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Educator Reflects on Meeting JFK 50 Years after His Assassination
Sitting down with Chris Rettler on a cool, windy November afternoon, it is not hard to see the impact that her personal meeting with President Kennedy and his assassination have had on her as she pages through a book on John F. Kennedy. Rettler recently celebrated fifty years in education and continues to teach students at Silver Lake College of the Holy Family in her role as assistant professor of Education. It is on this windy day, about a week before the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, that she shares her story of meeting Kennedy and how it has personally shaped her and also, her career.
At just 17 years old, Chris Rettler didn’t expect to encounter someone who would soon become a large part of our nation’s history. She was a junior at St. Josephs Academy, an all-girls’ high school in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Being a member of Acadian, the school yearbook/newspaper, Rettler and a fellow student, Sandy Renard, were asked to cover a story at Hotel Northland where John Kennedy was said to be interviewing with news reporters. The year was 1959 and at this time Kennedy was a presidential candidate campaigning across the country.
Expecting to find an entire conference hall filled with news reporters, Rettler and Renard were quite surprised to see Kennedy at the front of the hall with only 3 reporters questioning him. Rettler still remembers Jackie Kennedy’s smile as she noticed their curious heads poke in the doorway. She quickly waved them in while Kennedy flashed them his handsome smile.
Rettler chuckles a bit while recalling Kennedy’s well-known smile and smiles even more as she mentions that Jackie met them in the back of the hall and immediately began talking with them. The main topic of their conversation, among other items, was shoes. Rettler can hardly contain her laughter here as she remembers how she soon came to realize that the generous, soft-spoken, and beautiful woman absolutely loved shoes.
While they were talking with Jackie, the news reporters left, and Rettler can remember Jackie’s exact words to John: “Jack, Jack come back here, some girls want to talk to you.” Rettler, of course, recalls him flashing that smile of his at them again, and he talked with them for an hour. They spoke about various topics, Rettler remembers, mostly what issues he planned to focus on if he won the presidency. Before Rettler and Renard left they expressed their gratitude and thanked the couple for their generosity.
When the girls left the hotel that afternoon they were not expecting to see the Kennedys again in person, but to their surprise the next day John and Jackie stopped at St. Joseph’s Academy. Although they were not able to speak with them personally, the girls were able to hear him campaign from the fire escape of their school to a campus full of students.
John F. Kennedy met great success as a Democrat in the political world, serving three terms (six years; 1946-1952) in the House of Representatives, and being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1952. It wasn't long after being elected Senator that Kennedy met and married Jacqueline Bouvier. The couple soon welcomed two children, Caroline and John Jr.
Kennedy quickly moved up in the ranks of Democrats, and was nominated as their presidential candidate in 1960, the year Chris Rettler graduated high school. After competing in a close race with Republican Richard Nixon, Kennedy won the election and became the youngest United States president at 43 years old.
During his inaugural speech on January 20, 1961, Kennedy spoke these famous words: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Kennedy wanted his country to fight, not against human enemies, but against the real terror: “tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” Although the Kennedy family was seen as fun-loving and carefree, the President had much to worry about behind the closed doors of the oval office. One of his worries was nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
During his career, Kennedy created the Peace Corps. He had planned to be the first to put a man on the moon (a dream which was cut short by his untimely death). He also fought hard for equal civil rights for all races, stating this on national television: “One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds...on the principle that all men are created equal.”
Meanwhile, after two years of college, Chris Rettler began teaching when a position needed to be filled at St. Joseph’s School in Appleton. The toughest challenges she faced in the following years, however, were not lesson planning or grading students’ homework. Rettler describes her beginning years in education as a “rocky start.”
In 1962, the year Kennedy was elected President of the United States, Rettler’s father died unexpectedly at the age of 54. Not long after, in 1963, one of Rettler’s 6th grade students, a boy named John, died by drowning while celebrating the baptism of his youngest sibling. Retter spoke sadly of the accident, in which the boy’s father and 4th grade sister, Carol, also died. The same year Rettler’s brother was in a severe car accident. Before the end of 1963, tragedy would strike at the national level.
On November 22, 1963, while traveling with his wife Jackie to a luncheon with Dallas business leaders, John F. Kennedy was shot. The nation stood at a standstill as people from all parts of the country waited to hear if Kennedy was going to survive. Despite desperate medical intervention, Kennedy’s wounds were fatal. He was pronounced dead at 1 p.m. and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as President of the United States by 3 p.m.
Chris Rettler recalls hearing the news that Kennedy had been shot while in her classroom at St. Joseph’s School. “When we heard that John Kennedy had been shot, the entire school – over 1,000 people – all left our school and walked over to the church for an hour and prayed and prayed and prayed.” By the time they returned, it was announced that Kennedy had died.
Rettler says that the personal tragedies she endured during her beginning years as a teacher, as well as the assassination of the president whom she was lucky enough to meet, have had a great impact on her teaching.
“It brings you to your knees,” Rettler says humbly, reflecting on the tragedies. Rettler says these tragedies have also helped her become a more compassionate and humble educator. Rettler was blessed to have just celebrated fifty years as an educator. She says, “I’m honored to serve as a faculty member at Silver Lake College.”