Recollections of Days that Changed History – Where Were You When…?

Recently, I was thinking about what I was doing or where I was when I heard life-changing historical news. I’m certain many people remember what others told them about a specific day, or what they read in ensuing years – perhaps on the event anniversary. This sparked the idea of writing about events for which I could remember something distinctively unique and worth sharing when I heard or watched history playing out. I decided to broaden the stipulation slightly to encompass what I was doing within a 2-hour time frame of hearing the news. I have a visual memory, so my recollections of events and associated emotional reactions are retrieved from the recesses of my brain via images. Within these parameters, I could only come up with 11 events, listed here in chronological order. Other memories were a little too vague to include (e.g. when John Lennon was shot) or too commonplace.

I believe certain factors influence how a person recalls events, including one’s own memory aptitude, age at the time of the event, and the event’s magnitude, which most certainly is impacted by personal factors. For instance, countless movie and rock stars have died during my lifetime, but I can only recall the unique circumstances of what I was doing for three, as you’ll read below.


JFK November 22, 1963


I was 5-years-old when JFK was assassinated on Friday, November 22, 1963. I was sitting at the top of the slide in my kindergarten classroom at Todd Hall in Lincolnwood, Illinois when an announcement was made on the school intercom. A full-size slide in a school classroom is pretty remarkable – perhaps that helped engrave this tragic event in my visual memory. Of course as a 5-year-old, I hardly understood the magnitude of this tragedy.


Robert Kennedy June 5, 1968


I just turned 10 when Bobby Kennedy was fatally shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles at 12:50 am on Wednesday, June 5, 1968. I clearly remember my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Schatzman canceling the regular lesson and turning the television on in my Rutledge Hall classroom that morning and periodically throughout the afternoon. I can picture myself sitting on the floor with my classmates watching the broadcast and remember the touch-and-go gravity of the situation. Kennedy died 26 hours after the shooting at Good Samaritan Hospital. By age 10, I was better able to comprehend the enormity of this Kennedy tragedy and recall shedding some tears.


Walk on Moon July 20, 1969


This is the sole happy event among the 11 chronicled here. On Sunday, July 20, 1969, mission commander Neil Armstrong and pilot Buzz Aldrin landed the lunar module Eagle on the moon’s surface. Armstrong was the first to step onto the lunar surface at 10:56 p.m. EST. With more than half a billion people watching on television, he climbed down the ladder and proclaimed: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I remember all of us sitting huddled together on the leather couch in the den with the lights turned off.  I count my blessings my parents let me stay up way past my bedtime to watch this historical event, although the image was quite degraded. I still have the commemorative bronze coin my parents bought me.


Nixon Resigns August 9, 1974


During a live broadcast from the White House on Thursday, August 8, 1974 at 9:00 pm EST, Richard M. Nixon announced that his resignation would take effect the following day at noon EST. I was with my parents and sister Janet in Albuquerque, New Mexico on the tail end of a 2-week vacation. Prior to this, we had stayed in a very nice dude ranch in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, however, this motel was your typical flea bag. I clearly remember all of us watching Nixon resign while sitting on the edge of one of the two beds. It would have been 7:00 pm MST and I recall Janet and I waited impatiently to go out to dinner – this was postponed by the broadcast.


Elvis August 16, 1977


Elvis Presley was found unresponsive on his bathroom floor on the morning of Tuesday, August 16, 1977. His death was officially pronounced at 3:30 pm at Baptist Memorial Hospital. I found out Elvis died from a guest at the Flying V Ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, later in the day. A group of us were heading out for an afternoon hike down to the Gros Ventre River when she came out of the main lodge to tell us Elvis had died. I don’t recall the lady’s name, but I remember she was tall and heavy set, in her 40’s, a native Tennessean, and had long, light brown hair. She was a huge Elvis fan, so obviously was quite distraught. She couldn’t talk about anything else during her remaining stay at the ranch.


AA Crash May 25, 1979


I was in the lobby bar at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston on Friday, May 25, 1979 when I heard about the horrific American Airlines Flight 191 crash in Chicago. We nicknamed the bar the “peanut bar” because they served free Spanish peanuts with drinks. I called my parents the next day and they told me they knew a couple who died in the crash. My long-distance friend Patrick (who became my husband, 1981-1995) had flown in from the Netherlands and it was the first time we were meeting face to face. Shortly after he flew back to the Netherlands from JFK, I boarded a KLM flight at JFK for my first European trip to visit him in Rotterdam. I was extremely nervous when I boarded the flight, because it was just nine days after the AA crash.


Challenger January 28, 1986


The space shuttle Challenger launched at 11:30 am EST on Tuesday, January 28, 1986, exploding just 73 seconds later, killing the crew of seven. I was already en route to downtown Chicago when the shuttle exploded. I heard people talking on the street, but did not see the horrific video of the explosion until much later in the day. At 12:15 pm CST, I was interviewing at the Art Institute of Chicago for a marketing position at the store. Needless to say, this was the most off-point job interview I ever experienced. The HR person was so distracted by this tragedy, she couldn’t conduct the interview properly. She was understandably emotionally overwrought, but I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to lose it in front of a complete stranger at a job interview. Not surprisingly, I didn’t get the job and have to wonder if the outcome was impacted by the unusually tragic circumstances.


OJ October 3, 1995


At 10:07 a.m. PST on October 3, 1995, O. J. Simpson was found not guilty of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.  I was working at AARP and standing at my coworker Lisa’s desk listening to the radio when the not guilty verdict was announced. David, a black coworker, cheered and clapped raucously as the verdict was announced. For anyone who thinks public sentiment around this trial was not influenced by race – I can tell you it was. Most of my black colleagues believed Simpson was innocent. I was overcome by such sadness and disbelief at the verdict, I decided to go shopping on my lunch break. I went to Harlem Irving Plaza and bought myself a sterling silver and chrysocolla brooch at a small independent Native American store. Talk about emotional buying – I have never worn this brooch!


September 11, 2001


This horrifically tragic event on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 was of such unfathomable proportions, I still cannot wrap my mind around it more than 16 years later. Everyone who was old enough at the time and still with us, likely remembers what they were doing when they heard the news. I had a bad cold and stayed home from work. Jeff called me around 8:45 CST and told me to turn the television on – nearly one hour after the first tower was hit. Naturally, I was glued to the TV the rest of the day and couldn’t wait for my daughter to come home from school. She had just started her freshman year in high school and I knew she would be extremely upset. It was my dad’s 78th birthday … and as a native New Yorker in love with NYC, this day was the worst birthday he ever had. In fact, he said he wouldn’t celebrate on this day ever again – of course, time inevitably erased this declaration. My boss was staying just blocks away from the World Trade Center on 9/11 and shared quite a saga with us upon his return to Chicago. I could write far more, but this blog is only about memories associated with moments in history.


Michael Jackson June 25, 2009


I grew up listening to the music of The Jackson 5 and admired Michael Jackson for his musical genius. Yes, I thought his mental problems and behavior were extreme, but this does not alter my opinion of his talents. It’s sad that anybody has to cope with powerful inner turmoil and nearly unbearable pain. Michael Jackson died on Thursday, June 25, 2009 at 2:26 pm PST. It took a few minutes for broadcast news to announce this. I was driving around the Little Village area waiting to hear from my daughter, who had jury duty at the Criminal Court Building at 26th and California. I heard the news on the radio and had to pull over because I was upset and too distracted to drive. My daughter called me less than 5 minutes later to tell me she was dismissed. She was surprised and sad when I told her, but didn’t have quite as strong a reaction.


Amy Winehouse July 23, 2011


On Saturday, July 23, 2011, I was driving to the Whole Foods in downtown Evanston to see my daughter while she was doing a demo. I knew my parents would be stopping by there as well. On my way, I heard the shocking and sad news that Amy Winehouse had died at the age of 27. At 3:54 pm BST, two ambulances were called to Winehouse’s home in Camden, London and she was pronounced dead at the scene. I heard the news around 1:30 pm CST – of course it’s six hours earlier in Chicago than London. I was surprised my parents knew of her music. They had just read an in-depth article about her dad Mitch Winehouse, who I knew very little about until I read his book Amy.

I welcome you to share your memories of where you were when …







  1. Hi Betsy,

    This is a very fascinating subject, and I think everyone has feelings concerning this! Allow me to go into it, but bear in mind sometimes it is hard for a foreigner like me to find the right words, when something gets technical.

    Although all the stories you mentioned affected people alive today and over a certain age at the time, let me just pick out one of them: President Kennedy’s murder. I mention it, because I am ‘investigating’ the subject to this day, and have a lot of books, DVDs, and other related material on it. I think the subject keeps me interested because the main suspect at that time, Lee Harvey Oswald, was killed himself a day and a half later.

    As I was 7-years-old at that time, it would be easy to say that I remember, but I don’t! However, my wife is 10 months older than I am, and SHE remembers it! Because I know a lot of details, I asked her, and everyone else who says he/she remembers what day it was. She used to visit her grandmother every Friday evening and they always used to eat chips for the evening meal. As people commonly eat dinner around 6 pm, it was likely around 6:30 pm when she heard the news on the radio. They stopped eating, the chips went cold, and they threw the rest away. Now, chips were considered to be a sort of luxury back then, so it obviously had a considerable impact to allow the chips get cold. There is more. Dallas time was 12:30 pm as the Hertz sign on the Texas Book Shop Depository showed, so in Holland, it was already 18:30 in the evening, so dinner time!

    I have been a teacher to 12-14-year-old children in the past and JFK is a great subject to talk about. The assassination can be ‘filed’ under many subjects for kids, because there are things in this for everyone: drawing maps of the world, the USA, and where Dallas is situated, a 3-D drawing of the Dealey Plaza situation, the details of the Lincoln Continental Presidential car, the influence Jackie had on fashion. Others include events leading to the Cold War, and the (different!) stories the witnesses on the plaza told the media, and later to the Warren Commission.

    Yes, I went to Dallas, so I could answer a lot of questions from the kids. After that, we replayed Oswald’s ‘movements’ to determine if it was possible for him to kill the president. Stopwatches and a fake gun (a ruler!) were used. Parents were waiting at home for the outcome, which we posted on the school door the next week, which provided plenty to talk about it.

    Most important was of course WHY people remember the exact spot and time of this and other events. Bear in mind I had kids in class who did not take an interest in most school subjects, but I heard some of them saying to each other it’s ‘Kennedy-day today’. We all came up with ideas, and found it is easy to associate our own personal history with big events. You not only know where you were at that time, but also where you and family members lived, pets at the time, your age, and often things about your parents, grandparents, and friends.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.