JFK: Readers' memories part 6
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.
In 1963, I had just graduated from college and was in my first year of teaching at Garden Hills School in Champaign. The students were released at 3:15 that afternoon. I was working in my classroom after school.
A fellow faculty member's husband came into my room and said, "Hey, Sharon! Did you hear what happened today?"
I had not heard of President Kennedy's death. My friend gave me the few horrific details of the happening which had occurred around noon. Our principal, in fear of upsetting the students (I assume), had chosen not to tell the faculty and children.
Sharon White, Paxton
I was 10 years old (almost 11) at the time. I attended a Catholic grade school in the suburbs of Chicago. Because I lived just a few blocks from school, I had walked home for lunch as usual. When I returned to the classroom, a classmate, Karen Moculewski, came up to me and said, "Have you heard? President Kennedy has been shot!" I immediately thought she was pulling my leg, but soon found out it was true.
Because it was a Catholic school, we all said prayers for the president. And because President Kennedy was Catholic, we may have prayed extra hard. That afternoon, we did not have our usual studies. Instead, the nun wheeled in a 19-inch black-and-white television and we all watched the news develop.
Later, on Sunday, I was still watching news on TV about what had happened. I was watching live when Jack Ruby suddenly shot Lee Harvey Oswald. I remember I was stunned to see this happen on live television and wanted immediately to tell my family what had happened, but they had all gone out somewhere.
I am convinced there was a conspiracy behind the JFK assassination.
Brian Redman, Champaign\
I was a 19-year-old farm boy from Weldon in the United States Air Force. I was stationed at RAF Lakenheath, England, about 70 miles north of London. My job was in Light Ground Radio Maintenance. My duty station was on the ground floor of the air field control tower. We had to carry and display a flight line ID badge at all times when on the flight line. Being assigned to the Communications Squadron allowed us to know about a lot of things before they were officially announced to the rest of the base. However, that was not the case when JFK was assassinated.
The base went on full alert status early in the morning. We usually knew in advance when the base was going on alert status. Nobody knew about this one. It was a few hours before we were informed about the president being shot. It was a couple more hours before we heard he had died. Suddenly, all of those practice alerts we had in the past took on a new meaning. Everyone was taking their job very seriously. There was no joking around. There was no cheerful chitchat. The thing I remember the most was entering the flight line through the same check point we entered every day, and there was every plane we had on the base that had wings and wheels were lined up end to end on the tarmac. Each plane had a pilot, a bomb, and an armament crew at the ready and waiting for a target assignment. That sight was very sobering. I did a lot of growing up in those few moments.
At that time, no one was sure who was responsible for the attack. At one point there was a suspicion that Russia was involved. We were on alert for almost a week. Security measures were very strict. Everyone seemed to have a new purpose when doing their respective jobs. We did not get the full details of what happened in Dallas until the Stars and Stripes newspaper came out. We all took our responsibilities a lot more seriously. Our jobs had more purpose to them. The guys in my shop wondered out loud how vulnerable we would be if Russia was involved due to our location. We were thankful we didn't have to find out.
I do not remember thinking or wondering how things would have been different had the assassination not happened. I think the situation of us not finding out the details for some time caused us to deal with the situation as it was and not what might have been. As I think about it 50 years later, I wonder if I would have "grown up" as quickly as I did.
Robert Walters, Weldon
The day President Kennedy was killed I was in the fifth grade at Dr. Howard School in Mrs. Gerdy's class. We were studying social studies when the door to the classroom opened. The principal, Miss Aye, told us the president had been shot. About an hour later she came back in tears and told us the president was dead. We were in shock.
I believe the war in Vietnam would have been a lot shorter if he had lived.
Tim Warmouth, Champaign
When President Kennedy was assassinated, I was a 21-year-old Marine with 12th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division stationed on Okinawa. It was 5 a.m. when we had reveille. One of the members of our battery had a radio on top of his wall locker that he always turned on at reveille to get news and music from the Armed Forced Radio Station. The first report we heard was that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. A little bit later they announced that the president was dead.
There was lots of excitement and emotion among the troops in the barracks. We were scheduled for a major inspection that morning, and I thought they would cancel it. We were surprised when the inspection went on as scheduled, and we carried out our normal duties for the next several days.
Several days later, there was a memorial service for President Kennedy. Compared to reports of events being canceled and shut down in the U.S., there seemed to be very little official reaction to the assassination. Maybe we were too far away from it, being halfway around the world.
If President Kennedy had not been assassinated, he would no doubt have been re-elected in 1964. The unanswered question would be, would President Kennedy have fallen into the same quagmire in Vietnam that plagues President Johnson. Robert McNamara is considered by many to be the architect of the Vietnam war. McNamara was Kennedy's secretary of defense and continued in that position during the Johnson Administration.
Curtis (Dan) Sadler, Ogden
I was sitting in Miss Gloria Collett's fifth grade class at Beck Street Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, when the fourth grade teacher next door came into the room and whispered something to Miss Collett. They left the room together for a short while and when Miss Collett returned, she had tears streaming down her face.
She announced to the class that President Kennedy had been shot. It was almost lunchtime, and she dismissed us early. I ran home to tell my mom and she was in disbelief. She turned on the TV and it confirmed what I had told her.
When we returned to our classroom Miss Collett told us the president had died. The principal came in and dismissed us for the day.
It was the Friday before Thanksgiving and we would be off for the week. That week was absolutely miserable. Everyone was griefstricken. The TV stations, ABC, NBC, and CBS, stayed on around the clock. (Normally they would sign off at midnight and come back on at 6:30 a.m.) I watched as Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath on the plane, as Jackie Kennedy got into the limousine with blood stains on her dress, and I saw John-John salute his daddy's casket. Christmas carols played in the background as mourners filed nonstop past his flag-draped casket. Occasionally, a narrator would identify someone in the line as a famous person or a politician. Sunday brought shock and horror as Lee Harvey Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby in the basement of the police station. Our hearts went out to the family of slain Officer Tippitt who confronted Lee Harvey Oswald in the theater. (When we returned to school after the break our class took up a collection and sent it to his family. Miss Collett received a nice card from Jackie Kennedy.) TVs were on everywhere, in shop windows, car dealership's lobbies, even the local IGA had a TV on up front. Even then, I felt the whole situation reeked of scandal. I do believe there was a shooter on the grassy knoll. Lee Harvey Oswald was paraded back and forth from room to room on purpose until Jack Ruby showed up, and we will never know the truth. That was a very bad year for me as my dog died in March, my grandmother died in April, and my beloved president died in November. We also lost the right to pray in school that year. For my lifetime, it was the worst of times.
George McMannis, Rantoul
I heard about it while on the way to my physics final at EIU. The usually jovial professor, Scott Smith, could not even muster his signature smile as he sadly went about the task of administering the exam. The university postponed the remaining final exam schedule and closed until after the funeral. Charleston had the air of a ghost town — even The Snappy Service, an all night diner, which didn't close even on Christmas, shut its doors.
All the TV channels carried around the clock coverage of events in Washington and several times a day the local radio station played The Navy Hymn, with which I was quite familiar having gotten out of the Marine Corps just three months previously. It was on the program at all religious and memorial services on Marine and Navy bases.
I spent 19 months as an intelligence assistant with the Marines at Guantanamo, having arrived there shortly after the Cuban counterrevolutionaries attempted the invasion known as the Bay of Pigs. Also, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred midway through my tour of duty. The Cubano informants that visited our office every day were quite angry with President Kennedy for the lack of American support during the Bay of Pigs. However, their attitude toward him improved greatly for his handling of the Missile Crisis. I often wonder what their reaction was to his assassination. But, as they say in the intelligence business, I had no need to know.
Mike Marlow, Urbana
I was whispering to my friend, Claudia, as I was standing near the art supplies cabinet in Mrs. Houston's 8th grade classroom in Carthage, Ill., when my principal, Mr. Hurwitz, came in to tell us that President Kennedy had been shot. This was shocking enough, but there was no indication how deadly the injury was at that time. Mr. Hurwitz repeatedly came into the room to quietly converse with Mrs. Houston. Eventually, the students were told that the president was dead! An impromptu assembly was held in the gym prior to early dismissal. There was a small, lonely table set up near the edge of the gym with an open Bible and a black flag on it. My family followed all subsequent events on TV, so I was watching when Oswald was killed by Ruby. I wish I could say that this was the last time I vividly remember where I was at a particularly momentous time in history. Alas, it is not! I graduated from high school in 1968 after all, so it was only the first for me!
Diane Walker- Zell, Camargo
I was 16 years old — a student at Urbana High School at the time JFK was shot. Another student with a transistor radio spread the news in the lunch room that President Kennedy had been shot in a motorcade in Dallas. By the time the bell rang for our next class, the school was buzzing and finally the principal announced over the intercom that the president had died. Shock, dismay and tears of grief followed the news. Instead of conducting class, we sat glued to the radios that played the up-to the minute reports about the assassination. After school, I went to the Urbana Free Library to do some research, and had to wait in the light drizzle for a ride home from my father. I remember feeling totally desolate with the dreary weather at the end of such a devastating day. Then the whole family of seven sat around the black and white television set until time for bed, while all TV shows were pre-empted by continuing news about the assassination. In fact coverage continued all day from then through the funeral without any regular programming, as I remember, and we all sat glued to our sets, unable to believe what had happened. I believe it was over Thanksgiving break, so there was no school or work for most people, but if there was, I don't remember it. Life was a blur.
I had been an eighth grader at St. Mary's Catholic School in Champaign when Senator Kennedy had visited in 1960 as part of his campaign tour. We were allowed to see him close up on the Quad even though it was a school day. The controversy over his being potentially the first Catholic President drew a lot of attention in that election, and, as a young Catholic woman, it was an issue that got my attention.
I saved all the daily newspapers from the days and weeks that followed, if they had any news about the assassination. We subscribed to The News Gazette, The Courier, and to the Chicago tribune at the time. The following summer I cut out articles from the papers and made a memorial scrapbook around the assassination. It covered the days following the event, its place in history, articles about Kennedy, Johnson, etc. The scrapbook holds a place of honor in my home and has been a history lesson for my family and extended family and friends. I even did a youthful attempt to interpret my feelings about the assassination in art, as a cover page. (However I had no art training other than in grade school.)
President Kennedy has had more impact on me, personally, than any other president in my lifetime. I am very much aware of his imperfections, but his leadership was inspiring at a time in my life when it mattered greatly to me. I believe that key actions of his as President on a national and world-wide basis have stood the test of time, and that he has earned a place of honor as one of our better Presidents.
Terry Moreau, Urbana
I was in 7th grade math class in Manteno when at 12:30 the principal came on the intercom to announce the president had been shot. I remember it was a bright sunny day. A half hour later he came to the classroom door and spoke with our teacher. Then one of them told us the president was dead. All of us were quiet except one girl broke out crying. I learned the next day she had a dream the night before that he had died. We were out of school for a few days and the streets were empty; everyone was watching tv.
Rex Spero, Champaign
On November 22, 1963 I was 1 month from my 10th birthday. We lived in Sidney, Illinois and Thanksgiving was coming fast and that meant a break from school and the Christmas holidays were fast approaching. I was at school and just returned from lunch break to my 4th grade class room. At 1:15, our principal Russel Carr, called a emergency assembly of all classes in the gymnasium. As we sat there watching him approach the podium with tears in his eyes, everyone wondered what was going on. Through a shaky voice, he announced that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas. I think the initial reaction for most of us was confusion from hearing the word "assassination" for the very first time. "What did this mean?" Immediately, the senior staff of teachers and support help broke into sobs. Within minutes, Mr. Carr dismissed school and everyone was sent home. The impact to a 9-year-old was not as grave and mind-numbing as it was to most others. I remember that everywhere I went with my mother that day and for the next several days, people stood around in groups crying or walking around like zombies. I remember my Mom and Dad both crying that night. I was made to sit in front of the television and watch the news reports come in. People on the streets all across the country crying as they were interviewed. It seemed to me that not just in the small town I lived but the entire country just stopped as if paralyzed.
The next few days were filled with mixed emotions. The intense sadness around me that did not actually hit me like it did the adults. All we knew as kids is that we should be outside playing and taking advantage of the time away from school. My Father and Mother were glued to the television and they made all of us sit and watch the coverage leading up to the funeral, the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald that shocked the world again, and finally the funeral itself. My most vivid memories are of seeing Jackie Kennedy after the assassination still dressed in that pink outfit covered in blood. The haunted and fearful look on her face as the funeral took place. The walk from the Capitol building to Arlington National Cemetery with the riderless horse in the funeral procession. The beat of the drums and all the dignitaries. It really was quite striking and it effected me forever and with such impact that I would not fully comprehend until later in life. And seeing Jack Ruby step forward to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV. Something that at the time was not profound and shocking to a 9-year-old but as the years have passed and replays remind me of that day, the gravity and shock are as fresh in me now as they were to anyone on that day.
As I grew older, I think it was not until I became high school age that I started to be aware of the many theories surrounding the murder of JFK. The word "conspiracy" became a new and ominous part of my life to such extent that I watched every TV special, listened to all interviews and bought every book I could find on the subject both pro and con as to whether or not there was a conspiracy. Currently I have 40+ books on JFK, mostly about his murder and the ongoing theories behind it. I have watched hundreds of hours of televised specials and attended a dozen or more lectures on the subject. The life of John Kennedy and his assassination have quite literally been a huge part of my life since day one, and especially from high school on through today as I approach my 60th birthday. Changed me? Absolutely yes!
My research has opened many doors into the world of our government both then and today. What would have happened if JFK had lived? Of the many things that he worked on and fought for, one particular subject burns like a raging inferno within me. The war in Vietnam. Many people do not know, but the war in Vietnam would never have included American involvement had JFK lived. Kennedy had dispatched several high level administration and cabinet members to Vietnam to do a study on the probable effects and outcome of American involvement. As a result of those missions, the last of which was made by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Maxwell Taylor, JFK and his national security team developed a policy and strategy to end all American involvement in Vietnam. At that time there were 16,000 American personnel in Vietnam. Kennedy signed National Security Action Memorandum #263 which ordered the immediate withdrawal of 2,000 civilian advisers, and the complete withdrawal of all American troops and personnel by the end of 1965. In short, American involvement was being quashed before it ever began in earnest. LBJ upon taking office did two things nearly immediately. The first was to establish the Warren Commission, and the second on November 26, 1963 was to sign National Security Action Memorandum #273 which completely reversed JFK's NSAM #263 memo and guaranteed American involvement in Vietnam. Over the course of the war, 550,000 American troops were deployed and 58,220 of those were killed in action. Thousands more were horribly maimed and mentally scarred forever. America spent over $220 billion in direct and verifiable costs and an estimated $300 billion more in related and secretive expenditures making a total of $500 billion over the course of the war.
After JFK's death, the Civil Rights bill he worked and fought so hard for was finally passed. In a speech on Civil Rights he made a simple statement that rang out loud, clear and true on that day and it has endured through the decades and will continue to be heard forever. "The rights of all men are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened." I believe his quest for equal rights for everyone would have been his greatest achievement.
My research and quest continues today. It is year round with obvious peaks around the anniversary date of the assassination when many new books and specials are released. It will continue to the day I die. Did the JFK assassination change me? Without a doubt and to a depth and intensity that I would never have dreamed possible.
Robert C. "Bobby" Ward, Mahomet
November 22, 1963. A Friday morning and we were looking forward to the weekend. Although the weather was not very good I was probably thinking of a short trip on my Harley because that was what I usually did on weekends. I was working on the Interstate 74 project from the Danville I-74 & 150 interchange west of our city to the Indiana state line. That stretch would eventually open on December 5, 1964. I was 18 at the time and had taken I.D.O.T. training at the U of I that spring; Tom Shafer was the Resident Engineer and John Marsters was his chief assistant.
We didn't have mobile communications back then so that afternoon one of the engineers came out to where I was surveying and said Tom needed to talk to us in the field office. That was when we were told of the assassination of the president. Tom was really shaken. I think he shut down the entire project. I know all the engineers and technicians left immediately.
Fred Pancoast, Danville
I have 2 very vivid personal memories of the JFK assassination to share. The first involves the day of the assassination. I was in my 3rd grade class in grade school when the principal came over the loud speaker system and ordered all teachers to immediately report to his office, and leave a student in charge of their class. This was an unheard-of announcement, as teachers almost never left during class and no student had ever been left in charge of a classroom. Further, never had all the teachers been summoned at the same time. We knew something big was happening A few minutes later we could hear the teachers crying in the hallway, and we were SCARED. We thought maybe the Cubans or Russians had bombed the USA. Instead of talking and throwing paper airplanes, we were all completely silent. Then the teacher came into the room with tears in her eyes and said that a school assembly was called immediately at the school flagpole. When everyone was assembled the principal announced that the president had been shot and the flag was lowered to half staff. I got to lower the flag because it just happened to be my "day" for flag duty. School was then canceled for the remainder of the day and students were sent home.
My second memory involves Oswald being shot. I was awake and watching cartoons when the TV switched suddenly to live coverage of Oswald being led out of the police station. So I was one of the few that saw Oswald shot on live TV. As a third grader it was very disturbing to me. I went to the kitchen to tell my mom, but she refused to believe me. It was hours later before she or dad would believe me when I told her what I had seen.
Don Wauthier, Champaign
On the day Kennedy was shot, I was a fifth grader at St. Thomas in Philo. The school at that time was a two story brick building, where the Dominican Sisters that taught school lived upstairs and there were three classrooms and a chapel on the first floor. First through third Graders were in one room, fourth and fifth in the second and sixth through eighth in the third. After we came in from lunch recess, Sister Ann Therese, our principal, came into our classroom and informed us that the president had been shot. Our classroom was to proceed to the chapel and pray the Rosary for the President and Governor Connally. When we returned to our classroom, Sister came in and told us that the president had died. I remember school being let out early, which usually brings joy to children, but that day everyone was in shock. I think we were hit especially hard because of being a Catholic school; the president was one of us, the first Catholic president ever elected. It is funny what kids think at times but one of my first thoughts was that my sister, Kathy's birthday was on the 23rd and that Kennedy was no longer president. Johnson was president on that day. Sunday the 24th, we went to an aunt and uncle's home, near Pesotum for a family gathering. I am not sure exactly why, except my grandfather's birthday had also been on the 23rd and we were getting together for that. When we walked in the door, the first thing we heard was that Oswald had been shot. I don't remember the feeling of the adults at that time other than we were all shocked. How could this happen, when he was in police custody?
That day and the next few days, we were glued to the television. We watched over and over the scenes from Dallas. I don't think there was anyone in the country that didn't see the funeral in Washington, D.C. I believe that was when we lost our age of innocence. This was the first major tragedy to hit my generation. We didn't know about World War II and were too young to be impacted by the Korean War. There are few things that you remember throughout your life, the day you marry, when your children are born, etc. The death of President Kennedy will always be with me.
Debby Wagner, Champaign
November 22, 1963 was my seventh birthday. I was in second grade in Miss Smith's class at Douglas Elementary School in Galesburg, Illinois. After lunch on Fridays, we had "show and tell." Since it was my birthday, I went first. While I was in front of the class, the principal's voice suddenly came on the public address system and startled everyone. It was about 1:20 p.m. He announced that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas and that at 1:00 he had died. I recall the teacher and some students gasping. The principal explained that the local three factories and businesses had already closed and that soon our parents would be home or coming to pick us up. Everyone was to meet in the playground and circle the flagpole to say the Pledge of Allegiance, which we did. That evening many relatives came to my family house for my birthday party. The mood was grim and the adults talked about the assassination. I recall my uncle speculating as to the motives of the killing. I was upset that such a thing would happen on my birthday, of course.
The next day we all watched TV coverage for much of the day. Strangely, I recall the news program also featuring the story that another victim of the Boston Strangler had been found that day (further terrorizing Boston). I have always believed it was this connection that created a curiosity about serial killers in me. On Sunday November 24, I was lying on the floor watching the news coverage and my mother was standing behind me talking on the phone to an aunt. They were bringing Oswald to the basement of the Dallas County sheriff's department. Suddenly Jack Ruby appeared and shot Oswald. I distinctly remember my mother saying a string of expletives and saying to my aunt "they shot Oswald." The next day, Monday, November 25, we watched the funeral on TV like everyone else. I recall hearing that it was John-John's third birthday. It struck me that the president had been killed on my birthday and buried on his son's birthday. I remained personally connected to the assassination and read the entire Warren Commission report in high school and twice since. I continue to read about the event and hope that more serious efforts will be made to discover the complete truth.
Greg Whitlock, Champaign