Where Were You? Documenting Family History and the Kennedy Assassination

Introduction: In this article – to mark the 54th anniversary of the assassination –  Gena Philibert-Ortega writes about recording family memories of the killing of President John F. Kennedy. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

Today marks the 54th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination (22 November 1963). For those who lived through that event, its impact is lasting. I know when I ask audiences “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” they can instantly conjure up that memory.

Photo: President Kennedy in the limousine in Dallas, Texas, on Main Street, minutes before the assassination
Photo: President Kennedy in the limousine in Dallas, Texas, on Main Street, minutes before the assassination. Also in the presidential limousine are Jackie Kennedy, Texas Governor John Connally, and his wife, Nellie, 22 November 1963. Credit: Walt Cisco, Dallas Morning News; Wikimedia Commons.

Those of us who were too young at the time to remember the assassination now – or born in the years after – may learn more by watching a movie, viewing the newly released assassination files, or reading a book. In addition, you may have an older family member who can provide a more personal look at that event.

Do you remember the day Kennedy was killed? Write down that experience and share it with your family. Are you too young to remember? Interview family members about that day and record it for future generations. Why? Family history is more than the pursuit of names, dates, and places – it’s also about examining how history impacted our families.

An article about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Advocate newspaper article 23 November 1963
Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 23 November 1963, page 10

One way to enhance our family history is through social history: how everyday people experienced historical events. Learning more about our family’s connection with historical events also provides much-needed context. My kids had no idea who in our family was alive during the Kennedy assassination – so hearing the story from my mom, their maternal grandmother, gave them that context.

My mom was a high school student when President Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas. My kids had read articles and watched movies about the assassination, but it was more impactful to hear their grandmother talk about her experiences as a teenager. She recalled her teachers crying when they heard the news. She discussed her reaction two days later, watching Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV – and how shocking that was. This gift of living history was an important part of my children understanding that historic event and how their grandmother fit in with that.


Need some ideas about what to write about or what to ask your family? Consider the following questions as you document your family’s remembrances of that day:

  • What were your feelings about JFK prior to the assassination?
  • If you were old enough to vote, did you vote for Kennedy?
  • What did you know, if anything, about his trip to Dallas?
  • Where were you when you heard about the shots fired? (Include the actual city/state and the place, like school or home.)
  • Did you have a television? Did you watch the news?
  • How did you feel when they announced the shooting? Why?
  • Who was with you? How did they react?
  • When and where did you hear that Kennedy had died?
  • Were you watching TV two days later when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald? What was your reaction?
  • Did you watch the funeral procession on TV? What were your feelings about that?
  • Do you remember JFK’s son John saluting his father’s casket?
  • Do you remember the first anniversary of Kennedy’s death?
  • Have you ever been to Kennedy’s gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery?
  • Did you know anyone who played a role in that event? Someone who was at the parade, was a police officer, lived in Dallas, etc.?
  • Have you visited the site where Kennedy was shot? When?

As you answer or ask these questions, add your own thoughts or remembrances unique to your own experience. Your story of that day can include photos, maps and newspaper stories.

An article about the burial of President John F. Kennedy, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 24 November 1963
Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 24 November 1963, page 1

Where Were You?

Now it’s your turn. One of the most impactful history stories I ever heard was my mom recalling her memory of the Kennedy assassination to her grandchildren. It brought that time period to life in a way that no book can. Write down your story. Or go interview someone about their experience. Thanksgiving is a good time to interview family members and ask those who were alive during the Kennedy assassination where they were when he was fatally shot. Remember, family history includes the history of the world around our ancestors and immediate family.

Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history from the more recent past. Do you have any memories of the assassination of President Kennedy? Please share your stories with us in the comments section.

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3 thoughts on “Where Were You? Documenting Family History and the Kennedy Assassination

  1. I was in Mr. Mitchell’s art class, 6th hr, at Kalamazoo Central high. Sr. Year. Our principle, Mr. Thomas, came over the P.A. And said the president had been shot, in Dallas. At the time, most of us thought he’d be OK. 30 min later (in the last class of the day) in Miss Reads English class, Mr. Thomas again came on the P. A. As his voice broke, he announced that Pres. Kennedy had been shot and killed by an unknown (at that time) assailant. 2 girls ran out of the room crying, and the rest of us just sat there in total silence. Even Miss Read was silent. I don’t remember how long before anyone said a word. When school was dismissed at 3:15 there wasn’t the usual chaotic noise in the halls. There was one kid with a locker near mine, who was laughing about it, but a couple of boys took care of him! For The next 4 days, I, like most other people I knew were GLUED to our black and white TV sets. There are pictures in my brain that I will NEVER forget!!

  2. I was at Sears Roebuck Shoe Department Store in Champaign, Illinois with my 3 young children. Sales clerk and I heard on radio in back room announcing that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. I immediately left the store with my 3 children and went home. Woke my husband up as he worked nights and we both knelt down beside our bed and prayed that he would live. Watched on our TV Channel 3 for days. Purchased every book that was offered and still have them. Yes, we voted for him and was devastated by his death. Always felt it was well planned by some one in US and didn’t believe what news media or Warren Commission reported. Not much different then as it is today.

  3. I was a Physical Therapist in a children’s hospital in New Jersey. I was on the mat table treating a patient, when the Speech Therapist came into the room and told us that the president had been shot. We laughed, at first, because we thought she was making a joke. The memory is still crystal clear, even after all these years. I have the same kind of memory of when the planes flew into the skyscraper in New York. I saw the second plane hit the building in real time.

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