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A nation solemnly remembers Kennedy

On the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the city of Dallas honored him for the first time with a respectful remembrance.

A crowd of 5,000 invited guests and a media contingent including journalists from as far away as Japan, Italy and France, gathered for a ceremony at Dealey Plaza, a historical site only steps from where America’s 35th president was assassinated.

The ceremony included a moment of silence in Kennedy’s honor at 12:30 p.m. — the time of the assassination — followed by the performance of "America the Beautiful" by the U.S. Naval Academy men's glee club. Distinguished guests and others fondly recalled Kennedy, a Navy veteran, for his commitment to service. 

“He talked of all that needed to be done, of so much that mattered,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David McCullough said to the crowd. “(He spoke of) equal opportunity. Unity of purpose. Education and the life of the mind and spirit. Art, poetry and service to one’s country. And the courage to move forward, into the future, the cause of peace on earth.”

It is that sense of service to community that Kennedy implored to Legionnaires when he addressed the 1960 American Legion National Convention in Miami. “Now, Legionnaires, who were willing in war to fall, faithful to the service of our country, I ask you in the 1960s to live, and live faithful to the service of the cause of freedom and the cause of the United States.”

The American Legion honored Kennedy, a member of Crosscup-Pishon Post 281 in Boston, with its Distinguished Service Medal in 1961.

As part of the commemoration activities, Dallas hosted a day of service on Thursday where civic groups, cities and school districts all performed various service projects to honor Kennedy's legacy.

Kennedy’s message of service resonated with Bill Luten, a Vietnam War Army veteran and a Fort Worth resident who attended Friday’s 45-minute event. He heard the assassination news during a Texas history class when he was 15. “The principal came on the intercom and told us that school was being let out because the president had been assassinated,” he said. “It was a very sad day.

“That speech that he made — ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’ — that meant a whole lot to me. That’s carried through my life. That’s why I spent 22 years in the military. I enjoy my freedom and wanted to give back.”

Nate Emery is among the 8th and I Marines reuniting this weekend near Dallas in what is believed to be their last get-together. This group of 8th and I Marines served during the Kennedy administration.

Emery remembers a surprising encounter with Kennedy at Camp David. He and other Marines were at the movie house, waiting for a film to begin and getting some beer.

“Then in walks Jack Kennedy,” Emery said. “We all stood up, and he said he was out for a walk and wanted to know what was going on. He sat there and watched part of the movie with us and had some beer. That was quite a moment. There’s the president, and he’s watching the same movie I am.

“Why do we think the Kennedys are special? Because they were.”

It’s that connection to the Kennedy family that drew people from throughout the United States to Dallas, including the Marines for their reunion.

“Each one of us has a first kiss, first marriage, first child,” Emery said. “Those things you remember because they’re personal. There are some things that are a little bit broader scope … the Challenger disaster, 9/11. They impact a whole bunch of things. Here is a group of guys who happened to be together 50 years ago for this monumental public event, and that’s what draws us back together.”

The Marines are receiving assistance from American Legion Post 275 in Dallas this weekend. “They are being very cooperative and very helpful with our reunion,” said organizer Ed “Mac” McCloskey, a member of Post 370 in Highlands, N.C. “They are coming Saturday night, bringing a Marine Corps cake, and flags and rifles so that we can perform a color guard.”

Kennedy’s remembrance ceremony was a time of reflection not only on his assassination, but on the profound words he used to address the nation. 

“He was ambitious to make it a better world, and so were we,” McCullough said. “Kennedy said, ‘Let the word go forth… that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…’

“Many passages from what he said apply now no less than half a century ago and will continue, let us hope, to be taken to heart far into the future the world over.”