Fires of commitment burned bright before darkness fell

Originally published in The Bee on Nov. 20, 1988

For Gay Ann White, 43, who teaches English at American River College, John F. Kennedy provided the inspiration that influenced her to serve people.

She joined VISTA -- Volunteers In Service to America.

"I had a lot of dreams, things that I believed in and I wanted to do, " White said. "Listening to him speak influenced me to pursue them. I sensed he was honest and really sincere about wanting to make some changes.

"Even though I knew that Lincoln had been assassinated, I was utterly shocked that this could happen to a president. To do it in our own time, to someone so young, was devastating to me. I couldn't believe it.

"I cried. I couldn't go to school for about four days. I couldn't face anybody. I just stayed home."

Many people had similar feelings and can look back 25 years and see how the event has also shaped their lives.

Sacramento Fire Chief Ray J. Charles thinks Kennedy's influence on civil rights helped create the climate necessary for him to become Sacramento's first black fire chief.

"Twenty-five years ago, there was no way I could even think of being chief, " Charles said. "There just wasn't such a person. I can't help but believe it was the actions of people like Kennedy who made it possible.

"He made me feel, 'God, here's a guy who does understand and he will do something about these problems.' Until that time, I was hearing a lot of lip service. 'We'll take care of it.' But if you looked around, nothing was being done."

Joe Serna Jr., 49, a Sacramento city councilman, said that "with Jack Kennedy our generation could identify with the presidency. I know he influenced me. That's why I joined the Peace Corps.

"He tapped into us young people out there a sense of energy, a sense of commitment. We had inherited, through Jack Kennedy, the highest office on the planet. It was a real sense of inspiration."

For Joyce Del Pero, a 48-year-old Sacramento legal secretary, Kennedy kindled an interest in politics. "Before that, I was never much interested in what the government was doing, " she said. "I didn't care. During the campaign, I listened to him a few times and it made me care and feel like we all had an important role to play."

In Kennedy, Del Pero said, she "saw someone who appealed to everyone. It wasn't like a crush, it was just an admiration. He seemed more like one of the people, and yet he had that charisma that was not there with other presidents."

For Pete LeBlanc, a Sacramento sports writer, the day Kennedy was killed coincides with his birthday. He said that his aunt was a nurse in the delivery room at St. Luke's Hospital in New Bedford, Mass., when he came out of the womb.

"She told me all the nurses were crying when I was born. That's one of the things I find most interesting about my birthday, " LeBlanc said. "I didn't realize how important Kennedy was until I was about ten. It has definitely made me more interested in the man."

After Kennedy was assassinated, "I had a great feeling of doom, " said Milo J. Radulovich, 61, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Sacramento. "To me, it was the end an era of upward progress toward a more equal society, toward greater justice. He had a great vision for this country, a vision that included everybody, not just the elite.

"When Kennedy was president, I had a feeling of optimism . . . that everything's going to be OK. In the turmoil of the modern world, his presidency was a bright point."

For C. Roland Marchand, 55-year-old professor of American history at the University of California, Davis, the assassination left a feeling of disillusionment.

"You felt very directly that you had been cheated, " Marchand said. "There were expectations from the Kennedy presidency and you felt that somehow you'd been cheated out of his leadership."

For Jane Genshlea, a 49-year-old certified public accountant in Sacramento, the assassination sparked a greater awareness of politics.

"After I survived the shock of it all, " Genshlea said, "I started focusing more on all these problems facing the world. It was the beginning of my metamorphosis from a naive young person to a politically aware adult."

Michael O'Connell, 41, a Sacramento lawyer and developer, was 16 when Kennedy was killed. "My political consciousness was zip, " he said. "But it personalized the presidency for me, and opened my eyes to some political realities."

It stirred O'Connell to want to find out more about the world and he eventually left his home in Montana. "I wasn't sure where I was going, " he said, "but I knew that there was more out there and I had a sense of wanting to go out and find it."

Joseph S. Samuel, 46, a state workers' compensation judge in Sacramento, says he remembers feeling a close bond with Kennedy.

"I felt like there was almost a personal relationship between me and the president, " he says. "I've never been inspired by a national leader in the same way that John F. Kennedy inspired me."

Lt. Col. Duane Roberts, 45, public affairs chief at McClellan Air Force Base, says the assassination made him think "about how vulnerable we all are."

"It also made me think about what he said: 'Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country, ' " Roberts said. "That was one of the reasons I ended up staying in the military. I wanted to serve."

Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas MacBride, 74, remembers leaving the bench in tears after learning Kennedy had been shot.

MacBride's work as Kennedy's campaign chairman for Sacramento County led to his being appointed to a federal judgeship.

"He had a profound effect on my life, " the judge recalled. "Quite frankly, until this seat opened up, I hadn't thought of being a federal judge. But it has turned out to be a completely fulfilling and exciting job.

"If I hadn't done this, I would have gone on as a lawyer, and probably would have made a lot more money. But I've never thought of going back into private practice."

State Sen. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said he and his wife, Patti, ended up in the Peace Corps because they admired Kennedy.

"His death created a greater determination on our part to make the things that he stood for happen, " Garamendi said.