Press-Republican

November 22, 2013

Jay man worked for JFK in 1963


Press-Republican

JAY — Nathan Farb is considered a pre-eminent photographer of the Adirondacks, but before that acclaim, he was a young man working for President John F. Kennedy.

In the spring of 1963, Farb, a psychology major, graduated from Rutgers University. He took a cross-country trip and returned to land his first job with Mobilization for Youth, an experimental program in New York City testing social programs for the underprivileged.

Though the program was a Kennedy initiative, Farb never met the president. But he did meet and photograph his brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

Here, Farb shares his memories of the president’s assassination, which is overlaid by memories more personal:

“The date, November 22, is deeply and painfully burned into my consciousness. It is the day Esme, my daughter, was in a car crash that left her brain injured, disabled, and forever changed my life and hers and her mother’s and her sister’s.

“What happened in her yellow Renault Alliance on Nov. 22, 1991, whitewashed the dark events in that black limo in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

“The personal events that were broadcast almost nowhere were a tsunami wiping out almost all memory of the ‘63 horror.

“I struggled to untangle ancient, buried dreams and memories that lay beneath the tides and seasons of many years — they were hard to recall, and I wonder how accurate and true these memories are. 

“I am even more suspect of my memories because (one recent) evening I watched ‘First Cousin Once Removed,’ a brilliant and challenging film about memory by HBO.

“I say all of this in spite of the fact that I was working for JFK in New York City when he was killed. I was young, idealistic and had been a bit politically involved at Rutgers University.

“I did not completely buy JFK’s ‘Ask not what your country could do for you, but what we could do for our country’ rhetoric but I felt some moral responsibility to move the country away from Jim Crow and the class system that I grew up with in Arkansas and in Lake Placid, as well.

‘LOST AND HURT’

“I was at Mobilization for Youth, an anti-poverty program on E. 3rd St. on the Lower East Side, when it happened. The Kennedy brothers had friends, Dick Cloward and Fran Piven, both professors at Columbia University School of Social Work, come up with the idea of Head Start, giving poor kids enrichment before kindergarten. 

“The Kennedys wanted proof that it would work before they offered any legislation to implement the programs on a widespread basis, which Johnson later did under ‘The War on Poverty.’

“I was part of the computer team that analyzed the earliest data on Head Start, looking for any proof that this early education was something that would give those disadvantaged kids an equal footing with middle-class kids in first grade and beyond.

“I think I heard it (Kennedy being shot) first from a young black woman who ran the computer-card sorter in what we called the data room. She looked lost and afraid.

“Soon, there was a small Puerto Rican guy who went and got a boxer, a small TV with rabbit ears that grabbed the ghosted signal out of the air ... ghosted by the Empire State Building in Midtown.

“Our group of computer workers — card-punch operators and card-sorting machine operators — couldn’t continue working. 

“Our hands did not move right. Our brains did not move right. I was a terrible code writer in the best of times. So, the real question became should we just go home? 

“Some of us just stayed until we got hungry. We had no family to go home to and just didn’t want to be alone. I don’t think we talked or said anything to each other. 

“I only remember people’s faces: lost and hurt.

‘APOCALYPSE’

“A few Puerto Rican members of the team, who were Catholics, cried. The Catholics had a special relationship with the Kennedys. It was quite moving. They had some feeling that the Kennedys took Jesus’s call to justice for the poor as a call from the Lord himself.

“I had not yet bought my first camera, so I have no records from that day. And, I was not completely shocked. My mother’s family was from Arkansas/Oklahoma, and I understood Southern fear and sentiment.

“A few years later, I was crossing the country in a VW bus and made a surprise visit to one of my favorite aunts in Arkansas. I had long hair by this time, and, by sheer coincidence, I arrived exactly at the moment Chicago Police were beating up the kids in Lincoln Park.

“My Aunt Davidine and her dirt-farmer husband were watching the TV coverage of the riots. She was interrupted and came to see who was at the door. She did not recognize me immediately and screamed at the top of her lungs, ‘Steele (her husband’s last name), my God they’re here in Fort Smith!!!’

“The apocalypse has always been on the American mind and is reawakened in each generation. 

For mine, it was reawakened by JFK.”

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LOOKING BACK

Press-Republican employees, retirees and freelancers share their memories of the day JFK died; read it online at www.pressrepublican.com.