Mary Haven was quietly eating her lunch at the Veterans Hospital when the news broke that terrible day half a century ago.
The president was dead.
“It came over the radio,” recalled Haven, now 73, a retired professor and associate dean at the University of Nebraska Medical Center's School of Allied Health Professions.
“Some of us immediately knelt down and started praying.”
Home all the weekend that followed, she joined the nation in front of the television set, mourning the death of John F. Kennedy, the first president she had ever voted for.
Fifty years later to the hour, Haven joined about 200 Nebraskans who gathered Friday at Dundee Presbyterian Church to remember the life lost and the legacy that inspired many of them. The ceremony had been scheduled to be across the street in Memorial Park but was moved indoors because of the snow and cold.
The Omaha Irish Cultural Center sponsored the service in honor of the nation's first Irish Catholic president.
“We take particular pride in honoring him as one of our own,” said James Cavanaugh, an Omaha lawyer who was the event's chairman. “The intent is to pass on the memory of his legacy. Fifty years is such a landmark that it deserves to be commemorated.”
Irish bagpipe music greeted the guests. So did a framed Norman Rockwell portrait of Kennedy, signed by the artist. Some people browsed through a table of memorabilia — photos, buttons and an original campaign poster with a smiling Kennedy — from the collection of the Rev. George Sullivan, former president of Creighton Prep.
Well before his ordination in the Jesuit order, Sullivan represented Nebraska as a Kennedy delegate at the 1960 Democratic Convention. Friday, he delivered an invocation.
“We ask that we be inspired by President Kennedy,” Sullivan said in his prayer.
Some of the speakers said Kennedy had inspired them.
State Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha credited Kennedy with spurring him to his current career in the Nebraska Legislature and his former work serving the poor through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
“He died eight years before I was born,” Harr said. “But he gave my generation an example of public service and a vision of mission.”
Tom Gouttierre, then 20, saw Kennedy speak about the program that would become the Peace Corps during a campaign stop in Gouttierre's hometown of Maumee, Ohio, in 1960.
Five years later, Gouttierre joined the Peace Corps, which took him to Afghanistan for almost a decade. Today, he is the director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Gouttierre said traveling overseas made him realize that Kennedy's charisma crossed cultural boundaries.
“He carried the message of the United States in a way it had never been carried before,” Gouttierre said. “Whether they spoke English or not, people would come up to me and say, 'We love Kennedy.' ”
Vince Gregorio of King Science and Technology Magnet Center in north Omaha wanted his students in grades five through eight to hear from people who remembered Kennedy.
Many of them are part of a service learning program at the school.
“I wanted them to celebrate the life and legacy,” Gregorio said. “I thought this was a great way to do it.”
Boxes of tissue had been helpfully placed in the church pews. But the speakers spent very little time on blood, bullets and murder. Instead, they remembered how Kennedy lived and the feelings he brought out in others.
That's why, with the service over, Mary Haven was smiling.
“It was just nice to share the memories,” she said.