Opinion: It’s personal. Remembering JFK

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By Denny Freidenrich

Nov. 22 was the 60th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. I was only 15 at the time, but I remember that date like it was yesterday.

The young president’s murder was a turning point for me and baby boomers everywhere. Scenes of the smiling Kennedy waving from his car and the aftermath of his death were televised non-stop for days. Ditto Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald and the president’s funeral. There was no escaping the news. I still can see the banner headlines in the afternoon newspapers: “Kennedy Shot” or “Kennedy Dead.” Yes, in many cities back then, you read one paper in the morning and another before dinner.

America not only mourned the death of the president, but I think it’s fair to say the nation, as a whole, fell into a deep depression. I know that was the case at my house.

My father was a delegate to the 1952, 1956 and 1960 Democratic National Conventions. He met then-Sen. Kennedy at the ’56 convention in Chicago. Two years later, my dad and two of his political cronies were invited to meet JFK in his hotel suite in San Francisco. It wasn’t your typical meeting by any stretch. Kennedy, dressed only in a t-shirt and boxer shorts, sat on the edge of the bed and asked them, “Do you want Lyndon Johnson to be the next president?” They all shook their heads. “Good, then you’ll be Kennedy delegates.” They all said yes.

And support him they did. During a televised news conference the day before JFK officially became the Democratic Party’s nominee, I heard my father over the airwaves. “Down in front,” he shouted at a reporter. There was no mistaking his voice. I’d heard it many times as he sat in the stands watching my Little League games.

On Sept. 3, Kennedy made a campaign stop at the San Francisco Airport. My dad took me with him to watch. It turns out I not only heard JFK speak from the tarmac, I actually shook hands with him afterward. I was almost 12, but I remember looking up and thinking, “All is right with the world.”

It was the same two months later when my parents took me to the Cow Palace Auditorium on Nov. 2. That was the night Kennedy first proposed “a peace corps of talented men and women” who would dedicate themselves to the progress and peace of developing countries. My mom and dad sat in the VIP seats near the stage, and I was in the rafters, but that didn’t matter to me. It was days before the election, and I was sure JFK would win. When he did, there was much celebrating in our house.

 I was a sophomore in high school when the horrible news came in from Dallas. An hour after the announcement, school was closed. By the time I arrived home, my mother was in tears. I don’t remember my father coming home until dinner time. He hardly spoke a word. In fact, he hardly spoke all weekend. It was the first time I witnessed real grief.

I can’t believe 60 years have passed since President Kennedy’s assassination. Nationally syndicated columnist George Will once wrote, “The bullets fired on Nov. 22, 1963, shattered the social consensus that characterized the 1950s … because powerful new forces were about to erupt through society’s crust. Foremost among these forces was the college-bound population bulge — baby boomers with their sense of entitlement and moral superiority …”

That may or may not be true. All I know is JFK’s murder was like a death in my family. It’s something I always have taken personally. The way I look at it, writing about politics, like I do today, is my way of honoring the memory of my dad, as well as the spirit of the presidential candidate I remember meeting oh-so-many years ago.

Denny Freidenrich is a long-time Laguna Beach resident. He has been politically active his entire adult life, having first served as a congressional staff assistant on Capitol Hill in 1972. In 1975, he created the California Voter Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging high school students to become active voters when they turned 18.

A decade later, he was retained by Laguna and three other beach cities to coordinate Orange County’s opposition to offshore oil drilling. Back in 2007, Freidenrich was among the first Democrats in OC to support Barack Obama’s campaign for president.

During the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he rewrote the lyrics to the 1960s civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Lately, he has been publicly urging President Biden to convene a gun summit at Camp David. 

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Mr. Freidenrich likes historical anecdotes, here’s mine:
    My very Prussian, very stoic, immigrant father (Hermann Fritz Bütow) was home that fateful day. Born in 1907, in a (then) German colony, Southwest Africa ( Skeleton Coast resort Swakopmund), now rename as Namibia, he’d taken the day off because it was his 57th birthday.
    I was sent home as a 17-year-old junior from my high school French class, and for one of a very few, unique times, I saw my tugboat captain, hard-as-nails Dad (a Spencer Tracey doppelgänger) crying at the kitchen table.
    Head in hands, sobbing and weeping uncontrollably.
    When my 2 siblings came home (my sisters), they were shocked by his demeanor…they made dinner instead of him, didn’t interrupt. He couldn’t eat, he was still sitting there when we got up to watch TV. He couldn’t bear the coverage.
    He’d gone thru hell, regained custody of his 3 children from my Mom after a really ugly divorce.
    He was a justifiably proud man of few words, he’d left Medical School in Hamburg, turned his back on his family, literally jumped ship in LA Harbor after being a stowaway on a German freighter.
    He became the co-founder and 25 year Chairman of the IBU, a branch of the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific. Hundreds of similar rough character men were members, they included all of the tug, barge and pleasure boat personnel.
    I was a member while working on the Catalina passenger boats.
    All he said that night was: “This family will never celebrate my birthday again.”
    We returned our presents the next day, and we honored his orders, never again was that anything more than a thorn in his staunchly liberal Democratic hide.
    JFK to him typified all that was good, the American promise, the dreams of freedom that brought my Dad here in 1932, turning his back on his parents, 2 sisters and 3 brothers at the advent of National Socialism (Nazi Party).
    Truly a day of infamy and national distress.
    First time I could vote, post Marine Corps in 1968, I voted for RFK. But watching his assassination that night, so close in time to MLK and Malcolm X’s murders, I had a gut-wrenching flashback to 5 years previously and understood my father’s depression more fully.
    When he died, Captain John Gregory of the HMS Queen Mary gave his eulogy, they’d become friends. Those he knew best got up and told crazy stories about him, describing a man I never knew all that much about.
    He was a quiet, introverted and private person, didn’t share much of his pre-American history quite frankly.
    I guess he and Denny’s dad were of that greatest generation, we the first wave of boomers (I was born in October of ’46). They suffered but adapted, endured.
    I’ll never forget that day, not so much now in regards to the Kennedy Promise unfulfilled, never realized: My Dad was the hero of my journey, my story until his death in January of 1981. Yet a lot of that lingers.
    Oh, that I could be half the man that he was, admired and exalted, known and respected all over the Harbor.
    A union organizer in the 40s when they were considered commies or socialists.
    I sure miss him, but on November 22nd I cheat a little: I try to spend part of my day looking at old photos of him, especially of me and him, as a gawky teen hanging out on his tug. Or remembering him putting me (in diapers no less) on his back at Redondo Beach, I surfed him into shore.
    Thanks Dad, you inspired my love of the ocean, and by example revealed your feelings about Nature. That’s where I find communion, i don’t need brick & mortar walls or intermediaries, preachers or ministers.
    Camping, bodysurfing, hiking, fishing, the good stuff memories sometimes make me cry—but I weep in joy, and if you’re looking down (or up) from wherever you are, I’m still proud to be your only blood son, a child of Hermann The German.

  2. Denny, I am a baby boomer, I was sitting in class when over the speaker I was told that Kennedy had been shot. I was shocked and sad. Growing up in a family that believed in less gov and Entrepreneurial abilities, in other wards fending for yourself and not relying on gov..yep, you know the ones, the ones along with those before us that actually built the country without dependence on social handouts, you know the one’s who are spit on today for not going along with socialism, For appreciating true leadership in those you hate because they are truthful and did so much for our country..The ones you knock every week in Stu News…But, on this one I will agree..Kennedy was definitely, along with Robert Kennedy, true democrats’, the ones that really cared about people, very compassionate and loved…We lost the democratic party when these two were killed by their own party (which has been proven).
    What a loss for all of us, how wonderful today if we had the true Parties’ to better balance humanity. but we do not..Let us hope for a resurgence of intelligence and consciousness, be accepting and respecting both parties and parts of both to create a gentle and abundant nation. Not the one we have experienced for far too long. We are a Republic, freedom is the call..

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