JFK: So many recall where they were when news came

  • Posted: Monday, November 11, 2013 10:13 p.m.
    UPDATED: Monday, November 11, 2013 10:14 p.m.
AP Photo/Tony Dejak
In this photo, Rosa Eberle, left, and Nannette Baglanis hold a John F. Kennedy button in front of the former St. Mary’s High School auditorium in Warren, Ohio. Eberle and Baglanis were classmates at St. Mary’s when John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963.
AP Photo/Tony Dejak In this photo, Rosa Eberle, left, and Nannette Baglanis hold a John F. Kennedy button in front of the former St. Mary’s High School auditorium in Warren, Ohio. Eberle and Baglanis were classmates at St. Mary’s when John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963.

They can still hear the voice that brought the news, breaking into a song on the car radio or disrupting a lesson over a school public address speaker. They remember the prayers offered up from sidewalks and sofas, some whispered and others wailed. They can still taste the tears.

Even 50 years later, Americans who lived through the day President John F. Kennedy was killed do not have to pause to summon recollections.

“It just rushes back,” said David Miron, now 73, his voice quavering when he recounts how, as a 23-year-old inductee into JFK’s Peace Corps, he heard the news.

The axiom is that everyone of his generation knows just where they were. The reality is that many also recall precisely how it felt as word broke, in a staccato series of news bulletins.

How could they ever forget?

Bulletin

Dallas, Nov. 22 (AP) — President Kennedy was shot today just as his motorcade left downtown Dallas. Mrs. Kennedy jumped up and grabbed Mr. Kennedy. She cried, “Oh, no!” The motorcade sped on.

12:40 P.M. (Central standard time)

At St. Mary’s High School in Warren, Ohio, an English lesson was cut short by the somber voice of Sister Mary St. George, the principal, over the intercom: “The president has been shot.”

“We all said a prayer and everybody was crying ... everybody, the nuns, the teachers, all the students,” said Rosa Eberle, now 66. “They all adored him and all the good he was trying to do for civil rights and for the country, to try to get us on track. It was like you lost a family member ...”

That afternoon, Eberle’s classmate, Nanette Baglanis was taking her turn, as did all seniors, to visit the state employment office.

“I was just sitting there waiting to be interviewed and a big guy with work clothes on, he just came running in, screaming, ‘They killed our president! They killed our president!’....He was crying and it was like he saw it himself.”

Three years earlier, when JFK campaigned in Warren, Baglanis had served in a student honor guard, “Kennedy Girls” who ringed the stage in Catholic school uniforms, gazing up in admiration as the Massachusetts senator spoke to the crowd of 40,000.

Now, rushing from the employment office, “I was crying all the way home,” Baglanis said.

When the diocese opened a new school the following year it was christened in Kennedy’s name. But as one of the last graduates of St. Mary’s, Baglanis maintained her own tribute – an album filled with photos of the assassinated president, his wife and children.

“They were like a part of the family,” she said.

Bulletin

DALLAS, Tex., Nov. 22 (AP) — Rep. Albert Thomas, D-Tex., said today he was informed President Kennedy ... was still alive but was “in very critical” condition. 12:57 p.m.

Minutes after the shooting, investors poured into the “board room” at Bache & Co. in Manhattan’s Chrysler Building, said Ted Weisberg, then a 23-year-old broker. There was no radio. So instead they crowded around a ticker rattling out a paper ribbon of news headlines, and glanced up nervously at plummeting stock prices projected onto a screen.

When the New York Stock Exchange halted trading at 2:07 p.m. Eastern time, New York was already shutting down. Offices, shops and schools closed early and sent workers out into a surreal afternoon tide.

“Everybody was just in a state of shock,” said Weisberg, now a dean of the trading floor. “What I remember is the traffic... Everybody was going home at once and, holy cow, you couldn’t get anywhere.”

Weisberg met up with his father to drive home to Long Island and spent a couple of hours in the outbound crawl. Finally, they pulled off the highway and spent the evening in a Chinese restaurant that offered sustenance and a pay phone to call home.

But it did nothing to separate them from the city’s despair.

“People were devastated,” Weisberg said, “and it had nothing to do with politics.”

Bulletin

DALLAS, TEX., NOV. 22 (AP) – President Kennedy was given blood transfusions today at Parkland Hospital in an effort to save his life ... 1:11 p.m.

With his shift over at Boston City Hospital, Dr. H. Jack Geiger pointed his Plymouth Valiant into afternoon traffic.

“I was on my way home, driving down Chestnut Hill Avenue,” said Geiger, who was then 38 and a third-year medical resident. “I had the car radio on and I heard the news. And I hit the car ahead of me.”

Geiger still recalls how the newscaster’s voice choked up when he read the bulletin. For hours afterward, Geiger tried to call his wife, but the circuits were so overloaded, all he got was a busy signal.

In Kennedy, Geiger said he saw a symbol of both the nation’s divide and its promise. Months earlier, he’d attended the March on Washington, watching to see how the young president would meet the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s demands for societal change. The following year, Geiger would join Freedom Summer activists in Mississippi, encountering poverty that persuaded him to found community health centers in Boston and the Mississippi Delta.

But on the afternoon Kennedy was killed, Geiger felt blindsided.

“We, like I think a lot of people, had a despairing sense of ‘What is the country coming to?’ and ‘Is it descending into unrelenting violence?’ That was the first shock. And the second was the sense of loss, not just so much for this particular president, but for what felt like a disruption to the whole social fabric....”

“Our world changed then, really.”

Bulletin

DALLAS, TEX, Nov. 22 (AP) — President (Kennedy) was given the last Holy Rites of the Roman Catholic Church today ... 1:27 p.m.

David Miron’s class full of fifth graders was watching a televised math lesson when the head teacher told him to change the channel.

Miron was weeks away from leaving for a Peace Corps assignment in Colombia. But that afternoon he was in a school at northern New Mexico’s Jemez Pueblo Indian settlement with other volunteers, training to use a televised teaching program. When Miron switched away from the video lesson, CBS newsman Walter Cronkite’s grave intonations filled the classroom.

“The next thing you know, Cronkite’s taking off his glasses, sheds a tear and said the president has been assassinated,” Miron said, recalling the jarring disconnect between the tragedy and his surroundings.

“It’s a spectacular day. The sun’s up, it’s bright and we’re up about 3,000 feet..., and the world just completely turned around.”

Miron and his fellow volunteers kept silent during an hour-long ride back to Albuquerque. But gathering in a lounge, they spent the night despairing over what the president death’s meant. Several Colombian teachers who had joined the group tried to comfort them, recalling their own loss of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a beloved presidential candidate shot dead in 1948.

“I certainly remember our group and all the crying, all the hugging and trying to make sense of it all, and the dimension of the Colombians, trying to explain it to us,” efforts to console that continued for weeks, said Miron, who now lives in Ponte Vedra, Fla.

“Hijos de Kennedy, they would call us,” he said, “the children of Kennedy.”

Flash

DALLAS – Two priests who were with Kennedy said his is dead of bullet wounds. 1:32 p.m.

Shaded by live oaks draped with Spanish moss and tucked away in South Carolina’s tidal marshes, the Penn Center retreat offered sanctuary in difficult times. It was the ideal place, Andrew Young recalls, to bring together black Southerners for literacy training, part of a campaign to get around written tests that white officials used to keep them from voting.

“We were in the middle of a session when we heard that the president had been shot,” said Young, then an administrator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and later mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations.

“People just started crying and moaning, and when I said, ‘We need to pray for the president and the nation,’ everybody just got down on their knees by their chairs.”

–––

Flash

DALLAS – President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. (CST) 1:37 p.m.

Inside the Penn Center hall, the grieving of more than 50 civil rights workers rose to “an out-loud moan and groan and an old-fashioned Southern prayer,” said Young, himself a minister.

Not long after Kennedy’s death, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. warned Young of its portent. “I remember him saying, ‘Well, our days are numbered. If 400 Secret Service can’t protect the president, we need to realize that any day could be our last.’

“So, it was grief for the nation,” Young said, “it was grief for the president and his family, but it was also grief for ourselves.”

–––

Adam Geller, a New York-based national writer, can be reached at features(at)ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AdGeller

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