The assassination of President John Kennedy — 50 years ago this week — was one of those rare historic events: a moment that, even five decades later, feels at-once intensely personal and globally significant. People struggled to fathom the murder of a vibrant national leader, while mourning, often thousands of miles away, along with the young family he left behind.
Communities raised money for memorials. Trade groups sent flowers to the White House. Companies and organizations held moments of silence. Everywhere one looked, there were reminders of the slain president.
Others, expressing their grief in more private ways, wrote letters. Long, flowing tributes to Jackie. To John Jr. and to Caroline. To their own families and friends. Writing, it seemed, helped ease the pain.
As LIFE.com revisited Time Inc.’s coverage of the Kennedy assassination ahead of the 50th anniversary, we discovered a different type of letter — a plea, of sorts. In late November and early December 1963, LIFE magazine published two issues largely dedicated to JFK. When the Nov. 29 edition hit newsstands, it sold out within hours. A rumor around the Time & Life building in New York had it that issues were being sold on college campuses for $10. (The magazine’s cover price at the time was 25 cents.)
When the massive coverage failed to satisfy the nation’s appetite for all things Kennedy, readers began to petition LIFE directly. Senators, congressmen, Fortune 500 CEOs and readers around the world penned letters to LIFE commending the magazine’s efforts to distill the Kennedy legacy — and asking how they might receive copies of their own.
One letter in the archives, in particular, held our attention, and its ingenuous, earnest tone seemed to capture not only a nation’s loss, but something of an era’s innocence.
The writer, Raleigh E. Kraft of Hardin, Montana, was just 7 years old when he penned this request to LIFE:
Would you please send me a copy of the picture of President Kennedy that is on the latest issue of the Life magasing [sic] becaus [sic] I would like to give it to my daddy for Christmas. My daddy Thinks it is the best picture of him could you make this picture good enough for framing.
P.S. I Am in the Second grade.
Raleigh E. Kraft Jr.
609 N Crow
us Kids loved him too.
Five decades after he wrote those words, LIFE.com located Mr. Kraft, now a 57-year-old investment adviser in Fort Royal, Va. When we first reached Kraft by telephone, he thought we were selling subscriptions. But as we read out those words, written by his younger self, his voice betrayed deep emotion.
“I’ll be damned,” he breathed. “Oh my.”
Then: “I wish my dad was still alive.”
Kraft and his six brothers and sisters lived in Hardin, a small ranching community in southeast Montana, on the edge of two Indian reservations and just 13 miles from the spot where Custer made his last stand during the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. His father owned a saloon and his mother was a realtor. On the day Kennedy died, Kraft recalled his parent’s reactions to the devastating news.
“I know the killing of John Kennedy rocked our house,” Kraft said. “My dad talked a lot of politics in the saloon. Everyone was upset; my dad was very emotional. I’m sure he cried.”
The outpouring of grief in his own home prompted Kraft to write to LIFE, requesting a copy of the photograph that had appeared on the cover of the Kennedy memorial edition exactly one week after the killing.
Eventually time, and the country, moved on. After working as a professional cowboy and a brief stint at West Point Prep School, Kraft went on to study finance at Georgetown University.
“I can’t remember giving the present to my dad,” Kraft recalls. “But a book on President Kennedy sat on our coffee table forever.”