Turn Of The Tide

A wave of assassinations, including JFK's 40 years ago, triggered momentous national change. For two Marylanders swept up in the times, the effects were profound.

November 22, 2003|By Gerald P. Merrell | Gerald P. Merrell,SUN STAFF

Has anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?

Can you tell me where he's gone?

I thought I saw him walking up o'er the hill

With Abraham, Martin and John.

- from "Abraham, Martin and John," by Dion DiMucci

So much time has passed, but the images don't fade: Black Jack, the spirited but riderless stallion, with boots pointed backward in the stirrups; the black-draped caisson; the young son's salute; the eternal flame; an entire nation of people, unable to express their shock and grief, suffering virtually in silence.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Saturday's Today section incorrectly spelled the last name of John Roemer, a former executive director of the Maryland ACLU. It also incorrectly identified the school where he works. It is the Park School in Brooklandville.

To many, though, today's 40th anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy is not about the images that flickered across television screens, or even about one man; it's a reminder of a period, both exhilarating and dreadful, that began with so much seeming possible, and ended with unimaginable violence.

In just five years, from June 1963 to June 1968, five men many saw as the heart of the country's moral conscience were gunned down: Medgar Evers, President Kennedy, Malcolm X, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

That time has been subjugated somewhat by myth and stereotype. But not all who embraced the era were in their 20s, or did drugs, or flocked to Haight-Ashbury, or even embraced the fallen men in the same way. Many from generations since regard the period as irrelevant.

Louis Galambos, professor of history and editor of the Dwight David Eisenhower papers at the Johns Hopkins University, dismisses that assessment.

"That is a very common view by people who are caught up in today's issues," he says. "I am not one of those who believes that. The period was defined by real political and social issues. ... There were dramatic social changes - civil rights, the beginning of the women's movement. The decade stands out for dramatic change."

The events and leaders of that half-decade shaped people quite differently. And 40 years later, those years still resonate in many lives, though their impact has been tempered by time. The reflections of musician Elaine Kelly of Columbia and teacher John Romer of Parkton are perhaps typical.

Kelly describes herself this way: "I am several things. I'm black. I'm a woman. I'm a musician. And I think those three things are of about equal importance - the black being the least, because I can't do anything about that, but it's what has affected my life probably more than even I am aware of."

Romer is nothing if not an anomaly. He is a converted liberal who didn't care that much for the Kennedys; he prefers the thick twang of Buck Owens to Bob Dylan's lyrics of conscience; he is a pacifist who loves to shoot guns and has an extensive collection of Smith & Wessons.

Kelly and Romer have never met, nor are they likely to, and their personal experiences are vastly divergent. But both began their passage toward transformation at the same time - one from tragedy, the other by chance - and were changed as profoundly as anyone by that period, perhaps more than most.

John Kennedy was still two years from the presidency when Elaine Kelly was mourning the death of her husband, Don, who had died from cancer at the age of 34, and was desperately trying to find work to pay off their debts.

She had worked toward becoming a concert pianist for most of her life. It seemed an unlikely dream for someone abandoned at the age of 5 by her father and raised with a sister on the fringes of Harlem. Her mother worked into her 80s, first as a maid and later as a seamstress for the garment industry.

"Mother had great ambitions for us, and she always saw to it that we had piano lessons and exposure to whatever she knew about," Kelly recalls. "She was a domestic, and she observed very carefully all of the things that these rich people did, and she'd come back and teach them to us. We grew up with a lot of confidence."

Despite the family's meager circumstances, Kelly managed to develop her interest in the piano, first by attending the High School for Music and Arts in New York, then the prestigious Juilliard School, Columbia University and the Institute of Musicology of the University of Paris Sorbonne. By 1959, she had come within striking distance of achieving the improbable.

Now, though, all of that had to be put on hold. The bills were mounting, and a job - any job - would have to do.

She took several, then was offered a position by the United Nations to work as a secretary with the Yugoslavia delegation. It didn't seem like a good fit. Kelly was fiercely apolitical, content with her music and books.

Good fit or not, the money wasn't bad and, after all, it was the United Nations. She accepted the position. Kelly didn't realize it then, but her transformation had begun.

As Kelly began her U.N. job, John Romer was studying at Princeton University.

He was born in Baltimore, but the family moved to the suburbs after World War II. His father managed a restaurant for a Hutzler's Bros. department store and was deeply conservative politically.

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