JFK assassination still stirs emotions
Before the shocked eyes of the nation and the world, on Nov. 22, 1963, the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, lost his life to an assassin’s bullet in Dallas, Texas. The youngest American President ever to serve became the youngest to die.
The images of that day are seared into the memories of those of us who were somewhere in the midst of living out an ordinary day when we learned of Kennedy’s too-public, too-violent death. For all of us, life changed irrevocably at that moment.
During this week’s commemoration of that tragic national anniversary, The Block Island Times has been asking islanders for their memories of that day — what they were doing, where they were, how they heard the news of Kennedy’s death and how they got through the days that followed. Kennedy was killed at about 12:30 p.m.
Gerry Comeau was living in New Jersey in Nov. 1963:
“I remember it like it was yesterday. I had just put the kids down for a nap, and I was actually in front of the TV when the news came on. Walter Cronkite [CBS news anchor] was in tears, reporting, ‘The President has just been shot.’”
Comeau commented on the strange collision of catastrophe and the commonplace. A short while after the children woke up, she said, “I was in a market — wheeling two carriages, one with my kids and the other with groceries. It was strange to be doing something so normal.”
Her husband Bud Comeau was in his office in lower Manhattan: “We didn’t usually listen to the radio or watch TV. Suddenly, though, we became aware that the President was shot. We did end up listening to the radio and later whatever activities we were involved in definitely stopped.
“I attended a bachelor party for a friend. It was the most somber affair of its kind I think there could ever have been — with everyone just sitting around and not saying much. It was a day I’ll never forget.”
Elspeth Crawford was a student at Queens University in Belfast, Ireland. “I was standing in front of the premises of the Northern Ireland Youth Clubs Association with some college friends and my future husband, who was the group leader, and we were loading kits into a truck.
“It was late afternoon or early evening, and suddenly someone interrupted us, running up and shouting, ‘Have you heard... ? We were a group of university students who worked as volunteers with disaffected young people, preparing to take a group on a weekend trip camping and exploring. We were stunned, shocked, and we all felt it was awful, but we went ahead and carried on.”
Nancy Greenaway was a sophomore at Freehold Regional High School in New Jersey. She was sitting in history class. “The announcement came over the speaker system [followed by] total shock and silence inside the school. Some people and kids began to weep, and I remember this was the beginning of the catastrophes: Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.
“In our generation, there were these huge events. When you’re young you think, ‘Well, somebody has their finger on the controls,’ but you learn, ‘Maybe not!’”
Recalling Kennedy’s death makes her think of a quote by the Rev. William Stringfellow: “Question authority!”
Malcolm Greenaway was a graduate student at Cornell at the time. “I was walking back to the boarding house where I lived and in passing someone said to me, ‘Kennedy was shot!’ I didn’t take it seriously and went on to take a nap. Later, I got a call from a professor telling me Philosophy Club was cancelled. When I asked why, he said ‘Haven’t you heard?’
“I hadn’t believed it. I felt it couldn’t be true. There was a sense of all that excitement that he [Kennedy] embodied when he’d been elected. All that hope and possibility, and the vigor of a young man with a young wife and kids — it all came crashing down.”
George Dodge was attending the Naval Academy Prep School in Washington, D.C., and walking back from football practice with three or four of his friends. “We just happened to walk by a storefront where a whole bunch of people were watching TV. At first we couldn’t figure out what they were watching; it was all silent. When we asked what was going on, and were told, we were just amazed — my friends and I.”
Tom Doyle was working with a Cuban refugee program that was part of the Public Welfare Department in Chicago. He notes there was a huge waiting room filled with the buzz of conversation as people waited to be called for their appointments; many people carried transistor radios.
“While a fellow who was holding a radio to his head was sitting at my desk, I was on the phone. I took my ear away from the receiver when he said, ‘Oh, my God! President Kennedy’s been shot!’ The waiting room turned completely quiet, and within 15 minutes it was cleared and the doors closed. I spent the next five days watching TV.”
Pat Doyle was a student at a Catholic college in Massachusetts. She was sitting in the library. “Someone came in and we ran over to the TV room. Young Teddy [Kennedy] had often come to the campus; in fact, Kennedy family members often dropped in, so that there was a relationship between the school and the family.
“The entire campus was glued to the TV, and I saw the nuns who taught us — usually so stoic — crying. It was just a very shocking event. The epitome of all Kennedy had been had inspired us to look at the world differently.”
Doyle said it was because of Kennedy’s influence that she joined the March on Washington in 1963. “That was his influence and, for the Catholic community, JFK was only second to the Pope. His inspiration sent us out. It inspired me to go south. I think my life has been transformed since Kennedy became President.”
Second Warden Ken Lacoste was living in South Hadley, Mass, next to Westover Air Force Base. Lacoste said he was “only seven, so I don’t remember much, but it was the beginning of a cycle of assassinations that made everything feel in chaos (especially for a child). I remember going to school during that time. It was when we would have emergency drills, when we were told to hide under our desks.
“I remember something from the TV coverage, especially the [flag-draped] caisson and the riderless horse, but I’m not sure it is a direct memory. I do remember watching TV with my family and that there was a lot of somberness in those around me.”
When he reflects on the days that followed and the killing of Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, Lacoste explains, “It sort of took away a little bit of our innocence to see someone being murdered on TV.”
Pete Tweedy was 17 and a junior at a private school in Windsor, Conn. “I was outside with a group of friends and someone came up and told us what had happened. It was stunning. It took my breath away. I absolutely didn’t believe it. There was lots of talk about us leaving school early to go home for Thanksgiving, but it didn’t happen.”
Marceline Mazzur lived in Park Ridge, New Jersey. “I do remember. I remember. My son was about three and my daughter just a baby. When the news came across at the time, I was devastated. I couldn’t believe it had happened in this country.”
Noticing a few of her friends walking by her home with their children, Mazzur called them in, and she says, “We all just sat there — all of us — and watched and it was shocking. One of those friends — we’re still close though she now lives in Chicago—we just spoke about it a few days ago. We reminded each other of that day. It’s a thing that happened, and you remember it vividly.”
Bill Penn was a student at Rutger’s University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “It was the day I turned 21, and it was the day I heard about JFK. Suddenly it was quiet. The students around me all looked like zombies.”
On entering a classroom, his professor confirmed the news of the President’s assassination. “Everyone was just silent and, with classes cancelled, we spent the weekend glued to the TV coverage. It was a strange day of mixed emotions. Here I was joyous about my birthday, and it ended up the saddest day of my life.”
Willis Brown writes, “During the early 1960s, vodka-drinking, shoe-pounding Russian Premier Nikita Khruschev started building missile silos in Cuba, a mere 90 miles from Miami. President JFK said, “No way!” and began the Cuban Missile Blockade, which brought the world the closest it had ever been to nuclear war. In essence, Kennedy was saying to Kruschev, ‘Do you really want to do this? Really?’ An agreement between the nations was reached in 1962, but the Air Force and Navy were ordered to continue the blockade ‘til further notice.
“On 22 November, 1963 I was sitting up in the cockpit of a radar ship at McCoy Air Force Base ... about to take off on another around-Cuba radar flight when we got word of Dallas. The darkest day of our lives up to that point.
“I am among those who believe that the same people who bagged John Fitzgerald Kennedy also bagged Martin Luther King at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on 04 April, 1968 and just two months later, Robert Francis Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on 05 June, 1968. James Earl Ray and Sirhan Sirhan did not fire the fatal shot in either case.
“For what it’s worth, two months later I buried my Civil Rights Leader [and my] school teacher-mother in Moultrie, Georgia. The year 1968 was the single most difficult year of my entire life: MLK, RFK and my Mother, each two months apart.”