JFK: Readers' memories part 2
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.
On the afternoon of November 22, 1963 I was 18 years old and living in Washington, D. C. while attending George Washington University and working in the Records Section of the FBI. I was returning to my unit from a late lunch when one of my coworkers came running up to me while shouting, "The governor and the president have been shot!" I immediately contacted my supervisor and was told about the situation, at least what was known at FBI Headquarters at the time. She also said we will all be working late. My shift, the day shift, stayed over 8 hours. We were finally able to leave at midnight after being told to be back at 8 a.m.
My day shift on the 24th of November was going smoothly until word came in that Jack Ruby shot Oswald. We pulled every file with the name Jack Ruby in it and took them to the FBI,'s main H. Q. in the Department of Justice Building. I don't remember how many files we took over there. The term hundreds does not sound too far off. Case agent supervisors had to check each file to determine if the Jack Ruby mentioned in the particular file they were reviewing was "that" Jack Ruby. We all earned our money that day!
While going home the night of the 24th, around midnight again as best I can remember, I went past the line of mourners that had formed at the Capital Building. The line ran for blocks and blocks.
The following summer I was transferred to the new FBI office in Jackson, Mississippi during all of the civil rights activity. From the FBI's clerical support staff I went to the U. S. Air Force Police and continued a career in law enforcement that has spanned 50 years. No matter how many cases I have handled or number of arrests I have made, I will never forget the afternoon of November 22, 1963. "What were you doing when Kennedy was shot?" I have often been asked that by people who know where I was working at the time. I tell them I was doing my small part to make things right.
James L. Morris, Champaign
I was standing at the check in counter at La Guardia airport in N. Y., when a young fellow ran up and said "the President has been shot." I said to him if that's a joke I don't think it's funny. He said I just heard it on the radio. I turned around and saw a radio sitting on the counter of a Hertz rental desk, so I ran over and asked the girl to turn it on. Every station was blasting the news. It seemed like just an hour, but was probably longer that kids were hawking newspapers with large headlines "PRESIDENT SHOT." I was about to board a plane to fly to Chicago, but they took that plane and flew media people to Dallas, so I now had to get back by waiting for a stand-by flight.
I was able to catch a flight early evening and we hit a violent thunderstorm over Cleveland, that had also hit Chicago. We were able to land, but waited a long time to get a gate. When arriving in the terminal it was a mess. People sleeping on the floor and in chairs, newspapers, and garbage all over the floor. People trying to get information on when they might get a flight. Those days, Ozark was flying to Champaign, and I was told if the weather breaks, we will try to get a flight out. The weather did let up a little and we boarded to come to Champaign and the flight would then continue to St. Louis
That had to be one of the roughest plane rides I have ever encountered; I could have used a saddle. My wife met me in Champaign and we drove back to Paxton where we were living at the time. A car accident just south of Buckley had killed a Dad, Mother and a four year old son. Two teen age boys, riding in the back seat were spared. The Mother and son were taken to Ford - Baier Funeral Home. Shortly after arriving home, Young Royce called and said Dad can use your help. I never got to bed that night.
Now being 86 years old, I remember that as if it were yesterday, and it will be with me the rest of my life.
Floyd "Gordie" Gordon, Champaign
Back in November of 1963 I was in grad school at the U of I. A "townie," I also worked at the Library part time. And, to fess up, I have to admit that at the time I was hooked on "As the World Turns."
On Nov. 22, like most weekdays, I went to the YMCA on Wright Street just before noontime when ATWT went on the air. Usually, there were other regulars there to follow the exploits of Penny and Bob and other members of the Hughes family, especially the mischievous Lisa. That day, however, I was all alone.
When Walter Cronkite interrupted the program to tell us that the President had been shot in Dallas, I was obviously dumbfounded.
Initially, I went down to the cafeteria/coffee shop hoping to see someone that I knew. I saw no one except Roger Ebert, who was at a distant table, and whom I didn't know well.
So, I wandered back upstairs, looked at the TV again and heard Cronkite say in a crackling voice: "President Kennedy has died."
Literally in a daze, I then walked the few blocks to the Library. I felt that people I met walking on the sidewalk had no idea of what I knew, and I didn't know if I should do or say something to inform them. I did nothing; I just kept on walking.
When I got to the Library, I went downstairs to the mailroom where I saw my boss, Stan Tharp, and Pete Bridgewater standing by the radio. We talked briefly but mostly just stared into space.
The news must have traveled rapidly because as I went on the mail route, past Mr. Huff, then Miss Satterwaite, Miss Bull, Miss McCarthy and others, I first saw many pensive looks, but later I saw many eyes that were now teared up.
I guess that I took the bus home that day; I just don't remember. The TV was on at home and remained on through the weekend, as we watched events unfold that became "curiouser and curiouser" as the days progressed.
One day, my Aunt Pearl called to tell us that my mother's first cousin, Father Cain, was at the hospital in Dallas on that day and gave the president his "Last Rites." This oddity, for some reason, just seemed like another twist in the tragedy that we were watching on television.
I don't think that people really understand how the death of President Kennedy affected our generation. Some years later, I joined the Peace Corps. While in training, a bunch of us were sitting around when someone asked: "Why did you join?' The overwhelming sentiment was that we wanted to answer JFK's directive "Ask not" in the affirmative.
John Joyce, Urbana
1963: Death invaded the nation again in a particularly ugly form — the assassination of a young president. Over the television, a subdued but agitated Walter Cronkite announced: "President Kennedy has been shot." As in 1945, another friend and I walked out our front doors and stood on the front lawn trying to comfort each other. Then, I was 30 years old, but still the faith was there in the abilities of this man. The horror of such a senseless loss to each individual citizen, to the country, and to the world left the entire nation numb and in slow motion. I had never experienced a shut down of emotions on such a large scale. The nation mourned — too deeply shocked to function. The atmosphere was as if the heavens were raining gray ash from a funeral pyre.
How did we recover? We didn't. We just went on and incorporated the loss into our individual lives and into the fabric of the nation. I can still see the flag-draped coffin being carried down the capitol steps and hear the somber music of "Eternal Father, Strong to Save," the U.S. Navy hymn. I can still see the caisson rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue toward Arlington National Cemetery as three-year-old John-John saluted his father. And sadly, I can still hear "Taps" being played over a lowered coffin as a nation said a final, mournful, and bitter farewell to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Joyce Alexander, Danville
When I was in college I was fascinated by John Kennedy as he was running for the presidency. I made three scrapbooks and collected numerous articles, books, magazines, etc. I was also very interested in Jacqueline Kennedy as well. I wrote to the White House and received autographs from both John Kennedy and Jacqueline.
I was devastated when I heard the news of the death of John F. Kennedy. I was in college and couldn't wait to see all of the reports on television.
I have continued my interest in the Kennedys to this day. Just last week I attended a dinner to hear Clint Hill, Jacqueline Kennedy's secret service agent, speak. He told of all of his duties as he was assigned to her and told about the day in Dallas as he tried to protect her when the President was shot.
Bette Holmes, Champaign
On November 22, 1963, I was a youngster, still in grade school in Chicago, back when Chicago schools were still great educational centers, with lots of neighborhoods that seemed safe and secure. It was a much simpler time and certainly more innocent culture, as we had both morning and afternoon recess, and most kids went home for lunch and then returned for afternoon classes without much thought of harm or danger confronting us.
My sister and I were returning to school after our lunch break that Friday, when two friends approached and asked if we'd heard that the president had been shot. No, we had not. But the bell rang for us all to get into the building and into our classrooms. Everyone was feeling anxious when the school bell rang again ... which was not normal ... and an announcement was made for everyone to report to the assembly hall.
In the assembly hall, we were told, haltingly by our principal, Mrs. Novak, that our president had been shot and taken to surgery, but had not survived. I recall lots of shouting, crying and shrieking with many scared faces. I don't remember reacting that way. I believe that I was stunned. I had been in a state of fear of the news, any news, since the Bay of Pigs incident that Walter Cronkite had talked about ominously for so many evenings, such that the fear of nuclear holocaust was very real to me. I was afraid that this shooting was somehow related to that, but too young to understand any of it.
After school, it seems like everyone's parent was there to pick them up. This was unusual, too. It was also unusual that the news and all TV programming switched to covering only what was happening in Washington, D.C., and Dallas.
Thanksgiving followed shortly after, and I remember we were on our way to a relative's house for dinner and did not have the car radio on. Again, we did not know what had happened until we arrived at their house a few minutes, just a few, after Lee Harvey Oswald was shot. Of course, the television was on and the news kept repeating, showing the shooting. It felt scary for adults, but even scarier for kids, as it seemed the whole world was collapsing and no one knew what horrible thing would happen next.
Of course, the killings of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy a few years later, and the upsurge in troops being sent into Vietnam, only added to the whole feeling of despair, and perhaps led to the "Flower Power" movement that followed this whole miasma. Almost overnight, our culture changed from the sedate '50s to the crazy '60s and the linchpin seems, to my memory, to have been the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Joyce Miles, Catlin
Friday, Nov. 22 1963 started out just as any other cool day in San Diego, California where I was teaching a course in Electro-mechanics at the Naval Training Center, at USNTC San Diego. I was in the process of grading some test papers for my students when fellow Staff Instructor, RMC Al Knieriem rushed into my classroom yelling that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas and the television in the staff lounge was carrying the news of this event.
President Kennedy was most respected and very much loved by the vast majority of my shipmates, but in my mind and my heart he was a strong and effective leader, and was revered by most of the free world. I felt sick to my stomach at the news that he had been struck by an assassin's bullet. Initially, the news was very spotty in reporting the details of his condition and there were conflicting details regarding the report that he had been struck by at least two bullets.
As I rushed into the lounge, I saw that almost every one of my fellow instructors were already gathered around the television, anxiously awaiting an update on the president's condition. The conversations were centered around the shooting and the possibility that the USSR might be involved in this dastardly attempt on his life. After all, the Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in our minds. I in particular had participated in that crisis, having been dispatched to Port of Spain, British West Indies, where I had been ordered to board the Argentine Destroyer ARA Rosales. I was involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis for approximately 6 weeks, all this while under the guidance and control of Commander South Atlantic Forces, Port of Spain, West Indies Territory.
President Kennedy was a former naval officer who had served in the Pacific Fast Attack Torpedo Boats, and had lost his boat in a battle with Japanese enemy forces. Kennedy had courageously survived having his boat shot out from under his command, and he swam to safety while saving a crew member from his boat. He complied with the Naval tradition that a commander never leaves his command while there are men still onboard.
At this time I was 27 years old and I was so impressed with JFK's courage and sacrifice that I felt like I should attempt to follow his lead in serving my Country as well as he had. To this day I still hold his memory as a banner of integrity and dedication, loyalty and honor.
Lt. Paul J. Apodaca, Champaign
I walked down Coburn Street, passing the public junior high, a sea of students streaming out. On normal days my Catholic school dismissed thirty minutes later so that we would avoid the mass of mostly African-American students loudly exiting the old school structure. Today wasn't a normal day. The nuns, uncharacteristically indecisive, debated whether we should leave early. Finally monsignor arrived and announced via the intercom to go home and be with our families. As I walked passed Thornton Junior High I was struck by something that I had never seen before: the students moving silently; no yelling, no youthful exuberance. The shouting and shoving that characterized their dismissal, a stark contrast to St. Mary's orderly and hushed day's end, was absent. I stopped for several minutes to watch. No one spoke: hundreds of 12, 13, and 14 year olds with not a word to say. I locked eyes with a few but most heads were down. Normally carefully separated, we now shared our country's common grief. That moment, like so many small ones over the course of a lifetime, made lies of all the differences we were encouraged to embrace. I continued on my way, head down now as well, understanding that there were words to say but that I couldn't summon the wisdom to know what they were, or the courage right then to speak them. Of course the time was coming when killing leaders would be a more frequent American occurrence; some believing that killing a person was a solution against change, but not in 1963.
I remember walking the same sidewalk in 1960 with "Kennedy" inked on the sides of my white sneakers. All the girls in my seventh-grade class had done the same. We were excited by a good-looking man with a beautiful wife, running for president. Our Catholic school contained the children of union members, mostly Irish and Italian factory workers, and the community unwaveringly Roosevelt Democrats. Republicans were for rich people but Kennedy was for the working man. By the time I was in 10th grade at St. Mary's I was involved with organizing social action activities. The projects so far had been educational: discussion groups mostly, and guest speakers. Our sponsor, a quiet lay teacher with serious eyes and an anxious brow, was clearly out of her depth for dealing with the rabble-rousers we were destined to become, encouraged by the ghost of Dorothy Day and the heat of the times. November 22, 1963 was the beginning of the shared hurt and anger; the feeling that we were being robbed of the men who could lead us to better times, and the realization of all that had been taken from us.
The first announcement came in biology class, the principal interrupting to ask that we all stop and pray because our president had been shot. Sister Ignatius started the rosary and we all chanted the prayers until the bell rang and we switched classes. During English, we listened to the radio as the announcer described the shooting and provided the confirmation that the president was dead. Delores Antonio, the dark haired girl who often sat behind me by virtue of our last names, started crying softly. I was stunned as well but no tears came. I imagined that I was less sure of the power of the rosary then she had been. The Sisters conferred in the hallways; at last Monsignor came to released us.
At home my mother was working in the small beauty shop that was attached to our house. She had flipped on the radio so that she and her client could listen to the events as they unfolded. In the living room I turned on Walter Cronkite and sat subdued and absorbed. I viewed the same news footage over and over again, trying to truly understand what had happened. My mother joined me after she finished with her client; my father, after his shift at General Tire. What I remember is that we didn't talk, just like the kids from the junior high, for a long while. I imagine my mother attempted to feed us but I can't recall much else that day. Two days later when the initial shock was beginning to fade, my grandmother died. I was so wrung out by national events, the whole family was, that the death of my mother's mother seemed unreal and truly unfair. How do you handle so much sadness when it came so close together? We viewed the president's funeral as we dressed to go to my grandmother's.
Within the next 10 years Thornton Junior High was torn down, as much of the area, christened Opportunity Park, became a casualty of urban renewal, or as blacks would later term it, Negro removal. St. Mary's Church is still there and a small Catholic elementary school. St Mary's High School for Girls was merged with another inner-city school, St. Vincent's. The combined school gradually attracted students from across the city. In 2003 St. Vincent-St. Mary's graduated LeBron James, the year's number one NBA draft pick and future Cleveland Cavalier and star Miami Heat player. I like to believe that despite my disappointing jump shot, that LeBron and I are alumni of the same school, across time, one that bred imagination and equality and that finally lived up to its own expectations.
Elizabeth Abraham, Urbana
An announcement came over the intercom at Newman Grade School before school let out when I was in 6th grade, announcing that President Kennedy had been shot and later died. Our mouths dropped open in shock.
When my brother, Dana, and I got off the bus, I went inside and told Mother, "Kennedy got shot and died today." She'd been baking, getting ready for Thanksgiving all day and hadn't turned on the TV. Not believing me, she said, "Oh, Karen, don't say such a terrible thing!" I replied, "Turn on the TV — it's true!" After turning on the TV, she was as shocked as Dana and I were. I don't think the TV was turned off very much for the next several days with the media reports and coverage of the following events that happened.
Karen Riddell, Villa Grove
I was in college when Kennedy was killed, and my overriding memory of that time is the astonishment I felt as I came to learn, in the following months and years, that what I thought then of the U.S. government and the presidency was largely false.
I was too young to vote in 1960, but I was in favor of Kennedy's candidacy because he was made to seem a noble leader who would work for peace and freedom around the world — and that wasn't so clear about his Republican opponent.
What I didn't know at the time of the assassination — and learned only subsequently — was that Kennedy in office had launched what became the greatest international crime since the Second World War, the Vietnam War, by attacking South Vietnam from the air. And that attack was only part of a military policy designed to insure American control of the world economy. As Kennedy's contemporary, U.S. State Department official George Kennan, wrote, "The U.S. has about 50 percent of the world's wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population. In this situation we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity..."
In Latin America, the Kennedy policy, symbolized by the "Green Berets," established torture and death squads throughout the region. And in 1962, his belligerent policy brought the world close to nuclear annihilation — how close we've only recently come to realize — in the "Cuban Missile Crisis." That too was misrepresented to us at the time.
C. G. Estabrook, Champaign
The assassination of President Kennedy is forever etched into my memory. I was a 17-year-old senior at Bloomington High School (Illinois) and was just leaving history class when the geography teacher came into our room and whispered something to our teacher. I could tell from the look on their faces that something was terribly wrong. I soon found out what it was as I walked to my physics class. The teacher had us all sit down and we listened as the news came over the school intercom. We were all stunned with the enormity of what had happened.
School let out early and so I rode the bus downtown to my part time job as an office boy at the Pantagraph. Needless to say, the building was abuzz with the news of the assassination. I worked late that night and then walked over to the Sears store to watch the latest news on the store's televisions.
Saturday is kind of a blur but the events of Sunday and Monday stand out in my mind. I remember my family coming home from church to the news that Oswald had been shot. It was hard to grasp what was happening to the country.
Monday was probably one of the saddest days I can ever remember. It was the day of the funeral and everything was shut down. I rode downtown with my father and it was completely deserted. It was if a bomb had gone off. There were no cars or people anywhere. It was a completely surreal experience. That night the only thing on television was still pictures accompanied by very sad music. I was so sad and depressed that I went into my room and cried.
I realize that I was young and naive at the time and didn't really know anything about JFK. However, it seemed like the country fundamentally changed after the assassination. Four years later, I enlisted in the Army and spent a year in Vietnam. I have often wondered how things would have been different if JFK had lived. Would Vietnam have escalated? Would there have been race riots and so much discontent in the country? We will never know but one thing is for sure, anyone who lived through that period was forever changed.
David Peters, Fisher
I was 13 years old and in the eighth grade at Ogden Grade School in Ogden, Illinois.
At that time our classroom was housed in the building for the freshman attendance center of St. Joseph-Ogden High School with an assistant principal's office located just down the hallway. One of my classmates had asked to step into the hallway to get a drink of water and got permission to do so. He came back fairly quickly and said, "Mr. Mendenhall (assistant principal) sure is mad. He came out of his office, told me to get back into the classroom and stay there." Mr. Cool (our afternoon schoolteacher) went out into the hall to speak to Mr. Mendenhall. He came back into the classroom, walked to the front and said, "This is a sad day for our country. President Kennedy has been assassinated in Dallas." At the time the supplier of milk for the school used milk cartons with brief bios of our country's presidents printed on them with one, of course, featuring our young president. I will never forget a classmate saying as we were trying to get a handle on the situation, "Now they will have to change the milk cartons."
I feel that President Kennedy would not have escalated the Vietnam War as many advisors wanted him to do. He knew firsthand that country's problems from a visit there in 1951.
Sara Hiser, Ogden
In November 1963, I was a newsman at WQUA Radio in Moline, Illinois. On the 22nd, I was delivering the 15-minute 12:30 p.m. newscast when an associate came into the studio and handed me the first bulletin from the UPI teletype that shots had been fired at the presidential motorcade and it appeared the president had been hit. The next several hours were one update after another as the story advanced. I've saved a couple feet of newsprint from the teletype as a memory of that historic day.
While at the station into the late afternoon, it was all business for me with no emotional reaction. However, as soon as I stepped into our home it hit me that Margaret did not have either a radio or television turned on. I remember asking her if she knew what had happened hours before and she said "no, what do you mean?" Telling her directly that President Kennedy had been murdered prompted an emotional reaction in me as I was telling her directly what I had been sharing with my radio audience over several hours without being affected.
At that time, our two sons and daughter were all less than five years old which had kept Margaret away from the news of the day.
On Monday, November 24, I recall attending/covering an outdoor memorial service at the Rock Island Arsenal involving U.S. military personnel stationed there.
Ken Buel, Champaign
I will never forget Friday, November 22, 1963. It was my ninth birthday and my parents were hosting a birthday party for me after school and had invited all the girls from my fourth grade class at the Weldon Grade School. I remember our teacher, Mrs. Floyd, coming into our classroom from the office, and telling us that President Kennedy had been shot (and later learning that he had passed away).
My entire class was in a state of shock and disbelief that afternoon. Personally, I remember wondering if I'd still get to have my birthday party. The party did take place as planned, but a few of the girls were too upset to come. Instead of a happy time with party games, I remember all of us sitting around the television, watching and listening to the news reports of President Kennedy's shooting and death.
A few years back, at a high school class reunion, a classmate came up to me and said, "Janice, I'll never forget your birthday party the day President Kennedy was shot." Fifty years later, I still have the Life and Post magazines from November 1963 that my parents had saved for me with the stories about President Kennedy's assassination, funeral, Johnson's swearing in as president, and Lee Harvey Oswald.
Janice (Poff) Corum, Champaign
I was 4 years old and at home with my Mom. She, my Dad and I lived in Springfield, Ill. I recall all (3) TV networks were preempted as coverage unfolded. My Dad came home from work (early) in the afternoon and he and my Mom just sat watching TV (black & white), probably in disbelief?
Being so young, my biggest concern was that Saturday morning cartoons weren't televised that week and it seemed that the funeral procession went on for days? I don't know if people of my parents' age then (20s) ever really got over that event in life. By the time we all moved to Champaign ('68) the next biggest (non-assassination) event in life was the moon landing. Of course, this was the President's dream
Mike Price, Austin, Texas
I was in the sixth grade at Central Grade School in Westville. (It has since been torn down.) Our principal, Mr. Yund, came in and told us about the motorcade in Dallas, and we all had questions. The rest of the school day was a blur.
When I got home from school, my mom was rocking my baby sister and crying while watching the television. She told me that the president had died, and how sad it was for our country. When I watched the news with her, I saw how sad Walter Cronkite and all the other news people were. When everyone around you is sad, I guess I felt sad, too. Nothing else was on TV for about a week after that. My parents watched the whole saga unfoled. Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby were a part of the drama, too.
What a way to learn and remember history! Some of the things I remember vividly are Jackie's blood-stained pink outfit, Johnson taking the oath of office, the little son saluting the casket and being just a baby himself, and the horse-drawn casket being on parade.
We always remember where we were when certain people die, like Elvis and John Lennon, but President Kennedy's death had quite an impact on me as a child. It is a time that is etched in my memory. I went on to be a teacher in Westville, and when you can talk about an experience that you have lived, it makes it more real to your students. I have always remembered the anniversary of Kennedy's death because my birthday is on Nov. 21. His death was the next day.
Mary Newman, Danville
I still remember vividly November 22, 1963. I was 7 years old and in the first grade, living in Danville, Illinois. I remember on that day leaving school and my mom was outside my classroom to pick me up. She never did that, since I always walked home each day. I looked at her and noticed she had been crying. When I asked what was wrong. She said, "President Kennedy was killed today." I remember crying because that was the first time someone had died that I felt like I knew. I looked around our town, and all the flags were at half mast. My mother told me that it was out of respect for the president. I remember the Danville Commercial-News the next day had the headlines in bold letters, KENNEDY KILLED. The next few days were memorable, because I saw Walter Cronkite cry on national TV (black and white) and we as a family always watched the news together, because my dad was a history buff, and he wanted us children to know our history.
I remember clearly the funeral and the long procession with the casket on the cart going through the city, and little John-John saluting the casket. Caroline and I were close in age, which I always liked — that the president's daughter and I were alike. I remember crying for her because she had lost her daddy. I remember when I lost my dad this year that I thought about her.
The next few days were scary (because) I had never seen anyone killed in my life. And to see Lee Harvey Oswald killed by Jack Ruby was traumatic to me. I remember having my mom look under my bed and in my closet for months, because I thought someone would be hiding in my room to kill me, like I had seen on TV. It took me months to trust again that someone was not out to hurt me.
I am now 57 years old, and I think it proves that TV does affect you and what you see. Whenever I hear the name Kennedy I instantly think of John and Robert Kennedy and what I saw on TV.
Jeanine C. Black, St. Joseph