Teary-eyed and shaken, teachers across America were called on to deliver the news.
"Children," they began, "President Kennedy has been assassinated."
For most kids of the early 1960s, that last word elicited quizzical looks. So, many educators were forced to be more direct: "Our president was shot dead."
The shock, heartbreak, fear and confusion in classrooms that day -- 50 years ago Friday -- transcended politics, religion, race and ethnic background.
Today, more than 20 California schools carry the name John F. Kennedy -- including half a dozen in the Bay Area. But what does the name mean today? Do the students know JFK was cool and charismatic? That he had a glamorous wife and was, at age 43, the youngest president ever elected? Do they understand his legacy includes everything from civil rights to public service and the pursuit of lofty achievements such as the domination of space?
Or are J, F and K merely the initials of some dead guy from long ago?
"Most kids don't have the first clue about JFK," said Silvia Carrillo, assistant principal at Kennedy High School in Fremont. History teacher Olivia Santillan agrees. "It's just a name on the school."
Even a student in a special JFK project helmed by Santillan believes Kennedy's aura is forever lost on younger generations. "We can never," said 16-year-old Isaiah Ramon, "really get that emotional impact of the Kennedy legacy."
Still, to visit several institutions named JFK -- especially two dramatically different high schools in Fremont and Richmond -- is to discover inspirational connections to a hallowed memory.
JFK, the university
At the nation's only John F. Kennedy University, with a tony location near San Jose's Santana Row and two others in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, awareness of its namesake is paramount. The pristine building at the school's headquarters in Pleasant Hill features a display of Kennedy books in its main library and a hallway retrospective of JFK's political achievements and challenges.
Embracing Kennedy's famed line "ask not what your country can do for you ...," the university, with thriving schools of law and psychology, trumpets its community counseling centers, veterans programs, legal clinics and juvenile sports camps. On Friday, an anniversary program will feature a bust unveiling, political dignitaries and the school's nonagenarian founding member, Georgia Morrison.
"For this university," noted Cathy Santini, assistant vice president for admissions and marketing, "a striking statement was the planned speech in Dallas about learning and leadership being indispensable."
JFK High, Fremont
At Fremont's Kennedy High, the 50th anniversary of JFK's death has spawned a project involving a small number of students intently studying the life, times and values of the late leader.
"We do that through lessons we teach," Principal Ed Velez said. "Not just in history classes, but in studying literature and leadership, from Cesar Chavez to Mandela to Kennedy."
Assistant Principal Carrillo says the campus of 1,400 students reflects a colorful and creative vibe that honors JFK. It's a mellow collection of murals, fruit and flower gardens and a gleaming amphitheater, the result of years of student fundraising.
When she rose from teacher to administrator, Carrillo said, "I could have worked at any school in the district, but I chose Kennedy" because it's diverse, friendly and its students learn to do their part "for my school, and for my community."
Visitors are urged to take unsupervised strolls around the school, among the multicultural crowds of students eating lunch at the amphitheater, or rushing to the school's 85-minute classes. "Kids get along here," Carrillo said. "No cliques."
Or, as Velez put it: "The kids break barriers of status structure. Walk around and you can't distinguish the jocks, the cheerleaders or the AP students. That is a rare pleasure of this school."
Science teacher Dan Bega -- four years as a student, 28 years as a teacher at Kennedy -- noted that the school opened shortly after the assassination with young faculty members lit by JFK's legacy. They steered the school onto a path it still follows: community service, reflected by the school's annual involvement in food, clothing and blood drives.
History teacher Santillan has students read speeches and study policy so they can reflect on what JFK accomplished and what good things he inspired that others had to complete. In her classroom is a dedicated Kennedy Corner that includes posters ranging from the three young Kennedy brothers hanging out at Hyannisport, to the somber image of the state funeral three days after JFK's death.
"The kids here are working hard to understand," Santillan said, "how such a short presidency had such a major impact on the nation for so long."
JFK High, Richmond
In a forlorn-looking section of Richmond, Kennedy High Principal Phil Johnson claims no glowing connections between his students and the late president.
"I know the JFK legacy of equality and fairness," said Johnson, an ex-cop with a clean pate. "And I try to put some of that to use in my work here. But these kids don't know anything about JFK. He simply is not relevant in their very difficult lives."
With its huge, windowless front, the Richmond school looks more like a high-security prison. It is surrounded by tall, iron fences and fronted by an ever-present pair of squad cars. The only nods to Kennedy: a small wall tapestry of the man and a bust, sitting off to the side, obscured by detritus.
Six years ago, the whole dreary place was nearly closed down. In recent years, a football player was shot and killed, and the last few years the school has struggled through poverty, gangs and crime. The no-nonsense Johnson, 49, was brought in last year to muscle the place back into shape.
"My main job is to make this school a safe place," said the former history teacher -- not just physically, but by giving peace of mind to everyone there.
Upon arrival, Johnson wore suits until he figured out "they scared the kids away from me." Today, he energetically roams the halls in a school windbreaker, jeans and running shoes. His priorities are improving the school's dismal API scores, while generating esprit de corps among the teachers. He is also overseeing the rehab and construction of labs and other long-neglected facilities.
"This is a challenging place to teach," said Ryan Shaw, a veteran AP history teacher. "We have hardworking students, but we always need to go that extra mile to overcome ... troublemakers. Fortunately, the number of those kinds of kids is getting smaller."
While students may not have a sense of JFK, Johnson said he is channeling the late leader when he urges his teachers to actively inspire the school's many underperforming kids. That's just one of many lessons he learned growing up in Oakland in the years following JFK's assassination, as he forged his own hard-earned success in law enforcement and education. It's no wonder he allows absolutely no hallway stragglers.
"When I first got here lots of kids were hanging out, even during classes," said senior Donna Gonzalez. "I hated that and my parents wanted me to transfer."
But she noted that when an institution works harder and steadily upgrades everything from the tattered facilities to the overall attitude of the student body, something heartfelt happens that inspires people not to run away.
"Kennedy is progressing," said Gonzales, 17, who wants to major in psychology in college. "Now (teachers) are always encouraging students to do our best. Sure, this place looks like one big jail, but like everything else around here, I know things will keep on improving."
Contact David E. Early at 408-920-5836.
JFK Middle School, Cupertino: 986
JFK Elementary, Newark: 854
JFK Elementary, Daly City: 840
JFK Middle School, Redwood City: 746
JFK High School, Fremont: 743
JFK High School, Richmond: 589
Desired score: 800