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Here & Now
Fri November 22, 2013
Where Were You? 50 Memories To Mark 50 Years
Originally published on Fri November 22, 2013 4:24 pm
Here & Now has been receiving emails, web comments, Facebook messages and tweets (and even one fax) from listeners, with their memories of the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, 50 years ago today. (See our special coverage here)
Many of these stories share common threads: Class lessons interrupted, seeing parents and teachers cry, being glued to the television for days. Memories also came from foreign countries, on board planes, in hospitals and in the telephone room of an Air Force base.
We’ve loved reading them and wanted to share 50 here to mark 50 years past. Thank you for sharing your stories and feel free to share more in the comments below.
Jim Bliek (San Antonio, Texas)
I remember well the moment we were told. I was a Junior at Lyons Central High School, in Lyons, New York. It was 6th or 7th period and we were seated in Mr. Taylor’s American History Class. The announcement came over the school’s loud speaker: First that the president had been shot, and a short time later, that he was dead. I remember so well Mr. Taylor sitting on the front edge of his desk. His head slumped down, he could not speak. The room, the school was silent. A short time later there was class change. Everyone walked into the hallway – all of the students – you didn’t hear a sound – no one spoke – you didn’t even hear shoes hitting the floor – all was silent once again. I shall never forget that day… Or the days that followed glued to the TV set – watching – watching – watching.
Lawrence Fierman (Westminster West, Vt.)
I was 9.5 at the time; 4th grade at the Rutter Avenue school in Kingston, PA, across the Susquehanna river from what was then the burgeoning metropolis of Wilkes Barre. Returning to class after lunch – yes, we’d actually walk home for lunch – I remember our young teacher Mrs. Schoenfeld, along with her teacher’s aid, Ms. Smith, being called to the classroom door and then returning somewhat teary eyed to tell us that the president had been killed. I recall her looking up at the wall clock hanging near the door and remarking the exact time and that we were at that moment without a president. We were then sent back onto the schoolyard, which gave the staff a chance to huddle before a television or radio in the principal’s office or perhaps in the bowels of the building – the janitors’ lair, i.e., the furnace room – while they determined what was to happen next.
“Next” was home in front of the television, including my father returning early from work— a routine which felt oddly familiar given that just 13 months earlier we’d collectively witnessed the Cuban missile crisis from the same vantage point: the portable black and white kitchen television.
Yet, what makes my experiences somewhat remarkable is that less than 48 hours later there I was along with my father, his father, and my older brother in Washington, D.C. standing along Pennsylvania Avenue with an unobstructed view of the caisson and riderless horse as they made their way to the Capitol rotunda. My late father was a private pilot and we were remarkably fortunate to have various planes as we grew up; At that time a Beechcraft TravelAir – A somewhat stodgy twin engine 6-passenger plane that was my means as a witness to history. We grabbed a cab from the airport and quickly and somewhat surprisingly found ourselves standing along Pennsylvania Avenue. Deep blue sky, crisp autumn air, television cameras on staging along the route and crowds of varying depth such that a 9-year-old boy had no problem quickly making it to the curb to take it all in.
Next, the Capitol building where we and the thousands of others who’d followed the caisson waited patiently for what seemed an eternity…No formal explanation….just waiting…and waiting… I recall a sailor in dress whites swinging himself from the balustrades of a Capitol railing to grab a better position as word passed that we were awaiting the Kennedy family’s private viewing as the casket was being placed in the rotunda. So we waited a bit longer until finally my father declared a need to head home. We began to walk from the Capitol along with many others who had apparently the same idea. As we walked I could hear a transistor radio and the man who held it remaking about something that caused my father to ask; Oswald had just been shot.
Leonard R. Russey Jr.
My father was a career soldier in the U.S. Army stationed in Kitzingen, West Germany at the time. We lived off the post (around 12 – 14 kilometers away) in an old medieval village called Dettelbach, which was located on the Main River in upper Bavaria.
Very early in the morning of the 23rd of November, around 2:00 or 3:00 A.M., Frau Erber, the lady upstairs, began wailing and crying, which woke us all up. She ran downstairs and told my mother about hearing on the radio that President Kennedy was dead. I spent the better part of that day sitting in the uppermost part of an old, gnarled plum tree in the rear of our house, crying, and looking at the barges moving back and forth along the River. A strong familial feeling came over me and I deeply wanted to go back to my country right away, because it needed me. (Such was the thinking of a 12-year-old army brat in 1963). I wasn’t able to do that. It would take two more years before that would happen.
It was a very emotional time for us all, including the German people we lived amongst.
Terrie M. Robinson
I was performing in my first West End Musical called Golden Boy with Sammy Davis. I was just starting my career. The cast was all American except for myself and another British Girl, Sheila White. From what I recall, at that time they had to hire two British Equity members. We were two white Brits in an almost all African American cast, including Ben Vereen and some spectacular Broadway dancers.
I didn’t know much about American presidents. We are not taught American political history in Britain! At least not then! And not in my school. I learned of one of your great presidents in one night. During the show, one sensed there was something terrible going on within the cast and I did not quite comprehend the magnitude of what was happening until Sammy Davis made a decision to walk out on stage and announce that President Kennedy had been shot and was dead. He addressed the audience and asked for their understanding and announced that we could not possibly perform the rest of the show under the circumstances.
It was a moment I will never forget. I think in every great tragedy one remembers where they were, who they were with, where they stood, in great detail. It was surreal.
James R. Phelan
I can never forget the rather unusual circumstances involved in my finding out about John F. Kennedy’s assassination. I was a first-year medical student, and November 22nd was to be our first anatomy practical examination. The exam involved identifying structures tagged on the cadavers by our professor and his staff. This was a big deal, and we all were a bit nervous, some (me) more than others.
Several of us were waiting in the lobby for an elevator to take us up to the lab when the door of the nearest elevator opened, and one of our classmates bolted out, almost knocking me over. He shouted, “the President’s been shot, I have to call my broker!” He ran for the nearest phone booth while we stood stunned. I’m not sure what was more incredible to us…that our President had been injured, or that our fellow student’s first (and only?) reaction was that he had to make some immediate investment decisions.
We boarded the elevator, and rode up to the lab in near silence. As we entered the lab our professor confirmed that the President had indeed been shot in Dallas while riding in his motorcade. He promised to keep us apprised as news developed. It was difficult to concentrate on identifying cadaver parts with this hanging over us. I can’t recall if our professor told us during the exam that the President was dead, or if he waited until the end, but the result was the same…we all walked out of the lab like zombies.
Since the exam was at the end of the day, three or four of us headed to the Iocal Italian bar/pizzeria where we knew they’d have their TV pegged on the news. We sat there for at least a couple of hours, choking back tears and drinking our beers, when suddenly one of us said rather loudly, “OMG, this means that Johnson will be President.” Most of the class was from the Northeast, and our general opinion of Lyndon B. Johnson wasn’t entirely positive, but to me that was quite immaterial. We’d just lost our President, and the world would never be the same.
I was 12 years old and at my school gym on the stage with the curtain closed practicing tumbling. The boys were playing basketball on the gym floor. There was an announcement over the loud speaker but we couldn’t hear what was said. I parted the curtain and ask one of the boys what was said. Still playing basketball, he casually said Kennedy had been killed. I went into the bathroom and cried.
The President had been here in my small hometown of Redding, California, in January of 1963 to dedicate our Whiskeytown Dam. We had all gone out to the airport to see him. We loved and respected him. It makes me cry to this day to hear the recording of Walter Cronkite announcing it or to watch any of the film. Heartbreaking.
Sandy Dauenhauer (Ester, Alaska)
I was 21 years old, a senior in the Modern Language Department, sitting on a table on the second floor of Jones Hall at Memphis State University, waiting with friends for our 1pm classes to begin. Sam, the son of one of the Spanish professors, ran up to us in his ROTC uniform, and his dad said, “What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at drill?” And Sam said, “The President’s been shot.”
I thought at first he meant the president of the university, but he said it was President Kennedy. We turned on a TV in the language lab, but at 1 o’clock, we were all told to go to class. Someone in my Italian class had a portable radio which he kept on in spite of the instructor’s insistence that he turn it off and, about 1:05, Walter Cronkite came on to announce that the President was dead. I picked up my books and ran out of the classroom, and people were pouring out of all the classrooms into the hall, shocked and crying. In my dorm, we had only 1 TV in the lobby, and many of us were glued to it for the whole weekend.
Waiting for the funeral was agony. I remember all of it: the riderless black horse with the boots reversed in the stirrups, the caisson with the casket, John-John’s salute, Jackie’s long black veil… I still can’t describe it to younger people without tearing up. It seemed impossible that so much hope and energy was gone.
When I heard about the assassination of JFK, I had just picked up my mother from her job, as I had returned to my hometown from NY in order to plan my wedding, which was the following Sat., Nov. 30th. Needless to say, the happiness of that time was disrupted immediately, and the following week was nothing short of a nightmare, in spite of the wedding preparations.
I remember having a headache for days as we were all planted in front of the TV. To make things worse, we were off to Ireland for our honeymoon. Everywhere we went, we were asked questions about him, but mostly, the Irish people blamed us and American people for killing the president!
I had a connection with the Kennedy family, having been a therapist at the rehab hospital in NY where Mr. Kennedy was treated after his stroke. I actually went to the Kennedy compound on the Cape to fill in for his regular therapist. I have a memory of the president in a motorcade after Mr. Kennedy was discharged, stopping in front of the hospital, and coming across the street where we were lined up, shaking all of our hands, thanking us for taking such good care of his a Dad. It was a magical moment, one I will never forget.
George C. Reed
I was in high school attending a missionary boarding school in Alexandria, Egypt. Our choir had recently completed a successful concert at the Conservatory of Music, and as a thank-you our choir director, “Mr. Tony” Cordahi, was treating us to a cocoa-and-Velveeta cheese-sandwich party. I saw “Hoeky,” a student who wasn’t a choir member come in and whisper something to a fellow nearest the door. The word rippled around the room — President Kennedy had been shot. I had the school’s short-wave radio in my bedroom, so I sprinted up here and turned the radio on, which was tuned to BBC. The program that was on at that time was all about venereal disease, so I quickly switched over to The Voice of America transmitter in Rhodes, just in time to hear the announcer say: “…that President Kennedy is dead.”
On November 22, 1963, I was in eighth grade at St. Joseph Catholic School in Springfield, Missouri. A little Catholic school girl in a city called the ‘buckle on the Bible belt’, very much in the minority and considered suspect by many people in my city. My school and church were only blocks from the world headquarters of the General Council of the Assemblies of God, whose evangelical philosophy pervaded this corner of Missouri. To say that the election of the Catholic John Kennedy was a big deal to us at St. Joseph is more than an understatement! And his family was charming and charismatic. The term Camelot is exactly how that time seemed to me.
On that day I was coming upstairs from the cafeteria after lunch by myself. A fellow student who lived across the street from the school had gone home for lunch, and turned on the television. She heard the news, and ran back to school. I arrived at the front door of the school at the same time she did, and she was shouting that Kennedy had been shot.
I look back on that day now as the day I left childhood behind, and the day that America lost its innocence.
I had just turned 16 and was working at KID-TV, a local television station, as a part-time news photographer in Idaho Falls, ID. President Kennedy made a trip to Wyoming. He spent three days crossing the State. It was 25 September 1963 when he landed at the Jackson Hole, Wyoming airport. I had the privilege of being part of the press corps. I recall that I had to prove to the security person that I actually worked for a news group. The only thing I had was a pay stub. That worked just fine back in the day.
I will always hold in my mind the moment that he stepped out of Air Force One with the Tetons in the background. The air was electric. Secret Service surrounded President Kennedy. I pushed in to take film and photographs. A Secret Service man pushed me back – stepped on my foot as he pushed me away. The President reached for my hand and spoke – and I have no idea what he said to me. But I will always remember the moment.
This Friday, 22 November 2013, I will be going back to the High School where I heard the news reported of the death of our Leader. They are kind enough to allow me to walk back to the spot where I was standing when the report was announced over the school PA. Everyone remembers where they were at that moment. I will return to that very place.
Ken Cutter (Burlington, Mass.)
I was in a fifth grade geography class in a Catholic school when Mother Superior popped her head into the door. She seemed to be smiling, but what she said was “President Kennedy has been shot in the head”, and she was gone. The geography teacher, also a nun, had an immediate reaction, ‘Oh, well, if he’s been shot in the head, then he’s GONE!” – There would be no holding on to false hope in her class.
It was very strange to see them treat President Kennedy in this way, especially when I recalled their joy over the election of the first Catholic president. We did not stop to pray for our president and his family. We continued with geography.
Bryan S. Grant
I was in second grade at St. Bernard’s Catholic School in Peoria, IL. Like millions of kids, on that day, at that time, we were part of the collective gasp that the nation let out that day. I remember our teacher, a normally stoic and starched Dominican Sister, Sister Mateo, breaking down in front of the class as the principal, also a nun, who seemed to put the fear of God of every child there, barely make it through the announcement that the President was dead. They became a lot more human to a group of second graders that day. Prayers were immediately started for the President and his young family.
The normally chaotic noise level in any grade school seemed to just go away. The nuns could be seen pulling handkerchiefs from their flowing pre-Vatican II habits and wiping their tears. Everyone seemed to be in some stage of shock. I think it was what might be called today “national PTSD” and to those who were old enough to process even a little bit of what had happened, suffer from it to this day.
I remember leaving school that day and being drawn to the television the entire weekend. We watched the replay of President Johnson being sworn in aboard Air Force 1. The shooting of Oswald live on national television and of course the funeral and burial of the President at Arlington.
I have since been to President Kennedy’s grave site at Arlington, his Presidential Library outside of Boston and the School Book Depository Building in Dallas. These were all places that as a much younger person I made part of my bucket list. Partly because I turned out to be one of those kids who liked and paid attention in history class, but I think mostly because I remembered how I felt at that moment so long ago and how I still feel to this day about a life and an era lost to our collective memory and what might have been, had President Kennedy had lived.
Larry Sichter (Menifee, Calif.)
I was in a theater watching an evening movie. A bunch of us kids were acting out and got thrown out. Rather than go home early and make my parents suspicious, we hung around outside figuring we’d leave along with everyone else when the show was done. All of a sudden the lights came up inside the theater and several minutes later people starting coming out crying. I asked what had happened and was told, “the base commander just told us President Kennedy has been shot!”
I was 12 years old and we were living in Gőlcűk, Turkey. My Dad was in the Navy and although he worked at Karamusel Naval Air Station, we lived in Gőlcűk, where the U.S. Navy had a small detachment helping the Turks learn to use submarines. Gőlcűk is on the south part of the Sea of Mamara, in the Bay of Izmit, about 90 miles from Istantbul.
I ran home in the dark and told my parents. Dad was about to drive in for the night shift and after he left we didn’t see him again for three days because the base was on lock-down.
We had little idea what was going on. We didn’t have a television and we didn’t have a telephone. We got to see a Stars and Stripes newspaper once in a while, when Dad brought one home. The only radio we got was from Voice of America but the broadcasts were constantly jammed. We only had a few American neighbors to talk to.
When we finally learned that the President was dead, the next day I was the boy scout who raised the American flag to half-mast on our little base. The only unjammed VOA radio we heard during the two and a half years we were in Turkey was President Kennedy’s funeral broadcast.
I was a student nurse in New Orleans, LA. I was in a 4 bed ward where I had been talking and laughing with some firefighters who were in traction for back problems when the intercom said, “Pray for the repose of the soul of President Kennedy.” One of the fireman said, “The dog he deserved it.” I walked out of the room and never went back to that room.
In the hallway people were crying. One African American nurse’s aide said, “Like Lincoln He died for us.” I knew then and I know now the hatred that many southerners have for African Americans. It is a bit better in the country as a whole but the racism rises again and again as the fireman’s statement illustrates.
Kevin Green (Lansing, Mich.)
Like many of your Here & Now listeners also I was in elementary school on November 22, 1963. I was seated in the second desk of the second row in Mrs. Greenless’s second grade class at St. Joseph Elementary Catholic School in Lake Orion, Michigan. A heavily sobbing eighth grade girl entered our classroom and simply announced that the President has been killed.
There may have been more to her message, but I did not hear it. As an Irish Catholic child, I understood the implications of the tragedy that had occurred. I believe that all Irish Catholic families took pride in the President’s heritage. Our family certainly did. Whether correct or not, my grandparents took additional pride in the fact that their last name was Fitzgerald. They assumed that there was an ancestral connection to America’s Irish Catholic “royalty.” In fact, that set of grandparents had two huge framed photos hung in their dining room. The photos were of the Pope and President Kennedy – whose eyes seemed to follow you as you crossed the room. I took the fact that the President had been killed personally – as if it was an affront to a family member. I was too young though to understand the national and global impact of the situation.
I do not recall Mrs. Greenless crying in the classroom, but assume now that she held her emotions in place in order to get 40 seven year olds dressed and headed for home. I also do not recall a PA announcement that school was being dismissed early, but it was and the buses were already in the school’s driveway when we exited the building minutes later. Upon arriving home my three siblings and I found my mother, Maurine Fitzgerald Green, perched on the sofa’s edge with her hands clasped tightly together. She was watching the television news coverage and crying deeply. That image of my mother, now 85 years old, has remained with me for the past 50 years as well.
Sarah Jaquay (Cleveland, Ohio)
Like so many baby boomers, I first heard the news over the P.A. system in my 3rd grade classroom. The President had not yet been pronounced dead so the announcement was something about the President and the Texas Governor having been shot. There was a 1st grade teacher at my parochial school named Mrs. Connolly. When I heard a man named John Connally had been shot, I assumed it was my former teacher’s husband and was more distressed at her potential loss than whoever this Kennedy person was.
The other vivid memory is from that Sunday night when there was a television spot showing Mrs. Kennedy leaving the White House. My experience until then made me think all families had only one house, one place to live. I started crying when my mother put me to bed. When she asked why I was upset I said, “Where will Mrs. Kennedy and her kids go after being kicked out of their house?” My mother assured me she and her children had other houses to live in and I calmed down–marvelling as I fell asleep at how bountiful the world I was growing up in seemed to be: offering multiple residences to families removed from their mansions by unfortunate circumstances. Odd memories perhaps, but consistent with an eight-year-old’s world view in 1963.
Barbara Jackson (Cookeville, Tenn.)
I was a graduate student walking across the Vanderbilt campus, when an undergraduate student called my name. I waited as she ran over to me smiling broadly. I smiled back. She asked, “Did you hear Kennedy got shot?” I stood there still smiling waiting for the punch line. There was none! She hurried off to spread the news. I just stood there. Numbly I continued to the biochemistry department, where everyone was in shock.
One of my professors heard on the news that when the Kennedy assassination was announced over the loud speakers at one of Nashville’s schools, the children cheered. The children were expressing the sentiments they had heard at home. I had found the Southern culture to be very gracious as contrasted to my somewhat abrupt Northeastern culture. Although many Southerners felt the same sadness I felt, there were others who were ambivalent or even pleased about the assassination.
How could these very pleasant people have such strong negative feelings? I thought about it long and hard. My state had not been a battlefield in the Civil War. I did not lose ancestors in that war. I had no history of invading forces taking over my community, my land, my way of life. But that was one hundred years ago. Why had that hatred lingered to 1963? Old wounds were reopened by National Guard troops enforcing integration in schools. This was a very emotional time, very personal. I think for most of these people, the assassination was a symbol of discontent with the government, not a rejoicing in a brutal murder.
I played clarinet at the time. Richard Smith played the saxophone. We had just returned to the band room after giving the annual Thanksgiving concert when the school janitor came into the room and told Mr. Viggiano, the band director and music teacher, something in a low voice that made Viggy’s face pale. My Viggiano turned in his piano chair to us and told us that President Kennedy had been shot. Richard Smith yelled “Yay!”
Mr Viggiano fell off his chair. He got up and got closer to Richard Smith and chewed him out royally; no one else in the room moved a muscle. Richard was quite nonchalant about it, explaining that he was a Rockefeller Republican now. Richard Smith now uses his middle name, Norton. You’ve probably seen him on CSPAN in his role as presidential historian. I am not sure if he’s finished his biography of (my distant cousin) Nelson Rockefeller or not.
Jerry Knasel (Westlake, Ohio)
I was a sophomore at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. I was walking through my dorm lobby when the secretary ran out of the office and shouted, “The President’s been shot!” I just kept walking to class to take a chemistry test wondering who would shoot President Harshman, President of the University. When I got to class, I was informed it was President Kennedy who had been shot and had been rushed to a hospital. We asked the professor to postpone the test, but she said medical science would prevail and that he would live. We took the test and, walking into the hall, we saw students sitting on the floor in silence. That’s when we knew he was dead.
Alfred Jeffries (Cranston, R.I.)
A group of us were sitting on a wall across a lane from the entrance to the Benedum Student Union at Waynesburg College. It was ~ 1:30 p.m. and French class would begin at 2 p.m. Simultaneously, a crowd of students headed for the student union’s doorway and someone said the president had been shot. We all stood in front of the TV and watched it unfold, and I went to French class. Shortly before the class began, a student entered the class and said “the president ‘si mort.’”
No one understood what to do. We were all young, most growing up in two parent families without a lot of the outside world’s strife in our lives and certainly no political assassinations or presidential deaths. “News” was five minutes at the top of the hour and 30 minutes in the evening on TV…virtually no one had one at school…the student union and fraternity & sorority houses. I remember feeling confident about the country after he was elected in 1960. As I remember it there was nothing organized by the school over it, and we all congregated around communal black & white TVs. There was a fraternity party Saturday night, but things were not the same.
In the next weeks I went into Pittsburgh for Christmas shopping and the department stores had commemorative plates with the president’s likeness on them. Years later, after I moved to RI, I remember being in some Catholic homes in West Warwick, and there were two pictures on the wall, the Pope and President Kennedy.
Chris Zachow (Flowood, Miss.)
I was a second grader at a Catholic elementary school in Bowie, Maryland. My Mother was an active Democrat, we stuffed mailboxes, went to shrimp boils, local rallies and heard a lot about President Kennedy. As the first Catholic President, a beautiful wife and father of two young children, she felt he was going to change the country. He hung the moon for her and Camelot was in our near future.
I was at school, that day and in line to come in from recess, when we saw the nuns crying. Another student I didn’t know, looked over at us and said the President’s been shot. It was hard to believe, but the nuns had never cried in front of us before. When I got home to tell her about it, my mother was on the couch in tears. President Kennedy was dead.
To say she identified with him, would be too strong. He was rich, we were not. He was educated, my parents had only graduated from High School. But Mom saw him as a symbol of every good thing the United States represented and had looked forward with great anticipation to what he would accomplish. She was brokenhearted at his death.
Alan Rosin (Camarillo, Calif.)
During the summer of 1963, I’d attended an “Institute of World Affairs”, held in Canaan, Conn., where I became smitten with a recent graduate of the Univ. of Alabama, who had a scholarship for graduates studies in the School of Social Relations at Harvard University. That weekday afternoon, November 22, 1963, we were seated in the back row of a Harvard class taught by Professor Talcott Parsons, (famous authority on “systems theory”) and his guest speaker that afternoon was Dr. Stanley Milgram Ph.D., already famous, (or infamous) for his very creative experiment at Yale Univ. on “obedience to authority figures.”
In the midst of Milgram’s afternoon talk, someone entered the room and came back to where I was seated next to Dr. Parsons and whispered into his ear. Parson immediately got up, walked to the front of the room and said, “The president has been shot in Dallas, Texas. We’re going to adjourn this class.” There was a buzz of confusion and conversation as people stood up, milled about.
I, already full of assumed knowledge about Milgram’s work, turned to my female friend and several others and said: “Don’t believe this. This is another Milgram experiment; this is a social experiment to see how people are going to react.”
We left the classroom, I searched unsuccessfully for a radio to verify my opinion and expose this outrageous-seeming story. The upper floors of the School of Social Relations seemed mostly deserted at this time. All offices seemed closed. Outside, the Harvard campus seemed mostly deserted and I was still in the throes of convincing others that somehow this all was a Stanley Milgram experiment.
Of course, I eventually discovered that Stanley Milgram had nothing to do with any “Kennedy assassination experiment.”
Rochelle Rittmaster (Superior, Colo.)
I had just turned 8 years old two days before, and was sitting in the front row of our 3rd grade classroom in Kansas City, Missouri. It was a grand school structure: high ceilings and wide hallways. All of a sudden, we hear the crying of the 6th-grade girls in the hallway – to me, a 6th grade girl was like a grown woman. The sobs echoed and bounced: Why would there be a group that is wailing in unison like that?
Our teacher, a strict matron-type, left the classroom to find out about the commotion. She re-entered the classroom, ashen-faced. She looked at us all, with a distance in her eyes: “The President has been shot”. In a few minutes, the principal made her way to our classroom, telling us all that we can go home.
My one-block walk home, with children of all ages and sizes, was like a small exodus. There was not much talk. Our steps were heavy. My brother and I entered the house together, to watch the flickering of our black-and-white television with our mother.
Jonathan Roses (Newton Highlands, Mass.)
In 1963 I was twenty and taking a year off from City College, working at Barnes & Noble on Eighteenth Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City. For my generation November 22, 1963 was what December 7, 1941 was to my parents, or September 11, 2001 was to all of us. On that day I was not prepared for the reaction to President Kennedy’s assassination. Many employees gathered around radios, listening to the news from Dallas. And the secretaries were excited, laughing, saying, “This is the greatest thing that could happen,” and, “I hope he dies.” I thought at that time that it was Kennedy’s attitude towards abortion that made them feel he deserved what he got.
Victoria Carpenter (Wallingford, Conn.)
I was in the library at JHS 194 (Junior High School) in New York City (Queens). Several of the teachers were crying but they would not tell us what was going on. Finally there was an announcement over the PA.
Our 9th grade class trip to Washington DC was scheduled for the weekend after the funeral and when we were in DC all the store fronts were draped in mourning black. Our tour of the White House was a White House draped in black. I especially remember that the mirrors were draped in black.
Sandi Bunker (Tucson, Ariz.)
I had been active in the Young Democrats Club at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Senator Kennedy had spoken on our campus the previous year and I was a huge supporter. Later, I was teaching first grade in Connecticut, and still adoring the president. That terrible day, about 15 minutes before dismissal time, our principal came to my door and called me out in the hall to tell me that Kennedy had been shot and was dead.
My heart dropped to my feet, I felt faint, but I knew I had to stay calm until the children left. Somehow I buckled up my emotions, got the children ready to go home, lined them up to wait for the bell. It was so very difficult, because I wanted to scream and weep and hit something. Anyway, I held it together until I could leave the school. I cried all the way home and I cried all night. I also drank a glass of pure bourbon. I’ve never touched a drop of it since. I can’t even stand the smell of it.
I was 12 years old on November 22, 1963. On that day, I was in a rural public school in the 6th grade. Interrupting our class, someone came in and told us the president had been shot. We had a TV in the classroom. It was immediately turned on and everyone watched in disbelief. Soon we knew that President Kennedy had been assassinated. They dismissed school. I believe I remember that day was a Thursday.
Friday we had no school. It seemed as if everyone in the world was crying. All we could do was watch everything unfold on our TVs. That’s all anyone wanted to do. I remember seeing President Johnson take the Oath of Office. I remember seeing Jackie Kennedy standing beside him, without her pretty pillbox hat, blood on her suit. All weekend we watched the plans, the preparation for the state funeral, via television. I remember that by the day of the funeral I had just kept getting sadder and sadder even though at 12, I didn’t understand much except that how unfair and terrible it was that someone would shoot our President. I watched the footage as Jack Ruby shot Oswald. That just made everything more confusing and terrible.
I remember the black horse with no rider pulling the carriage in the procession. I remember how small Jackie’s children were and trying to imagine how they felt. I remember John-John saluting as his father’s casket rolled by. I can’t remember if the funeral was Sunday, or Monday. I just know that finally that day, before we went back to school and the world went on seemingly as usual, during that sad funeral, finally, I cried. I cried for Mrs. Kennedy, I cried for the little children, I cried for all the people weeping in the streets, and I cried for our country.
I have not felt anything akin to that day, until Sept. 11, 2001.
Deirdre ‘Nirvana’ Hamlett
I was almost a month old. As my Mom tells it, she was walking across the living room when Kennedy’s death was announced and dropped me as her hands flew to her face and she screamed.
I was late to learn of President Kennedy’s assassination. I attended a small (under 100 students) K through 4 public elementary school in Mahwah, N.J. The Board of Ed made the decision NOT to inform the students, but to allow the children to learn such news in the comfort of their home and family. In retrospect, I believe this was a thoughtful and appropriate choice of action.
For me, however, it was later still. Being Friday, it was Girl Scout meeting day. At dismissal of school, we 9 and 10 year old little girls all dressed in green walked to the Firehouse and had a normal meeting, not a word was spoken of the tragedy. I often wondered how difficult this must have been for our teachers and staff, our Girl Scout leader? How strong they all were, and how much they must have loved us to do this for our benefit. It was 4:30 when my Mom picked me up from our meeting.
We were just passing Mrs. Barthoff’s house, with her little pond where all the neighborhood kids went ice skating in winter. The apple orchard was across the street. The white Buick with the red interior. It’s November, so it’s already starting to get dark, the leaves have all fallen and are now that muddy brown. That’s it, that’s the spot! That’s where I was when I learned about death.
Like hundreds of thousands of military families, we were stationed in France and were at home around 8pm, playing Scrabble when the news came over Armed Forces Radio. I had just turned 11. Never have we felt so isolated and scared. It was incredibly tense. Remember, at the time, we thought the Russians would/could attack us at any time, and we in Europe were certainly easy targets. All we had were The Stars and Stripes, the NYT and other US papers a week later. My sister’s native French teacher took some of her class home to watch the funeral, but 99% of us didn’t see it until we came back to the states.
Kay Atchison Brockwell (Jonesboro, Ariz.)
I was in second grade. We came in from afternoon recess, playground excitement quickly quieting when we saw our teacher in tears — because certainly it was a major crisis if the teacher was crying. We filed in and went quietly to our desks. She raised her head from her hands and told us solemnly, “Class, you will always remember today as a terrible day in our nation’s history. Our President has been killed.”
I think I felt the world shift a little. It was no longer as safe.
It was my Father’s birthday, and we were accustomed to celebrating with dinner out. We didn’t go; it didn’t seem right, somehow, to go out to celebrate as Air Force One made its way back to Washington with its awful cargo.
Elizabeth Dixon Martin
I was 8 years old when Kennedy was assassinated. My mother and I were walking out of a doctor’s office (I had my tonsils removed a week earlier) when a man stopped at a traffic light nearby rolled his window down and told us the President had been shot. We ran back into the doctor’s office, and the staff turned on their radio. We stood there listening in horror to the descriptions coming out of Dallas. I will forever remember that man rolling down his window, the pine paneling and orange Naugahyde cushions of the doctor’s office, and how all the adults in my world were so upset. I also remember sitting in front of our small black and white TV watching the funeral and thinking how brave John John and Caroline must be as they walked with the caisson bearing their father’s coffin.
I was only three years old, but remember vividly that my Dad was home from work and was feeding the dog. When he heard the news, he dropped the dog bowl and food went scattering everywhere… I didn’t know what was going on but had never seen my father so upset before.
On the morning of Nov 22, 1963 I was walking across the quad at my Modesto, California high school, where I was a junior. The PA came on and told us all to go to our home rooms. After a brief announcement of what had happened, they broadcast the live radio account into our classrooms. After the announcement came that Kennedy was dead, they told us to go back to our classes and they would decide what to do.
I was taking driver training during my lunch period, so we went out to drive. I remember that when we got back to school, my instructor dropped his sun glasses on the ground, and then accidentally stepped on them. It just seemed like just another thing that had gone terribly wrong.
The administrators decided to send all of us home. I walked home, but no one was there. My father was at work, my mother was at a meeting, and my younger brother was not let out of school early. I lay on the living room floor and cried. I felt so lonely and confused about what had happened.
When we graduated from college in 1969, my husband and I joined the Peace Corps. During the time we were in college, Martin Luther King was killed, Robert Kennedy was killed the day after we had shaken hands with him at UC Davis. It seems like my transition from kid to young adult was bookended by the assassinations of my heroes.
I was a young, very new Stewardess (Flight Attendant today, of course!) working a trip from Denver to the West Coast. In those days we made stops along the way, as we were flying props, not the long-haul jets of today. Guy Lombardo (famous band leader, at the time) was on the flight and during a stop in Las Vegas he got off the plane to get a newspaper, and came back with the terrible news. So, Guy Lombardo told me that Kennedy had been shot.
A few weeks later, sometime between Christmas and New Year’s, Ted Kennedy was on my flight, going from Denver to Washington DC (this time on a jet, the DC8). The Kennedy family was spending private time in Aspen, and he had been called back to Washington. He was very gracious, and allowed other passengers to write questions, maybe condolences, they had for him which I then delivered to him. I still have his ketchup-stained menu!
Nancy Cheney Jeffrey
In November of 1963 I was employed as a pediatrician working on a NIH research project at Boston Lying-In Hospital. On November 22 I left at noon time to meet with a moving company to arrange for my upcoming move back to California. I was surprised when I returned to see only one receptionist at the front desk, glued to a radio. She told me JFK had been shot – but no one knew yet his fate. When I entered my office people were in tears awaiting further news, glued to the radio. I will never forget the mood of the city following the tragedy – black drapes in store window displays, the whole city seeming to move at a slower pace. All of Boston was in mourning, and the mood clearly crossed political boundaries.
I was an Iowa girl with a new Masters of Teaching degree from Duke University. The Iowa I grew up in was almost entirely white, not so much from prejudice – in fact many were descendants of abolitionist families – as from the pattern of European emigration to the northern states, so my interest in the rapidly developing social justice movement drew me south for graduate school. I wanted to be in on the change.
On the day that Kennedy was killed, I was teaching a class of middle school students in Jacksonville, Florida. I was stunned when another teacher whispered that Kennedy had been shot. She said, “Please don’t tell your class.” But soon the intercom blared out the news that Kennedy was dead.
This class of 14-year-olds instantaneously burst into cheers and clapping! They couldn’t have cheered louder or clapped harder than if they had just won a football championship. I was horrified at their glee and hatred. I was appalled to know how steeped in their prejudices these kids already were and how difficult the movement to social justice would be.
I was home sick from kindergarten watching television when the news came across that Kennedy had been shot. My family was from Massachusetts and had followed the Kennedys closely. In fact, my father and my uncle had been golf caddies for several Kennedy males including John and Robert. When John Kennedy was running for President, my father had snuck me into the voting booth to mark the vote for him. My father told me that he wanted me to be able to be the last person alive who had voted for him. The assassination affected me deeply. This was my first exposure to death and was so shocking to a five year old. He remained a hero to me my entire life.
I turned four in October 1963 and, on November 22, 1963, was watching my afternoon cartoons – Popeye, Bugs Bunny and the Three Stooges – when they were interrupted with the news of the shooting in Dallas. My mother was glued to the TV, and my sister returned home early from (Catholic) school. While I was happy to see my sister, I was confused about why everyone was upset and where my cartoons had gone. It’s one of my earliest memories.
In October of 1963 after passing my registered nursing boards, I moved from Buffalo to Manhattan. I secured a position at Mt. Sinai Hospital. I loved NYC. I loved my job. I was in love with the world.
On Friday, November 22, I was the circulating nurse on one of the many “miracle” surgeries they were doing in those days at Mt. Sinai. A patient, after decades of deafness, was about to regain his hearing. The recipients of this surgery were not congenitally deaf. They lost their hearing after their formative years and retained the gift of speech. I don’t remember the details of the surgery only the drama. I had been there before. Our patient would regain his hearing right on the table. The thrill never lessened. But this time, before anything else could happen, a nurse stuck her head in the door and said, “the president’s been shot.”
The surgeon glanced at me. “Get the radio,” he said, “from the doctor’s locker room.”
With heart pounding, both for my beloved President and the fact that I had never even considered once entering the doctor’s all-male locker room, I ran out the door to do what I was told. I heard a toilet flush but the locker room itself was deserted. A small transistor radio was in full view. I grabbed it and rushed back to the surgical suite.
The first words the man on the surgery table heard were from a radio announcer: President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, Texas today. Though we have received no official word, it is thought that his wounds were fatal. A muffled voice from under the sterile surgical sheets and towels asked, “Is this a joke?”
After my shift, I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The big church was full of mourners. I sat in one of the back pews, worked my rosary beads and cried until I couldn’t anymore. My love affair with the world was over.
I was 10 yrs. old and in 5th grade at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Hagerstown, MD. I remember the shock and disbelief as our nun told our class that President Kennedy had been shot and was killed. She also added that if we had prayed more for him and his presidency, that this might not have happened. Unbelievable, but true. As impressionable young children, we went home that day with a sense of guilt that we had somehow contributed to his death, which made that unfortunate day even more memorable. This was the first and most vivid example of many instances that contributed to my disconnection from the Catholic Church.
I was a first grader in a Catholic school in Massachusetts. We could tell something was wrong as the nuns ran from classroom to classroom, whispering and crying. Eventually, the principal came to tell each class about Kennedy’s death. To a Massachusetts group, our king was gone! We were sent home early from school, where I found my mother glued to the TV, crying. We met up with friends for dinner, where the women all cried and the men looked stunned. It’s like it all happened yesterday. I don’t think our country has ever resumed its innocence or sense of hope since.
That Friday, I was in my 5th grade class at St. Joseph’s School in Keyport, NJ. Around 2PM, the principal switched on the PA system and shouted “We just heard on the radio that President Kennedy has been shot!” Then Sister broadcast the radio coverage throughout the school. We sat in stunned silence. A classmate sitting next to me wept uncontrollably. I was supposed to stay after school for something I no longer remember. The event never happened. My mother was to pick me up, since I wasn’t taking the bus home that day.
My mother was watching As The World Turns when the bulletin came in. She ran over to Mrs. Browne’s and they watched Walter Cronkite announce the President’s death. I knocked on the convent door and asked to use the phone to call her. She was so absorbed in what was happening she simply forgot to pick me up.
At 6PM that night, I watched the live coverage of the arrival of Air Force One. You could clearly see the dark splotches on Mrs. Kennedy’s clothes as they struggled to get the casket off the plane. Later that night, as my mother tucked me in, I looked at her and asked “Mommy, is everything going to be alright?” She looked at me and said “I don’t know”.
I was in my 6th grade classroom in Jackson, MS when we were told the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated. The boy in front of me started clapping. I remember being overcome with tremendous anger at his clapping. I stood up and hit him as hard as I possibly could. He stopped clapping – The rest of the class just looked at me. The teacher did not say a word.
I was in my high school Spanish class. My teacher, Mr. Giro, was a Cuban immigrant and former attorney in Havana. He went to the window, and with his back to the classroom, he sobbed. It was the first time I had seen a man cry. The enormity of the situation struck me like nothing else that followed.
I was 11 years old and my teacher was giving us a math lesson. Her son was in a higher grade (8th grade) I believe, and he ran down to our class room to tell his mother, (who was my favorite teacher). She burst into tears. We were all sent home early. I remember waiting for my mother to come pick me up from school and it was a long time as she was out and didn’t know school was going to end an hour early.
She was crying when she picked me up. My mother was originally from Boston. She was born in the same hospital as John Kennedy’s older brother and she had met the President’s sisters. She adored the Kennedy family. My parents took my sister and me to Washington DC at Easter in 1963 and while we were there, I coaxed my mother into calling the White House. She did, and after being put on hold, she was speaking to President Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger. Mr. Salinger apologized when he said that the President’s appointment calendar was too busy that day for us to visit, but if we went down to the Sheraton Hotel, President Kennedy would greet us there on his way to a press luncheon.
We were staying at that hotel and we did go to the lobby. No one else knew he was attending this particular luncheon. We heard and saw the President’s security force pull up on motorcycles and a couple police cars and then he stepped out and walked into the hotel lobby and came right up to us. He was so handsome and genuinely pleased to shake our hands and say hello. I had my picture taken with him, and then he went into the restaurant for the press corp luncheon.
I was thrilled to have met the President of the United States, so that seven months later when he was killed I was devastated. I had never known anyone personally who ever died, and he was the first person who that happened to. I think it changed the course of my life. Camelot as we all knew it was definitely over. I no longer felt like a typical 11 year old girl. I saw the world in more realistic and sadder terms. Of course, we were glued to the television for the next four days. The world stopped and everyone mourned. In 2009, I finally went to Arlington National Cemetery to the Kennedy grave sight. Once again, I cried, for all that could have been.
I was 16, a sophomore in high school on Friday, November 22, 1963. Suddenly the school PA loudspeaker began to crackle in the middle of choir practice. “President Kennedy has been shot and is dead.” It seemed that everyone was frozen in time for a few seconds…No one moved, no one spoke, then just as if time began to tick again, everyone seemed to gasp at once and began looking around at each other. Our teacher, Mr. Webb, told everyone to sit still as he quickly left the room only to return in moments to say that school was being dismissed and everyone should go home immediately. It all seemed so ominous.
The moment I arrived home, I turned on the TV and stayed glued to it every moment for the entire weekend. Sunday, around lunch time, I was watching live as they transferred Lee Harvey Oswald from the Dallas Police HQ to the county jail via a basement tunnel. I witnessed a heavy set man step forward and then heard Bang! Bang! Bang!
I screamed to my mom, who was making lunch in the kitchen “They just shot him Mom, they just shot him, come here.” Once again, a moment that seemed to be frozen in time. From that minute on, I rarely left the living room as there were continuous broadcasts day and night.
Seeing it live, I recall it all…The swearing in of LBJ on the plane, Jackie’s pink suit covered with red blood, John Jr. saluting his fathers casket as it passed by, Jackie’s black veil that covered her face and Caroline standing at her side… Burned in my memory forever.
I was in seventh grade science class just after lunch. We hadn’t quite settled down to business when suddenly the PA came on, not with the principal’s voice, but with the radio coverage of the news; not sure, but I think it was Walter Cronkite. Being in a collar county that surrounded Chicago’s Cook County, we were extremely Republican and still harbored feelings that Mayor Daley and his machine literally stole the ’60 election for JFK. Sadly, but not surprising, some classmates actually cheered the news. But the room became silent as we turned and looked at our teacher who was sobbing uncontrollably.
The rest of the day was surreal – Going to our remaining classes where we listened intently to the radio coverage. Nobody spoke and our teachers were too drained to lead class. School was cancelled for the rest of the week, and when we returned we saw our teachers in a different light.
I was a freshman in college in Oregon, around noon lying around my dorm room, reading the Odyssey for Humanities 110, when I realized that the guy in the room below mine had cranked up his stereo pretty loud. This was midday, and he was an upperclassman, small, intense, not a loud guy, and I knew he was catholic. What he had put on the stereo, I know now, was Bach’s B Minor Mass. I went down to talk to him, more curious than upset, and found him in tears. About an hour later all classes were dismissed, but I’ve heard that there were still people hitting the books in the library who emerged around midnight, when they closed the building, and found out for the first time what had happened to our dashing young president.
I was living in Bogota, Colombia, and was in 9th grade. Someone from the office came into the classroom with a note for the teacher. She didn’t say anything because the bell was going to ring. The halls were full of shocked and saddened students. President Kennedy was loved in Latin America because he was Roman Catholic, and started the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress. We had three days of mourning and the funeral was televised.
On November 22, 1963, I was working in the telephone room at McCellan AFB in Sacramento, Ca. This was a S.A.C. base, and at that time, Sec. Macmillian was on base. Planes were scrambled, because it was feared our nation was under attack. This was long before computers, and our means of contact to the whole nation and our island holdings and bases was either with telephone switch board or radio communication. Very hands on. As each base heard the news, from the shooting until the death, you could hear the breakdown of emotions all over this country and the tears in the voices as we all went about our jobs.
How could someone kill our beloved president in 1963? I remember the grace of Jackie Kennedy and a young Caroline Kennedy, and the poignant salute of the 3 year old John Kennedy Jr as his father’s coffin passed by. I had hoped I would never see another public figure killed by hate in this country, but that has not been the case I am sorry to say.
I was in the first grade Center Point Elementary School, Birmingham, Alabama. We had just watched a educational program on Alabama Public TV. The last activity for the day was arts, so the teacher said, lets see what was on network TV. Typical during that time was a game show. She turned to one of the channels. Yes, the news was on. We soon realized what was happening. The teacher sent to the principals office news of what was going on. It was announced over the intercom. Our class was already upset, the rest of the school was now upset.
Since it was close to the normal let out time, we waited until then to go home. Like the rest of the country, with my mother and grandmother I watched all that happened on TV. I was only six, but already I understood the meaning in a child’s way what had happened. To this day I can still pull up bits and pieces of the TV images in my mind.
I was a fourth grader living in Miami, Florida. We were already nervous because of the Cuban Missile crisis, and had often practiced hiding under our desks and beds in case of the “bright flash” that might come. On the day of Kennedy’s assassination, we were called into a shelter from the play field and told the news, and immediately sent home. On arrival at my house, I found my parents had drawn the blinds, turned off all the lights and were sitting in stunned disbelief in front of the TV. I asked why all the blinds were closed, and they said that without a President, our country was vulnerable to attack.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW.
I remember when - a familiar trio of words as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But the truth is for many of us, there is no memory because we weren't born.
Sarah DiMagno is a senior at Lincoln High School in Lincoln Nebraska. She's with us from the studios of NET public radio. And, Sarah, you are 17 years old. Do you remember the first time you learned about Kennedy's assassination?
SARAH DIMAGNO: I think it was when I was about 7 or 8 years old. And I have to tell you that I am a self-professed space geek. So I was reading a book about the Apollo program that, you know, eventually landed astronauts on the moon and the author was a flight director at NASA, and he was talking about, you know, when JFK was assassinated, that really affected all of the engineers on the moon mission because that had really been their goal, was to fulfill this goal that he had set.
HOBSON: So what did you think when you found out that the president had been shot?
DIMAGNO: I guess that when, you know, when I sort of learned about the circumstances of it, my first thing was surprise because security, you know, that I've grown up with anywhere in - on the streets, in the airport, is so much tighter than what it was like during that parade in Dallas.
HOBSON: You were only, what, 5 years old when 9/11 happened?
DIMAGNO: Yes, I was.
HOBSON: Wow. And since the first time you heard about JFK's assassination, in your history classes. How has he been presented.
DIMAGNO: Well, so the idea that I've come to have about JFK is that part of the real tragedy of his assassination was this sort of loss of potential. I mean, he was this incredible young president who had great ideas about the direction he wanted to see the country going in, and then it was just tragically cut short. And so in history classes, they really teach it as sort of how JFK was an icon, and his death was not only the death of a president, but sort of the death of a representation of the future that could have been.
HOBSON: I have to say I totally agree with you. I am also too young to have been alive for the assassination, and I think that's - it's very well put what you have just said. As you have been witnessing all of the talk about JFK during the 50th anniversary week, does it mean anything to you?
DIMAGNO: Yeah. It means a lot to me because I also feel that sort of loss of potential because a lot of the issues that JFK was facing, you know, advancements in technology, in space science, advancements in civil rights are some of the same issues that we're still facing today. And you can't help but think, you know, if he had finished his presidency, you know, maybe had a second presidency, where would we be now? Would we be in a better place?
HOBSON: What would you say is the event in your lifetime - and as we said you were only 5 when 9/11 happened - that had the same kind of impact, if anything?
DIMAGNO: I think it would be 9/11. I do actually remember 9/11 even as a 5-year-old, and it's one of my first memories, which is sort of frightening. But a lot of the same things, you know, I've been reading the newspaper and they're publishing all of these memories of, you know, where people were when JFK was assassinated, and a lot of them are very similar to the memories that I have of 9/11.
You know, you walk into the kitchen and see your parents and they're upset and then you see, you know, frightening images on the cover of the newspaper or in the news, and you don't quite understand what's happened. My experience of 9/11 is very similar to that.
HOBSON: And we should say also that Ted Sorensen, the famous JFK adviser, went to your high school, right?
DIMAGNO: Yes. And we hear a lot about JFK in my school because of that. And Mr. Sorensen actually came and talked to the school a few years back. So I'm sure that today will be a very big deal at Lincoln High.
HOBSON: Well, Sarah DiMagno, a senior at Lincoln High School in Lincoln Nebraska, thanks so much for joining us today.
DIMAGNO: Thank you for having me.
HOBSON: And we've got a complete timeline of the events in 1963 at hereandnow.org. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.