In the late 1970s, 15 years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, an emergency-room nurse named Jodie Hansen, a woman with no book contract and no professional writing experience, sent out a simple questionnaire to people she had never met.
“We are publishing a book about the memories people have of an unexpected, dramatic, and tragic event in American history,” the letter read. “The book will be compiled of personal stories submitted by people of all walks of life, people of all nationalities, and of all political party preferences—–telling us where they were, what they were doing, the feelings they had, the reaction of others around them, and how they heard the news of the assassination of the late President John F. Kennedy.”
Hansen didn’t just send it around to family and friends in her small town of Union City, Tenn. (population: 10,000). She sent the questionnaire to world leaders, television personalities, Washington insiders, writers, humorists, chefs, religious figures, history professors, even death row inmates. And they wrote back. By the time Hansen finished five years later in 1983, she had collected 1,000 stories about where people were when JFK was shot.
In the collection, released this month in a book by Hansen and her daughter Laura titled November 22, 1963, Hansen reproduces 250 of the most interesting replies, many written with bygone letterheads, typewriter errors, formal etiquette and common courtesies. Hansen spoke with TIME about her quest, how she unwittingly became a subscriber to Yasser Arafat’s PLO magazine and why she decided not to publish a 6-page response from death row inmate Charles Manson.
It’s unusual for someone to start a project like this, especially considering that you weren’t an author but a nurse. So why did you?
I like history. And I like people. I like to talk to people. Plus, when I asked people in my little town, I got pretty much the same story from everybody. The men were at the Rotary Club and the women were either at a bridge luncheon or watching As the World Turns.
So you initially started asking people around you but then branched out to more well-known figures.
Yeah. We lived close to the University of Tennessee-Martin, and [baseball players] Hank Aaron and Sam Musial visited. So I decided to try to get to them, and I did. That inspired me and gave me confidence to reach further. One thing led to another. I was lucky to get an interview with [actor and comedian] Danny Thomas at St. Jude Hospital. He was so enthusiastic about my project, he gave me names of his celebrity friends to write. I was so excited I got pulled over for speeding after leaving the hospital.
Did you tell the police officer about your project?
I did, and I didn’t get a ticket. He probably thought it was so outlandish that this crazy lady needs a break.
When you were writing these celebrities, you didn’t actually have a contract for a book?
In the back of my mind, I was dreaming. I wanted to write a book about the letters, weaving it into a narrative form.
What are some of your favorites?
I had a really good letter from Indira Gandhi. So then I thought, well, I’ll write some more world leaders. Yasser Arafat did not send me a story, but I got a form letter back thanking me for my interest in their “just cause.” They put me on their mailing list for their PLO magazines. I wasn’t too happy about that.
What did your children think of your project?
They didn’t even pay much attention until I heard from Charles Manson. He’s not even in the book.
The letter is so psychotic. And plus, he’s looking for publicity. It’s six pages. And it’s really, really weird.
I guess he had time on his hands. But you reached out to him specifically?
I did because I had to get a good cross-section. I had to get all types.
Were you worried that these celebrities wouldn’t reply?
I did worry about that, but I name-dropped after a while. That’s the psychology of it. I put excerpts in I thought were interesting.
Most of the time you got a response.
Yeah. And they gave me a good reason in their mind why they couldn’t give me a story. I have a lot of really good signatures with no stories.
It seems like it would be so difficult finding addresses 30 years ago. I imagine it would be easier now.
Honey, no. It’s harder today. I went to the library in our little town and looked in the Who’s Who in America. I’ve looked since then, online, and I could not find home addresses.
How would your project be different if you started asking people to react weeks or months after the assassination?
I think that’s part of the beauty of it. The Kennedy library is probably full of oral histories and all sorts of records about it just a few days after. But for 15 years, people did have time to reflect.
With events like these, you figure everyone remembers where they were when they heard. But it turns out, that’s not the case.
[Author] Arthur Clarke didn’t remember. [Football coach] Bear Bryant of Alabama — he’s not in there, but he didn’t know. I got a call from [Kentucky Fried Chicken’s] Col. Sanders’ secretary telling me he had been racking his brain and could not remember. A whole string of people admitted they could not remember.
Why do you think they admitted that?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s a roundabout way to say I didn’t like Kennedy. Or maybe they truly could not remember and they’re just honest people. I don’t think I would admit it.
You started collecting these stories in the late ‘70s. Why publish them now?
We had a feeble attempt on the 25th anniversary, when no one could realize how to put them in narrative form. That was a disappointment, but it wasn’t earth-shattering. And then they sat there. Every now and then a curator would tell me to air them out.
Where were they?
In a cedar chest. That sounds old-fashioned. Don’t make me sound old-fashioned.
That sounds like a perfect place for them. So, where were you on Nov. 22?
I was feeding my daughter Laura carrots, sitting on the couch. It’s such a dull story. I imagine that everybody else has a better one.