Fifty years later, national sense of purpose still reverberates

1963. America changed that year. We were changed. We lost our innocence.

I grew up in a small Washington town, Walla Walla, in a Republican family. We were comfortable; not wealthy, not smug, but confident. We were readers, players of board games and musicians. We were challenged to think, converse, debate politely; we were content.

Mom was a kind, generous work-at-home person; Dad was the editor of the newspaper. Being in a small college town was even more stimulating, with more contentment.

President John Kennedy was the perfect fit for 1960 — he exuded hope and confidence for families like ours. I married, and my husband Stephen, more political than I, thought that after graduation, we should be bold. We decided to join with Kennedy’s Peace Corps, to do something for the world and even more for ourselves, as the president had suggested. We were the new generation, after all.

Suddenly, on Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas — we all remember exactly where we were, what we were doing — and things were different. It was confusing; we didn’t understand how this happened. Fear beyond the Cold War abstractions entered our lives.

Stephen and I went off to the Peace Corps in Iran the next year and, as it ended up, more changed for us than we were able to change anything in that ancient culture. We returned to Portland with near-manic belief that we felt we could make a difference. Stephen’s family was an impressive change from mine, fully engaged in Oregon progressive politics. I happily followed his politics and eventually took his Oregon House seat when he ran for the state Senate in 1977.

I was changing in other ways, too. The second wave of feminism spoke to many of us who were fresh from the innocence of the 1960s. In addition, Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign introduced me to inequality in our country. As a result, I began to take notice of poverty, injustice and discrimination. I had seen none of these issues arise in Walla Walla, but that changed after Kennedy’s days of Camelot disappeared.

Once again, invigorated with energy and an action agenda, my optimism became renewed and I felt I was helping to change things within the political structure. Those halcyon days of bipartisan work toward a common cause were exciting and hopeful.

But looking back, underneath it all, I believe things were different. Many generations have bemoaned societal changes, claiming that things were always better “before.”

Fortunately, we who live in Oregon have been able to hold on to our optimism most of the time, and continue to live lives not just for ourselves and our personal enrichment, but also for our beloved neighborhoods and on behalf of vibrant civic groups. We have been buffered a bit from the prevailing deep divisiveness, cynicism and fear.

At my recent Whitman College 50th reunion, returning to my traditional Republican small town, I was reminded of the feelings I had when I graduated: bright-eyed, optimistic and innocent.

The full measure of that hopefulness has never left me, but I know that things changed that November for sure.

Gretchen Kafoury graduated from Whitman College in 1963, spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer and embarked on a political career. Her political service included the state House of Representatives, 1977-82, the Multnomah County Commission, 1985-91 and the Portland City Council, 1991-98. She recently retired as an instructor at Portland State University’s College of Urban and Public Affairs, Hatfield School of Government. Her daughter, Deborah, carries the Kafoury family torch for political service, previously in the Legislature and, most recently, on the

Multnomah County Commission.

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