Jim Kroeger stayed home from church with a head cold on Nov. 24, 1963. Coverage of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination had dominated the TV airwaves that weekend, so he spent that Sunday morning following the developments from the den of his family’s home in suburban St. Louis.
Police were transferring suspect Lee Harvey Oswald from the Dallas city lockup to the county jail. As Oswald walked, cuffed hands crossed in front of him and two officers flanking him closely, a figure rushed in front and fired a gun into his midsection.
Oswald crumpled. Police swarmed the shooter.
Kroeger, then 14, was stunned.
“I just sat there with my mouth kind of hanging open,” said Kroeger, who now lives in Fairlawn. To him, it was almost like watching Matt Dillon gunning down a bad guy on Gunsmoke, a TV Western that was popular at the time.
Only this time it was real.
In her living room in Fairlawn, 16-year-old April Pascu was watching the same bizarre scene unfold. Her initial reaction, she said, was “Oh, this can’t be happening.”
“It was just surreal, you know?” said Pascu, who now lives in Akron.
She’d already experienced so much in a short time — a president shot dead, a family grieving, a nation in despair. The shooting she had just witnessed live was almost too much to process.
She doesn’t remember anyone in her family reacting or even saying anything. As she recalls it, they all just sat in shock.
That sense of disbelief pervaded on the Sunday after Kennedy’s assassination. Millions watched nightclub owner Jack Ruby fire the fatal shot at 11:21 a.m. Dallas time, 12:21 p.m. in Akron. Many encountered the grisly story when they returned from church and turned on their TV sets.
Shocking as the event was, people seemed unwilling to let Oswald steal the spotlight, even in death. The Beacon Journal the next day downplayed the story, running it on the lower half of the page, below coverage of Kennedy’s funeral. The iconic photograph of Oswald grimacing as the shot was fired was relegated to Page 2.
America, it seemed, was determined to keep Sunday as a day for mourning.
That afternoon, Kennedy’s body was moved by horse-drawn caisson from the White House to the Capitol to lie in state. Hundreds of thousands of people lined up in the cold, waiting for the opportunity to file past his casket in the ornate rotunda. Millions more watched the unforgettable images on TV — the military pallbearers carrying the casket up the Capitol steps; Jacqueline Kennedy following behind, clutching the hands of her two children; the young widow kissing the casket as 5-year-old Caroline Kennedy, kneeling beside her, slipped her hand beneath the flag that covered it.
Kent resident Bill Wilen, then a college student, arrived in Washington late that evening and got in line with a friend who’d driven with him from their home in Norwood, Pa. The Capitol was supposed to close at 9 that night, but the line that stretched for miles persuaded police and military authorities to keep the building open. Wilen and his friend waited about six hours and finally got into the rotunda about 3 a.m. Monday.
“Even though I was only allowed to briefly pause at his coffin, it was important for me to pay my last respects,” he said. After the viewing, they headed back to Norwood, arriving in time to watch the funeral.
NFL games played
In Akron on that Sunday, 14-year-old Gerry Hagen and his father boarded a bus for Cleveland and Hagen’s first Browns game.
Although many sporting events were canceled on the weekend after Kennedy died, the National Football League chose to play its scheduled games. The Browns’ opponents that day were the Dallas Cowboys. Hagen said his father, Elmer, had gotten tickets to the game months earlier, and Hagen had been anticipating it eagerly.
What he encountered, however, was hardly the boisterous event he’d imagined.
Cleveland Stadium was subdued. The sky was overcast, and many of the seats were empty. It was eerie, “just like a spell had been cast over the stadium that day,” Hagen said.
He doesn’t remember boos or other signs of vitriol toward the Dallas players, but he’s since read that the stadium announcer never referred to the team by its city’s name that day. The team was called only the Cowboys.
Others in Akron sought solace that Sunday in their places of worship. Congregation members filled sanctuaries to capacity, and hundreds flocked to Wesley Temple A.M.E. Zion Church for a citywide memorial service sponsored by the Akron Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“[Kennedy] upheld the faith of our forefathers,” the branch’s president, Mary Holmes, told the crowd. “He believed in freedom for all men. He was a modern emancipator, and we will always remember Mr. Kennedy for his stand.”
At Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Cuyahoga Falls, Monsignor James P. McIntyre goaded the congregation.
“Aren’t we all just a little bit guilty in the assassination of President Kennedy?” he asked rhetorically. “And if we don’t all rally now to rededicate ourselves to the cause of freedom for which our martyred president lived and died, will he not have died in vain?”
At North Hill Methodist Church, the congregation simply paused for a moment of silent prayer. As the Rev. Charles A. Albright put it, “What else is there to say?
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or email@example.com.