JFK urged Americans to be even better

At 1:30 p.m. 50 years ago Friday, President John F. Kennedy was murdered in a Dallas motorcade, and for many of us, the memory lives on like an unhealed wound on the soul.

On Nov. 22, 1963, we lost infinitely more than a popular young president. We lost a vital part of the bold, confident vision he challenged us to embrace.

“The torch has been passed to a new generation,” JFK said at his inauguration in 1961. And he asked us to join him in a struggle against tyranny, poverty, disease and war — the “common enemies” of humankind.

He was that rare magnetic leader — both politician and visionary — whose call to action stirred the nation.

We can argue forever about what might have been.

Had he served a second term, perhaps he would not have escalated the Vietnam War. Or maybe he would have. Perhaps national crises over civil rights, the sexual revolution and the counterculture might have played out with more dialogue and less acrimony. Or maybe not.

We do know that JFK advanced Medicare, pushed the civil rights movement ahead, and played a key role in averting nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. And we know that his loss was like little that the city and the nation had seen in modern times.

For those who don’t remember the day first hand, men and women wept openly on the sidewalks of New York. The bells of St. Patrick’s Cathedral tolled ceaselessly on Fifth Avenue for the nation’s first Roman Catholic leader while stricken shoppers streamed out of stores and directly into churches.

Businesses closed. Wall Street suspended trading. And schoolchildren sat dazed at their desks, listening to radio reports from Dallas over the intercom or to beleaguered teachers who struggled to control their own emotions as they led their classes in discussions and sometimes prayer.

JFK was able to make us strive to be better than we’d ever thought possible, and we loved him for it. What happened on that awful day so long ago leaves us painfully diminished — even now.