Etched In Their Minds
Residents describe how they found out — and what they were compelled to do in wake of news
Steve Beckett seems surprised by the tears.
Law professor, lawyer, well-known local politician, Beckett is recalling where he was a half-century ago, on a Friday afternoon that changed everything — including, eventually, him.
Beckett is in a faculty lounge on the second floor of Urbana High School, near what used to be the gym. That's where, as a sophomore on Nov. 22, 1963, his P.E. class lined up so the teacher could take roll.
As the normal high school horseplay ensued, the teacher, Gene Armer, said, "'You guys better knock it off. Don't you know your president's been shot?'" Beckett recalled.
"And everybody got quiet. I was right next to him and I said, 'What happened?' He said, 'He's in Dallas. He's been shot.'"
The class resumed, and while the sound of basketballs filled the gym, the school's P.A. suddenly squawked unintelligibly. The teacher sent a student to the office to find out what the announcement had said.
"He walked in and was just completely pale, and said 'President Kennedy's dead.'"
Beckett drops his gaze at the memory. When he looks back up, the tears are there.
"So we all sat down. Just stopped."
Things stopped across the country that day, as the news spread that President John Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas. For one local resident, a flight was diverted; for another, an already-busy day got busier. And for another, it meant relaying the news as his job, and then telling his wife, who hadn't heard.
Beckett recalls the rest of the school day at Urbana was somber. Students were "very, very quiet" passing in the halls.
Hundreds of miles away, Jim Morris was an 18-year-old with a full-time clerical job with the FBI in Washington. When he came back from a late lunch, at 2:30 or so, co-workers told him what had happened.
"Everyone was tense, worried, upset, frightened," said Morris, who lives in Champaign.
In New York, Floyd "Gordie" Gordon had finished a weeklong school on Long Island for his work on the telephone system at Chanute Air Force Base and was at LaGuardia Airport to fly back to Illinois.
At the check-in counter, "this young fellow, who I would imagine to be 17, 18 years old, ran up and said the president was shot. And I turned to him and said, 'I don't think that's funny.' And he said, 'No, I heard it on the radio.'
"I turned around, and there was a Hertz rental counter right behind us, and I saw this girl had a radio, so I went over and said, 'Turn that thing on.' And she did, and of course, it was just blaring ... with all this news that was going on."
In Moline, Kenneth Buel was on the air at radio station WQUA, delivering a 15-minute newscast that had started at 12:30 p.m. He was almost finished for the day.
"The door to the announcer's booth opened, and a fellow came in and handed me — this will sound like a movie story — handed me the teletype that said, my recollection is, that shots had been fired at the presidential motorcade.
"At that moment, we didn't know the seriousness of it, just that shots had been fired."
He stayed late, working through the afternoon. There was more news, and the station had to make decisions about news and other coverage. He got home hours later than usual.
"At that time, we had three children (ages 6 months, and 2 and 5 years). And I walked in the house, and it was totally quiet. My wife was doing some ironing. ... I looked at her and said, 'You don't know what's going on, do you?' She said no, she hadn't had anything on all afternoon; she'd been busy with the children.
"That's when it first hit me emotionally, telling her personally that the president had been killed in the shooting in Dallas. I had trouble talking to her, the difficult emotional reaction."
Back at LaGuardia, Gordon found out he wouldn't get home as soon as he thought.
"Our flight was canceled, because they took that plane and took a whole bunch of media people to Dallas. ... They just said, 'We've got to use this plane to take media, so you guys will have to go standby.'"
Gordon, now 86 and living in Champaign, lived in Paxton at the time. He finally got a flight to Chicago's O'Hare Airport.
"It was the talk of the plane. Your fellow passengers, you're talking, wondering how this is going to affect the world. ... It was very much in our minds."
After another long day on Saturday, Morris' route home took him past the Capitol, where Kennedy's body lay in state.
"The lines were formed at the Capitol building, down the stairs and around two or three blocks," he said.
On Sunday, Buel was at home.
"I was watching television when the shooting, Jack Ruby shooting Oswald, occurred. I remember watching it, in shock, and just getting up. My wife was making the beds, finishing up her morning routine. I walked back and said, 'I can't believe this. They shot Lee Harvey Oswald.' I can visualize it sitting here, the scene, the famous picture, (Ruby) lunging forward with the gun in his hand, the black hat on, and Oswald's frozen expression."
Morris was at work at the FBI on Sunday, when word came that Ruby had shot Oswald. Ruby was said to know many police officers in Dallas and was connected with underworld figures as well.
"We yanked every file that had the name Jack Ruby in it, made sure it was the right person and sent it over to the agency headquarters building. ... We weren't privy to what steps were being taken to investigate," he said.
Beckett remembered his Urbana neighborhood being far quieter than usual that weekend.
"Everybody watched it, I mean we all talked about it. You stayed with your family, and you watched it on TV."
That Monday, Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
A half-century later, the effect of his death remains.
"It took some hope away," Morris said. "I think Kennedy was shaping up to be a better president the second half of his first term than the first half. ... It was all taken away."
"It changed our lives," Gordon said. "I've often wondered if Kennedy hadn't gotten killed ... what a difference it may have made in the world. He would have won a second term. He was a very good negotiator; he could get stuff done with other countries. That's how I saw him."
Beckett's family was "rock-ribbed Republicans."
"I supported Nixon in 1960. Everett Dirksen was my hero. ... I went through a sort of political metamorphosis. ... I started reading about Kennedy and his administration. There were tons of books after the assassination. ... It got me to retrospectively and introspectively think about myself and my own political views, and eventually I did change. ... I've never voted for a Republican president."
The assassination was the focus of the TV networks, at that time a relatively monolithic national media. Dan Rather called the event "the coming-of-age of television news."
Like so many things, the media have changed in 50 years. Television isn't the three networks of that era. The Internet and social media exert enormous influence.
"Can you imagine a nation in their homes glued to a television set, watching a national event like this for four days?" Beckett said. "I just can't imagine it happening again."
"You would be looking at it through so many separate spectrums of these totally partisan viewpoints," Buel said. "As hard as it is to say, I suspect there would be an element today that would be celebratory. That's a horrible situation to be in, but I think it's a basic fact."