On Thanksgiving, we will mark the anniversary of the assassination of President John Kennedy. It marks, in many ways, a turning point in American history. But wrapped up in that history are many personal stories. We have one for you tonight. A Brookings man....for whom President Kennedy was a hero...so much so that he met the president in person. And for nearly five decades, he has carried the personal pain of knowing what it is like when your hero....dies.
They are the grainy images of time gone by. It is August 1962....and President John Kennedy has arrived in Pierre for the dedication of the Lake Oahe Dam project....and his visit would allow a 15-year-old South Dakota farm boy to meet his hero. "As soon as they heard President Kennedy was going to speak at the Oahe dedication...it was a done deal." That 15-year-old farm boy is now 65-year-old Roger Olson of Brookings, who says his parents adored President Kennedy....and so did he. "He just struck me as a politician cut of a different cloth, he had a lot of very bold ideas." To understand the impact Kennedy had, consider this: it was Kennedy's idea to put man on the moon. And because Kennedy wanted it...Roger wanted to be a part of it....by becoming an astronaut. And he says every other boy his age wanted to do the same thing...not because they wanted it...but because Kennedy wanted it. "I thought that he was the type of person...a charismatic enough person that he really could do the country some good."
Which brings us back to Pierre in August of 1962. Roger, his parents and younger sister wanted to see the president in person. So did thousands of other people. Roger found himself at the back of the crowd.....but Roger knew this could be the only time in his life that he would be in the same place at the same time as John Kennedy....and he wasn't going to just sit at the back of the crowd. "I started worming my way through the crowd in hopes of getting to the front of the crowd before President Kennedy started speaking."
And after a lot of :"excuse me's" and "pardon me's", Roger was at the front of the crowd, just feet away from Kennedy. "I just started focusing on him." And before he knew it, the speech was over. Kennedy left the stage...and then started shaking hands with people at the front of the crowd...Roger saw Kennedy heading right toward him...and what he did next...would probably get him killed by the Secret Service today. "I thought this might be my only chance ever....so I grabbed hold of the rope and ducked underneath it just as he got within 3-4 feet of me and I extended my hand to him and I said 'I enjoyed your speech, Mr. President' and he said 'thank you son' and shook my hand and he was gone."
Roger was in shock. His hero...his idol....someone he had only seen on TV...had just personally shaken his hand and exchanged words with him. He turned and watched Kennedy walk to a waiting car and leave the Oahe Dam. "Everybody was screaming and clapping and honking their car horns and everything like that." And as the president pulled away, Roger knew he had just experienced something that would stay with him for the rest of his life. "It was just a perfect ending to it."
It is an ending that would become tragically imperfect 15 months later in Dallas, when Kennedy was murdered in broad daylight. "It's uh....just like someone has played a joke on you...you know? And they've pulled the rug out from under you and now you're sitting on the floor looking up at the ceiling but there's nothing up there anymore."
The famous film that shows Kennedy being killed is called the Zapruder Film. It was never seen publicly until 12 years after Kennedy was killed. Roger Olson says he has only watched the film all the way through once...maybe twice...that to this day....almost 50 years later...he can not watch it...because he can not bear seeing the man he met face to face in Pierre in 1962..his first hero.....die. To this day, Roger Olson can close his eyes and feel that handshake and hear those words clear as day. "And I have hundreds if not thousands of times just listened to those words again....over and over...and it's an indelible memory."
Roger Olson says the Kennedy assassination was personal to him in another way. What Kennedy outlined for the future of the nation made Roger feel good about his future and he says when John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas...Roger lost something very personal....he says we all did...because we will never know what Kennedy could have accomplished had he lived.
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