JFK Memories: ‘You know something? Grown-up men do cry!’
We asked Monitor readers for their memories of the day John F. Kennedy was killed. Here’s what they told us:
Even in Europe, JFK was ‘the’ president
In 1963 I was a young Army lieutenant, serving with an armored cavalry unit at a small post in Bavaria, near the Czech border. During the evening of Nov. 22 I was eating dinner with a fellow officer, when the waitress, a young German woman named Gisela, came rushing up to us, tears streaming down her face. In heavily accented English, she blurted out, “The president has been shut in Taxes.”
Or at least we thought that was what she said, and we couldn’t imagine what she was talking about. When we asked her several times to repeat it, the horror of what Gisela was saying finally sank in: The president had been shot in Texas.
My friend Tom and I had many thoughts and discussions about the shooting that evening, as we sat for hours by a radio listening to every update and development we could get over Armed Forces Radio. One of those recurring thoughts and discussions was quite personal: How will the Soviets – whose army was only a few miles away from us over the border – react?
But my most enduring memory is how personally and how hard Gisela – a German national who had never been to America – reacted to the terrible news. The president had been shot. Not just the president for us Americans who were stationed in her country, but the president. Period.
It brought me to tears
The tragic moment I heard of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy I was sitting in a corner office at the State House, where I worked as a buyer in the state Purchasing Division under the direction of the state purchasing director, Richard Peale. I had brought my family of young children back to New Hampshire from California a few years before so they could know their expanded family, and we lived in a rented a house in Bow. My wife and I had been in the LA stadium when Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson made their victory lap around it, waving to their supporters.
And you know something? Grown-up men do cry! I am crying right now.
SELDEN R. STRONG
So much for ‘Hamlet’
I was in typing class in high school. A guy known as the class prankster and troublemaker came running down the hallway yelling, “The president’s been shot!” I thought, “Yeah, right, there he goes again.”
During the next period I had to go to my English teacher’s room to take a test about Hamlet I had missed when I had been absent. I passed the principal and vice principal in the hallway. They were talking and looking very grim.
Someone asked them if it was true that the president had been shot. The principal said yes and I heard them speculating about President Lyndon Johnson.
The Hamlet test was a disaster. I was so shaken I couldn’t think. I mixed up characters and events.
At the end of the period, the principal came on the public address system and said, “The president is dead. Please leave the school with dignity fitting the occasion.”
I walked home stunned. My mother had the TV on, and I saw Walter Cronkite’s historic broadcast.
My English teacher returned the garbled test with the note, “This is understandable under the circumstances.”
LINDA DUMELIN WILLIAMS
A ride to remember
I was 6 years old and living in New York City. My parents decided to rent an apartment on the Upper West Side and found one on 92nd Street and West End Avenue. On Nov. 22, 1963, we were moving into our new apartment. I was excited because it was on the eighth floor, and I loved going up and down in the elevator.
I was in the elevator with my father, carrying a box of stuffed animals. The elevator reached the eighth floor; we pushed the door open and began walking toward our new apartment. The hallway was long. I saw my brother running toward us. He was listening to his really cool transistor radio. You know the type – aluminum chrome with a leather cover (boy, was I jealous). He had a scared look on his face. He was yelling something I couldn’t initially understand, but as he got closer to us, I heard him: “President Kennedy’s been shot, President Kennedy’s been shot.”
We all went into our new apartment and listened to the radio broadcast giving us the horrible news of John F. Kennedy’s death. I’ll never forget that elevator ride and my brother running toward me.
ALEX De NESNERA
Our world was coming apart
It was a crisp autumn day. It felt like good things lay ahead. Thanksgiving was only a week away. It was Friday, the weekend was almost here and it was lunch time. We sat at our desks eating our lunches, looking forward to the best part of lunch period: the playground. The principal, Sister Agnes Claire, came on the intercom and announced the news. Then the radio announcer came on. President John F. Kennedy had been killed. We all sat motionless at our desks over our half-eaten lunches trying to understand what we were hearing.
Finally we could go outside. The nuns huddled together. It was the first time, the only time, I ever saw a priest break down and cry.
We watched TV for three straight days at home. It never went off. Everyone cried most of that time. Being Irish, we had a picture of Kennedy on the wall. It was as though he was part of the family. During that time we watched as a man stepped out and shot the man who had killed Kennedy.
My world, our world, seemed to be coming apart in slow motion. My father, whose name was also John Kennedy, sat next to me and cried when the horse-drawn casket and the riderless horse went by on TV. I was so glad he was there.
PAMELA KENNEDY KENISON
Bud and I lived in Summit, N.J. We had three little kids. I was in my kitchen, phone chatting with a neighbor. The little Motorola radio on the counter suddenly grew loud, announcing the shooting. Bud called me from work. How could our “prince” be killed? I just walked around and around, stunned, shocked, worried and so upset. I turned on TV and was glued to it for hours, trying to make sense of something that made no sense at all.
TV – and church
Back then we lived at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Three of our boys attended Eisenhower Elementary school. My neighbor and I both had 2-year-olds who played together after lunch. I was housekeeping when Walter Cronkite’s horrific announcement sounded. John came home for lunch then had to leave and go back to base.
My whole body was shaking!
As the TV news kept on, I couldn’t stand to be alone so I rushed to my neighbor’s. We hugged each other and our little ones!
The whole post went into mourning, canceling any social events. The next day we all went to church!
Sharing an office
On the day that President Kennedy was assassinated, I was working for the United Fund of Greater Boston as a loaned executive from my employer, a downtown Boston bank. My responsibility was to work with Dick Fitzgerald, a member of the fund’s permanent staff in assisting several area cities and towns in their annual fundraising campaign. I remember when someone came into the office that Dick and I shared to tell us that Kennedy had been shot. Dick looked at me and said, “Dave, Jack Kennedy is my cousin. Our grandfathers were brothers.” Until that moment I did not know that I was sharing an office with a Kennedy relative.
Incredible ’60s were upon us
I had just walked into fifth-period U.S. history class at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, Maine. The “bell ringer,” a student chosen to ring the chapel tower bell to begin and end each class, burst in from the hallway and broke the news. Our teacher, his first year out of college, didn’t quite know what to do with this news. There was no forthcoming announcement from the office, so history class went on as scheduled, Friday quiz and all.
As I filed into sixth-period study hall, the announcement came. The headmaster confirmed that President Kennedy had been shot and all students were instructed to go “immediately and directly home.” As I made my way through the jammed hallways, I could only hear quiet whispers. The usual after-school teenage gossip and jousting totally absent.
That evening our high school basketball team practiced. Our drills were eerily quiet, just the sound of basketballs and sneakers on hardwood, perhaps an occasional whistle and then a few hushed instructions from coach. I was 17, a junior, and my world of innocence was about to change dramatically. In just two days I (and millions more) would witness the live murder of JFK’s assassin; soon to be followed by years of Vietnam horrors; then civil rights injustices, neighborhoods in flames and further murders; the Red Sox Impossible Dream Part I; moon landings; Woodstock.
The incredible, if not turbulent ’60s were upon us and unfolding at a machine-gun clip. My generation of the ’46 baby boomers would have a front row seat from here on in, ready or not.
from the principal
On the day JFK was shot, I was a senior at Concord High. I was in an early afternoon chemistry class when the principal announced over the intercom that President Kennedy had been shot. One girl said “Good!” but she was quickly shushed. Class continued until a little while later the principal again came on the intercom to say the president was dead. We remained in class for a short time until the principal announced that school was closing early so that everyone could go home. Many students were very upset as they left school. For the rest of the day and the weekend – and perhaps subsequent days – we remained glued to our television sets to see such iconic images as Jack Ruby killing Lee Harvey Oswald and the funeral procession with the horse-drawn caisson carrying the casket and John-John saluting his father’s casket.
Speaking from the pulpit
My wife and I were helping to prepare for the church supper that evening. It never happened! Somebody came and said, “President Kennedy was assassinated.” We hurried home to watch the news on our black and white TV on the one channel from Mount Washington.
Lisbon was my first parish. I had started my first Thanksgiving sermon. Devastated by the news, not feeling thankful, I never finished it. But, I had to plan something for Sunday’s service. As the new, young pastor, I felt so inadequate.
More people than usual showed up! For my sermon all I had were “remarks” – just two pages – maybe just as well.
I acknowledged the tragedy – perhaps the greatest in our nation since Abraham Lincoln was shot 98 years earlier. I acknowledged the widespread feeling of loss and sorrow, anger and disgust. JFK was one of my heroes, a person whose concerns reached beyond home and family, town or nation. He was a world leader. While in Germany he said: “Ich bin ein Berliner!” Though not admired by all, he had many wonderful qualities.
I asked: Is there a sign of hope? Yes, the madman’s bullet will not stop the march for human rights (The Civil Rights Act passed in ’64, the Voting Rights Act in ’65). Under God’s guidance our new president will lead us forward. Quoting the prophet, Isaiah, President Lyndon Johnson said: “Come, let us reason together” – appropriate words for our leaders 50 years later.
We then prayed for the Kennedy family, Johnson, and our nation.
DWIGHT S. HAYNES
Television was the media by which most Americans witnessed the events that unfolded in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. But I did not see Walter Cronkite take off his glasses and, in black and white, announce to CBS viewers that President John F. Kennedy had died just so many minutes ago.
Instead, I heard the news on the radio as we were in the family car motoring from Pittsburgh on the Pennsylvania Turnpike so we could spend Thanksgiving with our extended family in Philadelphia. Leaving the local “crunch” traffic and entering the toll road just east of Pittsburgh it was time to turn the radio on to lull away the hours at 55 mph.
The hours were not “lulled away,” but gripping as the news reports followed in audio only, one after another.
Those radio days also brought to mind hearing President Franklin Roosevelt’s address to Congress in December 1941 in which he described the “day that will live in infamy.” Since that occurred years before televisions became household fixtures, that too is remembered as having been heard, not seen.
A brief return to normalcy
It was a beautiful Friday in Providence. I was 23, newly employed by Brown University, looking forward to the football weekend ahead.
Returning to the administration building after lunch, I heard a secretary cry: “The president’s been shot!” I thought she meant the university president. Then I noticed about 25 fellow staffers packed together before a small black-and-white TV set.
All of us – deans, vice presidents, provosts, directors, sub-administrators – seemed suddenly equal in rank before Walter Cronkite’s emotional narrative about the worsening situation. Most were silent, some were cursing, some already asking questions: What should we do? What about the game? Do we issue a statement? Should we engage the trustees? Where’s the chaplain? What about the students?
Around 2:30 p.m., death confirmed, I stopped watching and escaped to the student union for respite. But there a much larger room was packed with younger TV-watchers, each new arrival reacting in shock when the news hit. I got in my car and drove aimlessly for an hour.
When I returned to the campus, the office crowd had dissipated, the TV had gone dark, decisions had been made: Flags, half-mast. Football game, canceled. No statement. No Saturday classes or evening fraternity parties. Campus-wide memorial service on Monday. Return to regular schedule on Tuesday. A weekend to-do list with my name on it was taped to my desk chair.
Things began to feel normal again. Under control. After all, we had a university to run.
The feeling wouldn’t last long.
The world is good, and then not
It’s a sunny day outside, where my three boys are playing. Our 8-month-old daughter toys with a set of measuring cups in her high chair. In the background, Bobby Vinton croons, “She Wore Blue Velvet,” and I sing along as I measure and mix up the ingredients for a layer cake. We’ll have a party for when my husband gets home from his office. It is my birthday, and I have just turned 34.
The world is good.
And then, one moment later, it isn’t: An announcer’s voice breaks through the music, shattering that world forever. In Dallas, President Kennedy has been shot. Susan, happily oblivious in her play, looks up at my dismayed cry: “No! No, it can’t be!” I begin frantically to pray that those words aren’t true, or that he will survive. The terrible confirmation comes within half an hour with the simple, somber, irrefutable words: “President Kennedy has died.” It felt as if someone we knew well had died – almost an older brother.
This week, as the world, remembers the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death, I will be blessed to celebrate my 84th birthday. I will be surrounded, in love and laughter, by four generations of my family. Silently around me, though, will echo memories of how quickly he, who too loved his family and the rising promise of his and the nation’s life, had vanished so quickly from our lives. I remember that he was only 49.
JOAN T. DORAN