The start of any given weekend usually brings joy to a college campus, but the fourth Friday in November 1963 began with particular excitement at Hollins College. Cotillion, one of Fall Term’s most eagerly anticipated events, was scheduled to take place that weekend, and many students were busy getting ready to welcome their dates from other area colleges and universities, and even from outside Virginia, for the special occasion.
That exhilaration was shattered in the early afternoon hours of November 22 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Now, as the nation observes the fiftieth anniversary of the president’s death, Hollins alumnae who were students at the time have shared their recollections of where they were when they heard the heartbreaking news and how they dealt with something so inconceivable.
Preparing for Cotillion, Marya Goldman Repko ’64 recalled, “I was in Roanoke buying nail polish when I noticed all the sales staff in the department store were in tears. They explained that President Kennedy had been shot.
“I took the bus back to Hollins and joined the rest of the dorm in front of the television.”
Carolyn Engel Amiot ’64 was living in Barbee House that year. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I was lying on my bed reading Time magazine. Suddenly, I heard someone yell, ‘Kennedy’s been shot.’ I raced downstairs to the living room and we turned on the black-and-white TV. It was just all so unbelievable. You can imagine the impact this had…the Kennedy assassination was probably the most shocking news event to shake our country in modern times – at least it was for my generation.”
Though she has never considered herself a religious person, Alison Ames ’66 remembered after the news broke that she suddenly felt “the unlikely urge to go to the chapel. By the time several of us had rounded the corner between Main and East, many others had joined in the stream, even before the chapel bells began to ring. Many were in tears, and everyone was talking at once.”
Cotillion was cancelled (it would later be rescheduled for February 1964). While many of the students’ dates had already embarked on their journey to Hollins for the weekend festivities, Anne Wetzell Williams ’64 recounted she was able to reach her boyfriend, who was flying down from Ohio State, to alert him about the cancellation before he left: “That ‘boyfriend’ has been my husband for 46 years and he remembers that day as well.”
For the dates who arrived from Washington and Lee, the University of Virginia, and other schools, students made plans to gather as the campus and the nation began to grieve.
“Several classmates called a nearby restaurant and arranged for a sizable number of dates and Hollins girls to have dinner,” explained Amiot. “It was very solemn.”
The following day, Amiot’s date, a UVa Law School student, suggested taking a drive into the rural areas outside of Roanoke.
“We drove through many communities, some without electricity,” she said. “We wondered whether the people living in those homes had even heard about Kennedy’s death.
“I will always remember that drive. It struck me then and it strikes me now as being a very appropriate thing to do. It was a chance to be quiet, think about the tragedy, and come to grips with its enormity.”
Even though they cannot forget the sorrow they experienced the day of the assassination, some Hollins alumnae have continued through the years to cherish happier memories of Kennedy’s life. Virginia Cone ’62 looked back fondly on his visit to Roanoke during the 1960 presidential election campaign.
“A sizable group of students went to greet JFK at the airport. Some of us managed to get to the front of the large crowd, and I remember at lot of pushing – not unruly or mean, just people wanting to see. In those days, crowds could get very close to the political candidates! I recall reaching up to steady myself on some sort of a railing. Before I realized how close I was to the people on the platform, someone grabbed my hand – I looked up into the face of JFK, and said, ‘I sure hope you win!’ And, of course, he did!”
Cone was pursuing a master’s degree and working as a graduate assistant at Mt. Holyoke College when Kennedy was assassinated. “I had a small radio in my lab and recall sitting at my desk listening to it, remembering the surprise ‘handshake’ in Roanoke and the dreams and accomplishments of JFK…and weeping.”
At its December 1963 meeting, the Student Government Association approved a resolution establishing the John F. Kennedy Memorial Fund. According to the December 12 issue of the Hollins Columns that year, the fund was “to be used by Hollins for special books on all phases of American culture” and welcomed pledges for donations through the following March.
The same issue of the Columns also featured a letter from a Hollins student who paid tribute to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. She wrote, “Having just witnessed four grim days that now belong to history, I wish to express my extreme admiration for the new widow of the late President of the United States, John Kennedy. Her behavior was indeed magnificent. Now, even more, she is truly our First Lady.”
As the nation revisits its collective astonishment and anguish over the Kennedy assassination, still terrible and vivid fifty years later, Amiot reflected on the continuing struggle to make sense of it:
“History is magic. Sometimes it is triumphant. Unfortunately, other times it is very tragic.”
Photo: Student supporters of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon rally on campus during the presidential campaign of 1960.