By Kenneth Bachor, Liz Ronk, and Lily Rothman
May 26, 2017

About a week after President John F. Kennedy‘s sudden and shocking death in November of 1963, by the bullet of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, TIME chose this letter from a reader as the first to print in response to the news:

The enormous swell of sympathy and despair that has risen throughout this nation and the world is testimony to these overwhelming aspects of John F. Kennedy — he had within him a sense of greatness; he bestowed upon the presidency a literate, a sensitive and even a poetic value. These values were considered by most people to evidence brilliance and genius. It is this that transcends politics and nationality — the tragedy of his untouched capacities.

Kennedy was only 46 when he was killed, but he fit a lot of life into those few decades: scholar, writer, war hero, family man, celebrity and — of course — politician. And, though a greater number of years have now passed since his death than passed during his life, his legacy continues to be a major touchstone for American culture.

For the 100th anniversary of his May 29, 1917, birth, here’s a very, very brief look back at his life and the complicated century that he helped shape.

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