A friend who served with JFK broke the bad news
DANVILLE — The tears come as easily today as they did 50 years ago when Claire Manning first heard that her president had been shot.
Sitting in her Danville apartment near a wall display that includes a picture of her and John F. Kennedy moments after his 1960 speech at the University of Illinois and Kennedy's memorial service announcement, the 72-year-old retired teacher's voice quivers as she recounts those four days in November 1963, beginning with his assassination in Dallas.
"One of the hardest parts for me was seeing that casket go back to the White House," she said.
The Urbana native, UI graduate and retired Danville school teacher grew up an idealist in a politically active family that was close with Ed Drewitch, also of Urbana, who served on PT-109, Kennedy's patrol-torpedo boat during World War II.
She and her family also became good friends with the late Dave Powers, a close friend of JFK, and visited the Hyannis Port family compound more than once on Powers' invitation.
As a freshman at the UI, the idealistic, energetic Manning became involved in the Illini for Kennedy and worked on campaigns for JFK as well as Bobby Kennedy, and later, Teddy Kennedy.
She said she remembers being in Washington, D.C., the day JFK announced he would run for president, and Bobby Kennedy telling her that same day never to lose her idealism.
She was "such an idealist" at that time, Manning said, and Kennedy very much appealed to that.
"I worked very hard and loved every minute of it," she said of her campaign volunteer work. "I truly believed with all my heart that he was going to bring this nation together. I knew he was very idealistic and he wanted to bring this country to its greatest moment."
In October 1960, when then-presidential candidate John Kennedy came to the UI, a 19-year-old Manning stood on the stage nearby as he addressed students on the Quad. Not aware at the time of his back problems, Manning said she noticed he had difficulty stepping off the stage that day, so she, another campaign volunteer and a local police officer assisted him. Manning grabbed his left arm and clearly remembers Kennedy turning toward her for just a moment but long enough for his blue eyes to make as much of an impression on her as his speech.
Years later, Manning stumbled across a black-and-white picture of that moment hanging on the wall of a friend's office, and now it hangs on her wall.
After Kennedy's presidential victory the next month, Manning received an invitation to his inauguration through her volunteer work and association with the Drewitch family.
"It was the most exciting thing in my life," said Manning, who borrowed a dress for the event, including a friend's wedding slippers, which didn't stop her from trudging through the deep snow to attend the main inaugural ball, a moment the Associated Press caught and highlighted the next day.
Three years later, Manning had finished her undergraduate degree and now was a graduate student at the UI. On Nov. 22, 1963, she was on the UI campus and had come home for a quick lunch when she got a phone call from Drewitch. He asked if she had heard the news. She hadn't, so he broke it to her.
"I started crying, and crying and crying," she said.
Neither of them knew many details at that moment, Manning said, adding that most likely the president was already dead. Manning said she so vividly remembers Drewitch telling her that Kennedy would pull through, because he saw his strength when he served with him on PT-109. Manning hung up the phone, clinging to the hope Drewitch had given her. As she turned on the television, she started getting phone calls from other friends and relatives.
Then, said Manning, her voice breaking and tears filling her eyes like it happened yesterday, Walter Cronkite came on TV.
"I always loved Walter Cronkite," she said, explaining in detail how Cronkite took off his glasses, unable to hide his own emotion, as he announced that the president was dead.
After the announcement, Drewitch called again, sobbing, Manning said.
"'I never thought they could get to him,'" Manning recalled him saying.
Manning also gets very emotional recalling Bobby Kennedy telling her to never lose her idealism.
"I did," she said. "You work really hard and put everything into it, and it works, and there's your president. Then 1,000 days later, all that effort and everything else was all shattered in an instant. It was a terrible, terrible loss — a loss of belief that one person, one student could impact the world, and suddenly, it's gone. He could have done so much more."