For more than five hours on Nov. 25, 1963, Akron stood at a virtual standstill.
Across the city, people stayed close to TV sets to watch the funeral of their slain president. Some 5,000 others joined government and civic leaders at St. Bernard Catholic Church downtown for a community memorial service.
Akron Mayor Edward Erickson had proclaimed that Monday a day of mourning for President John F. Kennedy. Schools and government offices were closed. Mail delivery was suspended. Colleges and universities canceled classes, and some businesses shut down for part of the day so employees could watch the funeral coverage or attend local services.
The service at St. Bernard’s started just after 10 a.m., about 45 minutes before Kennedy’s body was taken from the Capitol rotunda at the start of a state funeral that lasted about 4½ hours.
A story in that day’s Beacon Journal described how the mourners started arriving at the Akron church about 9 a.m. and quickly packed the Polsky’s parking deck across State Street. The arriving throng created a gridlock for worshipers trying to leave an 8 a.m. service.
Broadway was barricaded between State and Center streets. Twenty policemen in dress uniforms were on hand to control the crowd.
Inside the church, some 3,000 mourners packed the sanctuary, many of them standing. Another 2,000 overflowed into the basement, the library and the front sidewalk and steps. Loudspeakers mounted atop cars broadcast the service to those who couldn’t get in.
An empty casket draped by an American flag stood in the center aisle before the altar. A front pew was roped off, marking the place where Kennedy and his wife had sat during a visit to Akron.
“Almighty God wouldn’t have permitted this unless a greater good will come from it,” Monsignor John A. Gallagher told the crowd in his eulogy. “If the death of President Kennedy is the spark that ignites a religious upheaval in this country … then this tragedy may well become one of our greatest blessings.”
It’s unlikely that the millions of others who gathered around TV sets were feeling blessed at that moment. The sky over Washington was bright, but the mood was dark as the sober pageantry played out in Washington.
Networks shared cameras so viewers could see the entire funeral procession. They saw the caisson bearing Kennedy’s casket lumber along, pulled by six gray horses. They watched as Kennedy’s veiled widow, Jacqueline, walked between his brothers along the eight-block route she and her husband used to take from the White House to St. Matthew’s Cathedral. They heard the muffled drums and saw a riderless horse named Black Jack, boots reversed symbolically in his stirrups.
As the procession prepared to leave St. Matthew’s, they witnessed one of the most heart-rending images of the day: little John Kennedy Jr., prompted by his mother’s whispered reminder, stepping forward to salute his father’s casket on the boy’s third birthday.
And in Akron, viewers saw one of their own sons bearing the president to his final resting place.
Jerry Diamond, then a 19-year-old Marine from Stow, was one of Kennedy’s eight pallbearers. He was a private first class assigned to the Ceremonial Guard and Body Bearers, a unit comprising members of the various military branches. The unit had been practicing for an anticipated funeral for ailing President Herbert Hoover when it was called on for Kennedy’s rites.
Diamond was supposed to come home to Ohio that weekend, his wife, Barbara, remembered. But he’d called after the assassination to tell her he was on lockdown and couldn’t make it.
She didn’t know her husband would be part of the proceedings until the phone rang on Sunday, the day before the state funeral. She doesn’t remember who called, but the person said her husband was on TV, carrying the president’s casket to the Capitol.
“Oh, I just couldn’t believe it,” said Barbara Diamond, who still lives in Stow. “… I was really proud of him. They did such a wonderful job.”
She never saw a close-up of her husband as she watched on TV, “but I knew Jerry’s profile,” she said. “I knew Jerry’s face.”
Diamond, who died in 2011, was a quiet man who his wife said rarely talked about that day. But 10 years ago — 40 years after the funeral — he recalled for a Beacon Journal columnist how heavy the casket was, how he worried his legs might give out as he and his fellow pallbearers descended the steep steps of the Capitol. He remembered keeping his gaze forward but catching glimpses from the corners of his eyes of the pained expressions on the onlookers’ faces.
“It kicked,” he said at the time, “Oh, wow.”
Young family watches
Among those onlookers were Georgia and Eugene Taylor, who now live in Wooster but at the time were a young couple living in Fairfax, Va.
Eugene Taylor was a computer operator for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and worked in the Carpenters Union building at the foot of Capitol Hill. The building had a patio that offered a good vantage point for the funeral procession, Georgia Taylor said, so the couple bundled up their 6-month-old daughter, Michelle, and went to Washington to watch.
They captured the procession with their 8 mm movie camera, but they haven’t watched that footage in years.
Georgia Taylor said she wasn’t a Kennedy supporter, but she wanted to witness the historical event.
She remembers how quiet the crowd was, such a dramatic contrast to the appearances Kennedy had made before cheering throngs.
“It was a tear-jerker kind of day,” she recalled. “It’s kind of unbelievable.”
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org.