When President Kennedy Was Assassinated
The usual question is: do you remember where you were? Well, as is not uncommon for many of us with memories of 1963, I do. I was mid-step on the grand staircase at Idle Hour, the former Vanderbilt mansion that had recently begun to serve as the site for Adelphi Suffolk-now Dowling College– in Oakdale on Long Island’s South Shore. I can see it as vividly as if it were yesterday. It’s what happened later that day—I remember this less precisely—that seems now a small story worth telling.
A little background. On November 22, 1963, I was nearing the end of my eleventh month as the first (and only, as it turned out) campus minister of the then “Campus Christian Federation of Suffolk County.” As such, I was responsible for developing and maintaining ministries for campuses throughout the County.
That afternoon, when I got back to my home in Stony Brook on the North Shore, I received a phone call from a student at the State University campus nearby: would I conduct a memorial service for President Kennedy that evening?
I would and did. I don’t remember anything about the content of the service. What I remember is the setting—and something of what it meant, then and now, to be involved in such a ministry.
When I arrived on campus (a five minute drive to the other side of the unreal-but-real “concrete curtain” that felt as if it hung from the railroad overpass at Niccolls Road, dividing the campus from the Village), I found several hundred students gathered. They were standing in a clearing to the side of the drive about a hundred yards in from the campus entrance, an equal distance from the dorms. For the service the students stood in a semi-circle. I stood midway between the open ends—by a make-shift pole on which an American flag was fixed at half-mast.
Campus construction was so “in process” (the library was housed in an arm of the Humanities classroom building) that there was as yet no flag pole. For the occasion, students had gone into the woods, cut down a tree, stripped it of its branches, dug a hole, and set it in place for the service. I never did know where the flag came from.
There was no student paper at the time to record campus happenings. The local village paper may or may not have gotten wind of it. In any case, the significance of the event at the time was that a group of students, as with the nation as a whole, had rightly wished to (not that one could or should have said it this way even then of such a gathering) “bring their burden before the Lord.”
Then and now, there is also this significance. Ministry in higher education is (quintessentially, I would argue) ministry on the run: make-shift, spur-of-the-moment largely unreported. But thereby, it touches the fabric of lives that are open to significant impression precisely because the campus setting or moment is open to such things in ways that others are are not.
Hard to argue support for; but infinitely worth the doing.
Somewhat later, I began the practice of closing prayer in such settings with the words: “As we name you, so we pray.”
When the Federation was incorporated a few years later, it was renamed the United Campus Ministries of Suffolk County, Inc. In 1972 this interdenominational ministry was joined with its counterpart in Nassau County into the single entity, one of eight area ministries of United Ministries in Higher Education (UMHE) in New York State. UMHE on Long Island maintained its incorporation as Long Island United Campus Ministries (LIUCM), Inc. so that when the state level UMHE body went out of existence in 1980 the local unit continued on. On October20, 1997, LIUCM celebrated its 25th year.
Ministries with three campuses were begun in 1963. State University of New York at Stony Brook, Suffolk County Community College, and Adelphi Suffolk/Dowling. A fourth was added the following year: Southampton College of Long Island University.
SUNY’s long Island Center had begun operation several years earlier at Planting Fields in Nassau County. Now it its second year at the new Stony Brook campus, the student body numbered about 900.
Feb. 12, 1998. Written at the request of NCMA for an earlier collection of “anecdotes” which were never published.