church. It was as if we were actually attending the event, and I suppose in some ways we were.

–Ken Fuson

Writer, Office of Marketing and Public Relations

I was in elementary school in California. The teachers were crying at afternoon recess — one of them mentioned something about the President. When I got home, the television was on. It was never on during the day. I sat and watched in disbelief with my five siblings and mom. This was especially hard since my dad was in the Marine Corps and we were living on base. What did this mean for our country and our family?

Cyd Dyer

College Librarian/Archivist


I was with a friend in Iowa City waiting to go to my 1:00 Shakespeare class. We watched a bit of television and I went off to class. When I entered the lecture hall the only person there was the professor standing at the podium with his head down, crying. I backed out and went home. Spent the next three days in front of the TV trying to understand. Years later I was in Dallas riding from one place to another. The driver told me to look out my window, I was looking at the Texas Book Depository window and realized I was where Kennedy had been. It all rushed back.

–Jerry Kelley

Executive Assistant to the President

I was safety patrol “captain” for Longfellow Elementary School in Iowa City, and was on duty when I heard. Some kids and an adult had come up behind me, and duty-bound to protect their lives when I saw a car a mile away, I had my arms stuck out so I looked like a Tee-shape. The group was talking excitedly and asked me if I had heard, then told me that President Kennedy was shot. I remember the feeling of shock. And then I vividly remember seeing my mom crying when I got home.

–Becky Beaman

Faculty Services Secretary