AUGUSTA — Fifty years ago, Barbara McCarthy was a young wife in Worcester, Mass. She was 21 years old, had just given birth to her second child and was hopeful about her future and the country’s.

“I can only speak for myself, but I felt it within the other people within my age bracket,” said McCarthy, now a resident of Gardiner. “Thinking, ‘Yeah, maybe this is going to be a good time, things are going to get better.’ And then kaboom, it was gone. Things didn’t get better.”

McCarthy’s optimism, and that of so many others, was shattered by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.

In advance of the 50th anniversary of the assassination on Friday, last week McCarthy and the other students in a University of Maine at Augusta Senior College class about Kennedy reflected on his legacy and the change in attitudes that followed his death.

The country suddenly felt very different — the glamorous, booming 1950s had finally ended, launching a new era of violence and division, said Nancy Bryant, 68, of Whitefield.

“The Cuban missile crisis, that was scary, but the idea that the president could be assassinated was much scarier,” she said.

Kennedy’s assassination was the first in a series of events that changed Americans’ self-perception, said G. Calvin Mackenzie, professor of American government at Colby College, who with Colby history professor Robert Weisbrot wrote “The Liberal Hour,” a Pulitzer Prize-finalist book about political change in the 1960s.

“It was a time very different from our own,” Mackenzie said. “The economy was growing, people were looking forward to bright things, science was producing all kind of wonderful things, like color televisions. And people trusted the government, which was the remarkable thing. … It was a pretty negative statement about the kind of country we live in, where our leaders get assassinated, especially one in whom people had invested their hopes.”

Kennedy’s assassination was followed five years later by those of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., along with urban riots and revelations of government dishonesty surrounding the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam.

Kennedy’s image was also tarnished by information that emerged about his personal life, Mackenzie said.

“And yet people just want to like Kennedy and feel good about a time when people felt more carefree, young and vigorous,” Mackenzie said. “The assassination ended all of that, so we feast on the memories.”

‘It wasn’t real’

Mention of the assassination elicits memories about hearing the news and being glued to the television in the days afterward for those old enough to remember it.

Chelsea resident Norman Arbour, 61, recalls being released early from sixth grade at Lou Buker School in Augusta. A delivery boy for the Kennebec Journal, he received a call asking if he was available to sell copies of the newspaper’s special edition. Holding a placard that declared, “President Kennedy Assassinated,” he sold newspapers in downtown Augusta until about 9 p.m.

“It was kind of somber. It’s hard to explain,” he said. “It wasn’t real, you know. You’re used to hustle and bustle, especially on Water Street back then, but it was just quiet, somber.”

Arbour, now the sergeant-at-arms for the Maine House, said he did not fully understand the enormity of what had happened until years later. He sometimes finds himself reflecting on it at odd moments, like when he spent his honeymoon in Hyannisport, Mass., where the Kennedys have long spent summers.

Though the UMA Senior College class covered much more of Kennedy’s life and administration than just his death, every week instructor Michael J. Bell asked at least one student to share memories of the day of the assassination. Years later, some choked up, Bell said.

Bell, 48, has had a lifelong interest in Kennedy despite being born after his death. He wrote his master’s thesis about Kennedy’s election in 1960 and has a diecast replica of the limousine Kennedy was riding in when shot, which he received as a gift from his in-laws. With all Bell knows from reading about Kennedy, he said teaching the class to older people made the assassination more personal for him.

“Being in this class has been great because I get to experience what you all experienced,” he said to his students. “Why does this guy resonate so many years later? I think it was because he was young, he was a dad, he had kids. You were also young and had kids.”

Paul Mills, a Farmington attorney and amateur historian, said the assassination was a landmark event for anyone alive at that time.

“There’s certainly not a month that goes by that you don’t think about it, think about where you were and who you were with,” he said.

Fittingly, Mills said, he learned that Kennedy was dead from a friend from his neighborhood, Ed Morin, now a journalist with the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.

Election anxiety

Even though Kennedy did not win Maine in the 1960 presidential election — Richard Nixon won the state with 57 percent of the popular vote — Mills and Mackenzie both said there was anxiety here about losing a regional advocate in the White House, especially because Kennedy was close to Sen. Edmund Muskie. Lyndon B. Johnson, however, had a good relationship with Sen. Margaret Chase Smith because they entered the Senate at the same time.

“There was certainly apprehension in the northeastern United States to have someone from Texas coming into the White House,” Mills said. “Those doubts were reasonably quickly dispatched.”

Johnson actually alienated the South by pushing for civil rights legislation, which he said was a way to honor Kennedy by continuing his agenda.

Despite today’s negative attitudes about government and deep political divisions, Mackenzie thinks Americans would still be unified in horror and sadness by the assassination of a president.

“I think Americans would feel that way with the assassination of any president, whether you voted for them or not,” he said. “We are connected to that office. When something like that happens to a president, it’s a terrible moment.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645[email protected]Twitter: @s_e_mcmillan@s_e_mcmillan