DECATUR — Local history teachers and enthusiasts are eager to dive into new information about the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy with the release Thursday of thousands of never publicly seen documents.
“It can do two things,” said Janilyn Kocher, who teaches history at Richland Community College. “It can shed new light on this fascinating story, and it’s probably going to fuel more controversy and questions and new theories. But that’s what history is.”
President Donald Trump said Saturday that he would not block the scheduled release of the documents by the National Archives. They include more than 3,000 documents that have never been seen by the public and more than 30,000 that have been previously released but with redactions.
Kennedy’s life, death and family have long mesmerized the American public. The baby boomers were just coming of age in a post-World War II America that was flexing its muscle, and Kennedy radiated youthful confidence. To have him struck down by Lee Harvey Oswald, who they were told acted alone and for his own reasons, seemed to defy logic. The conspiracy theories that arose immediately have never quite shaken their grip on Americans, who found even more to explore with the rise of the internet.
The events leading up to and following Kennedy’s death were the subject of a two-day conference that Kocher attended in 2013. She came away from the event at Olney Central College, about 100 miles south of Decatur, with a deeper appreciation for different perspectives on the assassination.
She was eager to share the ideas with her U.S. history students, who responded enthusiastically. “I had a student say, ‘Oh my gosh, this was the best part of the entire class,’” Kocher said.
It's unlikely the documents will contain any big revelations on a tragedy that has stirred conspiracy theories for decades, Judge John Tunheim said last month. Tunheim was chairman of the independent agency in the 1990s that made public many assassination records and decided how long others could remain secret.
Some JFK scholars believe the trove of files may, however, provide insight into assassin Oswald's trip to Mexico City weeks before the killing, during which he visited the Soviet and Cuban embassies. Oswald's stated reason for going was to get visas that would allow him to enter Cuba and the Soviet Union, according to the Warren Commission, the investigative body established by President Lyndon B. Johnson, but much about the trip remains unknown.
Teachers and history buffs alike find much to discuss each time additional records related to the investigation are released.
“First of all, he was such a beloved president for a lot of people,” said Todd Vohland, a social studies teacher at St. Teresa High School. “Also, you can almost look at how America seemingly changed after this assassination. Whether that would have happened regardless, we’ll never know, but you can really see a change, especially in young America.”
Vohland spends a couple days during his U.S. history class each year teaching juniors about Kennedy’s assassination and the theories surrounding it. In the age of the internet, he said it’s important to give students as much information as possible so they can make their own informed judgments.
He also finds conspiracies have a way of grabbing their attention. While they are generally aware of the Kennedy presidency and Oswald, he said, they don’t always have an understanding of the wider world at the time.
“They need to see it and hear, I think, the different conspiraces, because if you give them one side of it would be unfair because there so much out there,” he said. “Anything that can bring history to the forefront and show people, especially young people, that history isn’t just some battle a long time ago, that it still plays a part in your life and affects your life is good.”
Vohland said whatever is released “probably won’t be a bombshell,” but the information will provide background and context, and maybe, just maybe, put some theories to the test.
“We talk about transparency these days. If we want transparency, it’s a good think they are being released,” he said.
Megan Glover-Flanigan, the Decatur School District’s social studies curriculum coordinator, said Kennedy’s legacy is a natural part of the curriculum. Whether students are aware of his significance as a touchstone for her parents’ generation depends on how old they are, she said.
“In this case, of course, you have the assassination itself. The fact the president was gunned down is very provocative. There is a mystery, investigation, all the different conspiracy theories. The kids really get interested in exploring that,” she said. “The release of additional documents, obviously we’ll be exploring that.
“The assassination, ultimately, among the views of a lot historians, it began to spur a catalyst for events that led to a more tumultuous decade. Set the stage.”
Glover-Flanigan, a self-described Kennedy buff, said she hopes the new documents can shed light on the assassination and the ensuing investigation. She grew up in a household that embraced the nation’s history and remembers watching documentaries about Kennedy. It’s part of what led to her career as a teacher.
“Personally, I have gone through various periods of questioning the lone gunman theory. I would like to more about the evidence that led to that conclusion,” she said. “But at the same time, there are so many unknowns about what will be released. It’s exciting another batch (of documents) will be released.”
Rich Hansen, the head of the social science department at Mount Zion, said he also hopes the new documents can help connect the dots and give students a fuller understanding of the assassination and its impact, but he doesn’t expect anything that comes out will change his views.
“I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” said Hansen, whose own career in teaching and love of history was sparked by a newspaper given to him about the assassination by his parents when he was 9 years old. “Kennedy was larger than life, so if you take him away, then there should be a larger-than-life plot. No one wants to believe a lone nut got lucky.”
Hansen’s students spend a week and a half on the topic each year. He has collected about 80 newspapers from the day of the assassination as well as other original research, and his students use those resources to formulate their own questions and projects.
“I am a firm believer in primary resources,” said Hansen, who has had first-person witnesses to the assassination and its aftermath visit his classroom. “I always look forward to sharing new and released government documents.with my students.”
Another of Decatur’s Kennedy fans, 16-year-old Lauryn Pugh, said she has also never bought into alternate theories about his cause of death.
Lauryn’s interest in the 35th president is well known among her family and friends, especially after she appeared in the Herald & Review with a cardboard cutout of him in 2015. She shared her interest in Kennedy as part of a profile story before she attended the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Two years later, the junior at St. Teresa High School said the obsession has died down a bit, but she’s still interested in the new information.
Her interest in the Kennedys stemmed more from the president and his family while they were alive, but Lauryn is interested to see what her schoolmates have to say.
“I think everyone has their own conspiracy theory about his death,” she said. “It’s pretty interesting to see everyone else’s point of view.”
Also, if anyone is wondering — yes, she still has the cutout.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.