–by Donald Kennon
If, like me, you are of a certain age, you will always remember where you were when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. You never forget the overwhelming initial shock and the lingering sadness, but you also remember how this national tragedy brought people of all walks of life together.
The afternoon of Sunday, November 24, a horse-drawn caisson carried the flag-draped casket from the White House to the Capitol where Kennedy’s body would lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Hundreds of thousands lined up in near-freezing temperatures to pay a final respect. Although the rotunda was scheduled to close at 9:00 PM, it remained open all night. For 18 hours, 250,000 people, some of whom waited in line 10 hours, in a line up to 10 abreast that stretched 40 blocks passed through the rotunda in a massive outpouring of national grief and respect.
The United States Capitol Historical Society was just completing its first year of existence in November 1963. Its first major production, the publication of an illustrated historical guidebook to the Capitol, was at the printer, and copies were literally rolling off the press when Kennedy was assassinated. The organization’s leadership realized that an event of this historical significance must be included in the first edition of the guidebook.
Society President Fred Schwengel ordered the presses to stop and the addition of a final two-page spread, “We, the People, Mourn,” that included a photograph of the tribute to Kennedy in the Capitol Rotunda. The text concluded by observing that the President was to have been presented the first bound copy of the book on December 4: “But time makes its changes swiftly, and often shockingly. Now John Fitzgerald Kennedy belongs to history, and his deeds to the Nation’s heritage.”