At 7 years old, Dean Owen’s life changed.
Sitting in his second-grade class on Nov. 22, 1963, the older sister of a girl in his class burst through the classroom door and announced the president, John F. Kennedy, had been shot.
“I said, ‘Oh, come on. Give me a break. I don’t believe that,’ ” Owen, a Federal Way resident, recalled.
He soon learned how right that girl was after school that day.
Owen approached his mother and grandmother watching television. The realization swept over him.
“This really happened,” he said.
Owen would become fascinated with the murder of the 35th president, learning everything he could about him.
Days after the shooting, his eyes were still glued to the television. And before anyone knew it, Lee Harvey Oswald, the man suspected of murdering Kennedy, was shot on camera.
“I decided that weekend I wanted to be a part of this – this being news media, communications,” he said. “I was fascinated, I was perplexed.”
Fifty years later, Owen, an award-winning journalist, published “November 22, 1963: Reflections on the Life, Assassination, and Legacy of John F. Kennedy” in 2013.
Earlier this month, Owen remembered the man he spent the bulk of two years reasearching for his book in a presentation at the Washington State History Museum. The event was to commemorate what may have been Kennedy’s 100th birthday on May 29, 2017.
If Kennedy were still alive today, however, Owen said he believes he’d be shocked and appalled with the United States’ current political atmosphere.
“Kennedy would be disgusted at the contentious nature of our politics today,” Owen said, adding that Kennedy knew the political process was all “give and take.”
He also effectively worked with the media, although he sometimes disliked what reporters wrote about him, Owen said.
“The office has changed, the presidency has changed, politics have changed so dramatically,” he said.
Today, Kennedy’s character and characteristics still resonate with people.
People like Phyllis Elkins, one of Owen’s favorite interviewees he spoke to for his book.
In 1960, Kennedy, then a senator, was in the thick of campaigning for the West Virginia primary, which would later become the first Protestant state he won as a Catholic – a huge deal back then. During this time, Kennedy went to dine at Jim’s Steak and Spaghetti House in Huntington, West Virginia, with Congressman Ken Hechler and David Fox, a Democratic operative.
Elkins, a waitress at the small diner at the time, served Kennedy.
Owen tracked down Elkins just months after the long-time waitress had retired from the diner.
“She remembered the day vividly, meeting him: ‘He looked up at me and said, ‘Do you mind having your picture taken with me?’ I said, ‘It’d be my pleasure,’ and he just busted out laughing because we talked kind of south-like down here in West Virginia,’ ” Owen recalled Elkins telling him about her experience with Kennedy. “She remembered the day of the assassination and how she was devastated and they closed the restaurant.”
Owens said it was people like Elkins who helped paint a complete picture of the former president.
“… I’ve got Tom Brokaw, and I’ve [interviewed] Bob Schieffer and I’ve got Walter Mondale, former vice president, and Walter Cronkite’s children, but the people who were the unknowns helped me complete the book because they’re funny, interesting, poignant and, in many cases, never-before-told stories.”
Elkins was one of nearly 100 people Owens interviewed for the book. Others include a woman who knew both Kennedy and Oswald, the doctor who tried to save Kennedy’s son who lived for only 40 hours after birth, and Helen Thomas, the former dean of the White House press corps, who wrote the foreward but died just before the book was published.
In what Owen calls his professional legacy, “November 22, 1963: Reflections on the Life, Assassination, and Legacy of John F. Kennedy” presents readers a complete picture of Kennedy, through short stories, memories people shared about him, as well as more complex accounts of who Kennedy was as a president and family man — all in about 354 pages with more than 30 images.
“John K. will be talked about for 100 years from now or longer because he was gunned down, cut down at the prime of his life,” Owen said. “He died much sooner than he should have.”
Prior to writing his book, Owen graduated from the University of California, Berkeley and worked at a small newspaper, the Oakdale Leader, before going to Washington DC to report on politics and, eventually, work at World Vision here in Federal Way. Today, he works for the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle.
“November 22, 1963: Reflections on the Life, Assassination, and Legacy of John F. Kennedy” by Dean Owen can be purchased at book stores or on Amazon.