JFK: Readers' memories part 1
As the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination approaches, we asked our readers to share their memories of the fallen president. Here are recollections of those iconic "Where were you?" moments.
I was a junior in high school on November 22, 1963. When the Kennedy family announced their plans for JFK's funeral, three high school friends and I announced as a group to our respective parents that we wanted to attend. Fifty years later, it is still a mystery to me why all of our parents agreed to let us go, but they did. So there we went, three high school juniors and one high school senior with virtually no travel experience, flying from Chicago to Washington, D.C. to witness the funeral of the president we respected and admired.
We were given strict instructions to contact my father's army buddy who owned a restaurant in D.C. as soon as we landed. Of course, being teenagers, we did not do that, but instead headed straight for the Capitol where the president's body was lying in state. This was about 8:00 at night, as I recall. When we got to the front of the Capitol building, we could see a line stretching for blocks and blocks from the Capitol steps. We approached a friendly looking policeman and asked him how to get in line. He said to us, "Well, you can go ahead and walk to the end of the line, but according to my superior officers, the line is about 3 miles long right now and getting longer, so there is absolutely no way you will make it to the front of the line before they close the building in preparation for the funeral." He suggested we would be better off staking out a spot somewhere along the route to watch the funeral procession in the morning, so that's what we did.
We knew that the Kennedy family and most of the assembled dignitaries would walk from the White House to St. Matthew's Cathedral, so we made it to the cathedral. That seemed to be a really good spot, so we decided to sleep on the street that night to save our places. It's a good thing we did decide to save our spots at the curb — by the time the sun came up the crowd had grown to 8, 10, 12 people deep for as far as our eyes could see.
Of course, this was late November, so the weather wasn't really the best for a night on the street. The four of us took turns sneaking into the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel, which was just around the corner, to warm up and use the restrooms. Looking back on it now, it's obvious the hotel staff knew what was going on, but chose to turn a blind eye to the mourners drifting through the lobby.
At some point during the night, we somehow managed to slip unnoticed into the cathedral. The place was buzzing with TV people, news crews, and a construction crew setting up a large platform for all of the TV cameras. One of my friends thought it would be a great idea to hide under the platform, then make our way out in the morning when we would hear the funeral services starting. I think I might have been the voice of reason on that one, explaining to my buddies that the entire area was already crawling with Secret Service agents who would be more than a little bit edgy under the circumstances, and at best we would be arrested on the spot and at worst shot on sight. Yep, they all agreed that sleeping on the street seemed to be a much better alternative!
As the 50th anniversary of JFK's death approaches, we can count on seeing many of the old photographs and newsreels of the funeral. The muffled drums, the caisson carrying the flag-draped coffin, the riderless horse with boots reversed in the stirrups, the Black Watch, the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets we had a first hand, close up view of it all. I especially recall the sight of Jackie Kennedy, clad in black with that striking long black veil, striding with such dignity with Bobby and Teddy, followed closely by all of those world leaders and assorted dignitaries. And I will never forget the sight of Charles DeGaulle, Haile Selassie, and Prince Phillip marching step for step together towards the cathedral — DeGaulle 6 foot 4 or so, Phillip an inch or two shorter, and Haile Selassie in between them, checking in at about 5 foot 2, resplendent in his Ethiopian military uniform quite a sight to behold, and one which could probably not be duplicated in today's security conscious age!
Later that evening we did finally link up with my father's friend at his restaurant. He turned out to be a very nice man — told us a few war stories, fed us, and sent us on our way.
JAMES K. BORBELY
My life was ideal on Nov. 22, 1963. I was a newlywed, married only 3 weeks. My husband Al and I had returned from our wonderful honeymoon only ten days earlier and I had gone back to work as a medical technologist at New York University Medical Center three days earlier. When the phone rang and the secretary said, "your groom is on the phone," I thought it was unusual for him to call me at work. When he said, "the president's been shot" I thought he was kidding as he was always joking around. I said, "Al that's not funny" and at the same time a man from the lab next door burst through the door and yelled "the president's been shot!" It was such a shock but there were no TVs around in those days so someone ran to get a radio which we listened to the rest of the day. That night after work when we got off the subway near our new apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York, the normally bustling busy streets of Friday night shoppers were dark and quiet; every store was closed. It was profoundly sad and we were glued to the TV all weekend. I had never known tragedy in my life until that point and my life was changed forever. It made me become less idealistic. Every year on our anniversary we think about the events of those days.
Somewhere in the South China Sea, heading for Saigon, South Vietnam, I was trying to get some sleep aboard the U.S.S. Providence (CLG-6). In Dallas, Texas it was November 22, 1963. The Providence, a light guided missile cruiser, was the flagship for the Commander of the Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Thomas Moorer, and as such was a floating communications station. I was on Admiral Moorer's staff as a communications officer with a Top Secret/Cryptographic security clearance, with the responsibility of encoding and decoding messages to and from the ship. Naturally, we were quite busy as the war in Vietnam was in a significant buildup stage. When the steward came to my stateroom and informed me that I was to go to the communications shack, I learned what busy really was.
Burn bags (very large paper sacks) were standing by each of the 20 teletypes overflowing with messages to be decoded and routed. The Admiral himself was there and told us then that President Kennedy had been killed. We went to a military state of readiness higher than anything which had previously been required by the war. The Admiral was moving ships, troops and planes all over his part of the world. His counterpart, COM6thFLEET, was doing the same in the Atlantic. The communications traffic was so heavy that eventually Top Secret messages started coming over the teletypes in plain language. For nearly 30 continuous hours we read and tried to answer messages of critical urgency.
An irony is that we knew what was happening all over the globe, but knew absolutely nothing about what was happening in our own country or our own home towns. We could not even pause to process the fact that our president was dead, until days later, and then by that time we were back off the coast of Vietnam and back to business as usual.
A full three years later I returned to the States to begin graduate school. Admiral Moorer became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The U.S.S. Providence was decommissioned. We still don't know for sure what actually happened to our president.
I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins and was attending an electronics lab on the top floor of the McCollum-Pratt Institute.
Someone came into the lab and told us that Kennedy had been shot and had been rushed to the hospital in Dallas.
I stopped my current project and whipped together a radio so that all of us could listen to the event as it unfolded.
I got an A++ in the course.
I was 8 years old and in the third grade at Lostant Grade School in Lostant, Ill. Our custodian, Mr. Markley, who seemed to us old and never moved very fast, threw open our classroom door and yelled, "Turn on your radio, Miss Schaeffer. The president's been shot." He took off running down the hallway. Miss Schaeffer turned on the radio and, without saying anything to us students, proceeded to quietly cry. We were shocked and looked at one another, not knowing what to say or do. We sat quietly, wondering what it all meant. We received days off of school and I looked forward to watching cartoons at home but my parents always had the TV or radio on. I was told to watch ALL the TV coverage as this was history being made in my lifetime and I would need to know all about it in high school and college. I did. Those memories often came back to me in my career as a teacher, both during the Reagan assassination attempt and the events of 9/11.
The fIrst we knew of John Kennedy's being shot was when the driver of my jeep came to pick me up in Dacca (in East Pakistan, now Bangla Desh). I was one of four Americans charged with the responsibility of initiating that wing's first program in architecture. My wife and I didn't own so much as a short-wave radio and the English newspaper in that heavily Muslim country wondered "Isn't this the way the United States changes governments?" (Could that writer have done scanty homework to find a period when every 20 years an American President had been assassinated?) In a side column one reporter feared a rebellion was underway and opined that other federal officials were likely targeted — or had already been taken out.
From the American community there, 12,000 miles away from home, a small group clustered that night, commiserating in virtual shock and wondering whether we might be evacuated. Should we catch the fIrst plane out for the States? We shared, mostly in ignorance, and went home for largely sleepless nights. The following day I shocked my students by lugging heavy furniture around our office suite till I was exhausted — they apparently felt I was being disrespectful, that I should stay home to mourn.
Civil war didn't occur for those people between old Burma and Calcutta for another two years. Following our own fateful autumn day in '63, we went about our heavy responsibilities. We had to develop a pioneering curriculum, teach every course to the courageous beginning students, develop course descriptions and scramble to assemble a new library from scratch. The tragedy in our home country mustn't prevent our educating and our graduates — long since professionals. They're all over the world today, practicing and teaching themselves.
SAMUEL T. LANFORD
I was in first grade on that fall day in October 1960 when my mother told me I would be going to the U of I to see John F. Kennedy with my younger brother, her friend Betty and her. I was pretty excited because we were going to see the guy who was running for president of the United States. I was pretty sure he would be the first Catholic president. The weather was cool enough that I wore my gray plaid windbreaker.
When we arrived at the Quad, it was already packed with more people than I had ever seen in my life. We stood close to the Union and looked toward the steps of Altgeld Hall. I could barely see the shapes of people way over there but Mom kept me informed when JFK arrived. She tried to lift me up so I could get a better look. My brother Chris was smaller and got to perch on her shoulders for a while. I was more than a little jealous. Mom and Betty talked about a friend of the family getting to do a cheer and shake JFK's hand. Oh, Gosh! Was she ever lucky.
I arrived at school still wearing my windbreaker. As I tried to take it off to hang up outside the classroom, one of the Dominican Sisters saw that I was having trouble and came to help me with the stuck zipper. The whole time she was trying to get the cloth out of the zipper, she was quizzing me. "Is his hair as red as it looks in the magazines?" "Well, Sister, I was pretty far away." "Is he as nice looking as he is on TV?" "Sister, I really couldn't tell." My teacher came to the door and excitedly started the questions and taking over the zipper. Before long, I had another Sister standing by wanting to know everything I'd seen. Finally, someone decided to slip the jacket off of me and I went into the classroom.
I don't know why my Mother chose to take me along on a school day to see the next President. She could have taken my older brothers or sisters, or why Betty didn't bring any of her children but I'm sure glad Mom took me. To this day when a school child gets a zipper stuck and comes to me for help, I can smile and say, "This happened to me once," and fondly remember the day I got to see the future president of the United States.
MEMORIES OF NOVEMBER, 1963
Three years later, I was in fourth grade and had gone home for lunch with my seventh grade sister, Ellen. While we were there, CBS News broke in on the TV program announcing that the President had been shot in Dallas. We were stunned and went back to school, promptly telling our teachers that someone shot President Kennedy. My teacher didn't believe I had heard right but Ellen's teacher must have alerted the principal. About two o'clock that afternoon the principal, Sister Estelle, came into our classroom with tears in her eyes and announced that President Kennedy had been shot and died.
I was in the "new" K-Mart store (on Bloomington Road & Prospect Avenue) with my 1-year-old son, Timothy, and my mother-in-law, Margarette Robinson. K-Mart's PA system announced that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. That evening, my husband, Ed Robinson, myself, and my son, Timothy, went to a special Mass at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Urbana to pray for the Kennedy family and our nation.
Sleeter Bull was a popular and beloved professor of animal husbandry at the University of Illinois when the Illini Union opened in February of 1941. An attractive feature of the new Illini Union was the Colonial Dining Room located on the North East corner of the first floor.
Professor Bull made a reservation for lunch for himself and his friends in the Colonial Room on the first day that it was in operation. That reservation was maintained for every weekday even after that dining service was transferred to the Ballroom at noon in the late 1960's. It was continued by his friends, even after his death. Of course, it became known as "The Bull Ring" and it continued well into the second millennium.
In the early years, attendance at the Bull Ring was by invitation only from Professor Bull. A story, which is believed to be true, was often told of the time that a campus gadfly walked up to the Bull Ring indicating that he wanted to join the group. Professor Bull shook his head indicating that the gadfly was not welcome. One of the guests at the table, the Dean of Foreign Students, said "You have to draw the line somewhere." I was invited to join the Bull Ring in 1955 when I was named Associate Director of the Illini Union. I was privileged to have had lunch with so many wonderful faculty and staff members, including several deans, until my retirement in 1976.
On November 22, 1963 I was sitting at the Bull Ring when the Colonial Room hostess came to the table and handed me a note which said that President Kennedy had been shot. I immediately went to the phone located at the entrance to the room and called my wife. She confirmed that the news on the television had reported the shooting. The addition to the Illini Union had been fully completed in May of 1963. We were able to include a public address system in the plans for that portion of the Illini Union so we arranged to have a radio newscast about the shooting broadcast throughout the new addition so everyone in that part of the building could hear the events as they occurred. Of course, it was only an hour or so after the initial news that we learned that the President had died.
Scheduled television and radio broadcasts throughout the country were generally canceled and the airways were filled with stories about the assassination and many stations played sad music for several days. I recall watching the funeral procession on television which was narrated by Arthur Godfrey. It was very sad and distressing, of course.
On Sunday, November 24, 1963, my wife and I were attempting to photograph our daughters, aged 7 and 4, in our small dining room. The pictures were for use on our Christmas card for that year. As I recall, the children were not too cooperative so we were concentrating on them. But I do remember that we had a small television on a buffet in the room which was turned on so we could learn of the latest news about the assassination. I looked over at the TV and saw the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. I do not know if it was a live shot or a videotape. (I believe videotaping was in use by that time). Of course, that was big news.
Partisanship generally disappeared during the mourning period. We had lost OUR president and most everyone was very sad. Of course, he also was well liked by a majority of the nation. The Cuban Missile Crisis had occurred not too long before the assassination and we were appreciative of Kennedy's handling of that most fearful event.
At age 40 at the time of President Kennedy's assassination, I was enjoying my work at the Illini Union. Within a few years, the Vietnam War had escalated and led to the "anti-war, antiestablishment" movements at many Universities. In my position as director of the Illini Union I found myself, along with other university staff, in the middle of the antagonistic actions of the "anti" group and this was very distressing and occupied much of our time which would have been better spent in the conduct of our responsibilities. I have often wondered if President Kennedy had not been shot, would he have followed the same path as President Johnson in the escalation of the Vietnam War? Perhaps we would not have suffered the unrest of the late '60s and early '70s if Kennedy had been able to serve out his first term and perhaps have been elected for a second term. Certainly, the professional life of many of us would have been different and much more pleasant.
In February 1957, then-Senator John F. Kennedy was invited to be the speaker at the University of Illinois graduation ceremony. As was the custom, the commencement party was served lunch in the Illini Union. I was privileged to have greeted Senator Kennedy when he entered the dining room on the third floor of the Union.
EARL F. FINDER
The day John F. Kennedy died my husband Darrel, daughter Robyn and I lived in Flora, Ill. (about 110 miles south of Champaign). We live in Champaign today.
My husband had a rare afternoon off from work ... a real treat for me.
While waiting to go visit our daughter's grade school classroom, he and I were making Christmas ornaments. TV news flash alerted us to J.F.K.'s shooting ... then followed by his death announcement.
I was "glued" to our TV for over a week, crying constantly and worried that all of my sadness and stress might harm my second child, due in March.
We never had the heart to finish the ornament we were working on.
Each Christmas I hold it and remember that sad, sad day.
4th grade, Monroe Grade School, Peoria, Illinois
Right after school lunch, in our classroom, the speaker came on with news reports about the shooting in Dallas. There weren't TVs in every classroom in the early '60s.
The speakers were usually used for the day's announcements from the principal's office so hearing a news report meant something big.
Classmates cried when they learned the president was dead. School was eventually dismissed that afternoon and everyone who could, went home to be with family.
I'm guessing many businesses sent employees home too. I'm pretty sure my father was sent home from his job.
I remember my parents watching TV that whole weekend and on Monday and Tuesday for the funeral. It was so sad.
Perhaps because TV was black and white at that time, most of my memories of what I did and what my family did seem to be in black and white, too.
I don't remember watching live coverage of the Ruby shooting on Sunday as Oswald was transferred from jail to jail.
I do remember how the whole mood of our neighborhood, my own family and, well, the country was sad.
Today, as a TV journalism instructor, I sometimes talk to young students about the effect those four or five days of TV had on America.
We'll talk about how covering the assassination, the Ruby shooting, the funeral in Washington, the Kennedy family, was the first time live TV had covered a really big national event.
(There's even a great documentary about the effect live TV coverage of the JFK death had on Americans)
The ability of TV to bring the funeral LIVE into our homes was life-changing and made those awful events more memorable.
Today, America expects breaking news coverage of major events. In 1963, it was a huge endeavor for a network to do what we saw and remember in those final days of November 1963.
I find that for most young people today, talking about the Kennedy assassination's effect on America and Americans, is a bit like talking to me about how Pearl Harbor affected life in 1941 when I wasn't alive — or even trying to relate to how the country must have felt in 1865 when President Lincoln was shot amid a country still recovering from four years of civil war.
I think it's hard for younger people to relate.
Even some of today's college students have a challenging time remembering September 11th because they were only 9, 10 or 11 that day.
For many of the younger students, the deaths of Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger or Anna Nicole Smith are more memorable because they felt more "shock" value than with other big events.
To show the effect major news events have on viewers/readers/Americans, I often ask journalism students — "where were you when?" in relation to a major news event.
It can help them appreciate how the news media cover stories.
I was 9 years old, living near the Army post in Oberammergau, Germany. My father was on active duty and was serving a 4-year tour at the time.
It was a cold and dreary day in the Bavarian Alps. A constant drizzle had fallen all day. I remember my father came home from work and I was told to get my coat and hat as we were going to church. It was unusual for us to go to the church (on the post) on a non-Sunday or Holy Day so I knew something was up. I remember sitting in the back seat of the car and my mother said, "We have to pray for the president. He has been shot."
As a military family living in a foreign country we held all things associated with our home land near and dear to our hearts and being Catholic only strengthened our affinity for JFK, the first Catholic president. To think that someone had actually attempted to assassinate our Commander-in-Chief was unbelievable.
As we knelt and prayed in the church that evening the priest announced that President Kennedy had died. Tears flowed and sobs filled the small church as a feeling of despair came over me. I was afraid for my dad as a member of the military and afraid for my now leaderless country.
As we drove back to the apartment, I remember seeing residents from the village of Oberammergau lining the narrow streets. My mother explained they were there as a show of respect for the loss of our beloved president. The German people loved JFK too, and they adored Jackie.
Over the course of the next few days and weeks we were able to view the events of the assassination, swearing in of LBJ, and the funeral on newsreels at the theater on the post. Seeing the news broadcasts helped solidify the events into my young mind and I knew I would always remember "where I was when...."
MARY ANN TIEDEMANN
I was a 13-year-old eighth grader at Beverly Hills Junior High in Upper Darby, Pa., in the fall of 1963. On Friday afternoon November 22, I was in my last period English class. This was also my homeroom. I was seated over by the windows to the courtyard and our teacher Mrs. Cardoza was at the blackboard when the loudspeaker cracked and the principal Mr. Burke's voice stated that that afternoon Texas Governor John Connally and President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. Our teacher slumped against the blackboard, and as the bell rang to end the period and the day, she put a 4x6 card she had back in the metal card file on her desk and slammed the drawer shut almost knocking in on the floor.
As we went out to get on the school buses classmates were saying that Kennedy was dead, but no one really knew for sure. (The story that went around the school later was that a student in an art class had a contraband transistor radio and heard the news, told the teacher, who informed the principal. There was no 24-hour news cycle in those days.) The school bus ride was filled with rumor and shock.
I arrived home a few minutes before my sister, who was a high school junior. We were what would now be known as latchkey kids. Our parents would not be home from work for a couple of hours. My sister had a friend with her and we went into the house and turned on the TV which I don't think we turned off, except to go to church on Sunday, until after the funeral on Monday.
I still have the Philadelphia newspapers from that weekend, which include a full page picture of John-John, John F Kennedy Jr. saluting his father's casket as it left the church.
Years later, in the late 1980s, I was at a conference in Dallas and was having drinks at the Reunion Tower with some new younger friends who were born in the mid 1960s. The topic of the assassination came up and I pointed down to where it all happened and they suggested we go over there. So in the wee hours of the morning we stood on the grassy knoll, walked out into the empty street and I showed them where the car would have been, where the School Book Depository was, and which direction the motorcade came from and raced off. They asked how I knew all this and my only reply was that like everyone else, I had lived it. The images on TV, the maps, the pictures in the newspaper, all of it was seared into my memory as if I'd been in Dallas that day instead of suburban Philadelphia.
In my adult years I learned a theory that our world view may be shaped by what was going on when we are between the ages of 10-13. Interesting, since for me those years were the Kennedy Camelot years, filled with promise and possibility and the challenge for each of us to be engaged and involved. And even though the Kennedy legacy may be slightly tarnished by later stories about his personal life, (like learning that George Washington probably never chopped down that cherry tree), the ideal of promise, possibility, and personal involvement has never fully left my world view.
I also have a memory of seeing President Kennedy once. It was during the campaign of 1960, on a Saturday morning. I, along with some friends was taking swimming lessons at the Chester, Pa., Y. A friend's mom picked us up and on the way home we had to pull over to let his motorcade pass by. We all got out of the car and waved and hollered and in our 10-year-old minds thought it was all rather silly.