JFK Death News Sent ‘Wave of Grief’ Around World

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In Bogota, Colombia, Maria Cristina Reyes remembers exactly what she was doing when Kennedy was shot.

He had touched her life.

Reyes was 16 and newly married when JFK pulled up in a black limousine with his wife and Colombia’s president on Dec. 17, 1961. She and her husband were among people building simple one-story red brick houses financed by Kennedy’s “Alliance for Progress” initiative.

One of the homes would be the Reyes family’s, in a district which would be named Barrio Kennedy.

“We felt great joy to see someone who was not from our country come and give something to people who were really in need,” said Reyes.

Neighbor Martha Garay, now 77, remembers Kennedy’s impact: “He was dashing, attractive, impeccable, and so was his wife.”

JFK lingered, visiting a lot of the houses, “and spoke some Spanish though it wasn’t anything that was very understandable,” Garay said, chuckling.

Reyes said she was housecleaning when word of the assassination reached her. “We turned on the radio when they announced the terrible news.”

Today, having lived through Bogota’s violent decades, she sounds fatalistic when she thinks back to Kennedy’s murder.

“When a person like President Kennedy comes around and tries to help, they always cut him down,” she said.

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The day after the assassination, the performance of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” ran as scheduled in London’s Old Vic theater. When the play ended, Sir Laurence Olivier stepped forward, raised his hands, and said that instead of applause the actors would rather stand with the audience for two minutes of remembrance. The great actor and director arranged for the silence to be broken by the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Since his death, the legacy of JFK has touched lives the world over. David Miliband, a Briton, is typical. He studied in the U.S. on a scholarship from the Kennedy Memorial Trust, and went on to serve as his country’s foreign secretary.

“Today Kennedy remains a repository of hope not because he was assassinated but because the things he said and did created hope,” Miliband says. “There is a huge sense of promise unfulfilled. His vision was utterly inspiring.”

At Runnymede, carved on a rock, is a sentence from JFK’s 1961 inauguration address that still resonates around the globe: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

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John Fitzgerald Kennedy Munene is a 32-year-old Kenyan. His mother chose that name when she gave birth to him in the U.S. while on a student exchange program. He has studied the American president more than the average Kenyan, including reading Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage.”

He has also studied a program made possible by JFK through the family trust when he was a senator that took dozens of African students to the U.S. to further their education. One person in the program was Barack Obama Sr., the current president’s father.

Munene, who works in information technology, likes to play soccer, wearing a jersey with “JFK” emblazoned on it. When they see it “people say, ‘Are you going to be Kenya’s president?’ … It’s quite a fun name.”

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It was early afternoon on June 26, 1963, when Christian Sack first saw John F. Kennedy. His West Berlin high school had given its students the day off for the U.S. president’s visit to the city, which had become a front line of the Cold War. Twenty-two months earlier the East German communist regime had rammed a wall through Berlin.

Sack was one of an estimated 1 million Berliners who lined the streets that day.

As a teenager, he recalled, he was “more interested in music and girls than politics,” but Kennedy captured his attention when he proclaimed his solidarity with the isolated city, in a speech that ended with the famous line “as a free man, I take pride in the words, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner'” — “I am a Berliner.”

“The atmosphere was explosive — explosive with excitement,” Sack said. “You have to imagine the wall had only stood for two years and the politicians in West Germany just wanted quiet and never said much about it, so it was naturally almost a feeling of liberation that a politician would take it up and put it on the agenda.”

Five months later, Sack was on the Kurfuerstendamm, the city’s liveliest boulevard. “People just stopped and started talking — Kennedy had been killed,” he said. “There was a huge disbelief, and sadness.”

Some 60,000 people, many in tears and carrying torches, gathered at the place where Kennedy gave his famous speech.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Berliners remembered “I am a Berliner.” Many of those who gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in sympathy carried signs that said: “We are all New Yorkers.”

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Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Shawn Pogatchnik in Wexford, Ireland; David Rising in Berlin; Andrea Rodriguez in Havana; Jason Straziuso in Nairobi, Kenya; and Cesar Garcia and Vivian Sequera in Bogota, Colombia; and researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York.

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