John F. Kennedy looked out the window of Air Force One at the crowd that had gathered at Love Field to welcome him and his wife.
“Here we are in Dallas, and it looks like everything in Texas is going to be fine for us,” he reportedly told his assistant, Ken O’Donnell.
The Kennedys had encountered adoring throngs since arriving in the Lone Star State the day before. First lady Jackie Kennedy, in particular, had been a crowd favorite in San Antonio, Houston and Fort Worth — so much so that one news story described the president as a mere spear carrier for his fashionable wife. Disapproving voices, the story said, were few.
When the Kennedys landed in Dallas late on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, some 2,000 screaming fans awaited. Thousands more lined the streets, leaned from windows and broke through street barricades as the Kennedys’ motorcade inched along an 11-mile route that was to take them from the airport through downtown and on to a lunch at the Dallas Trade Mart.
It looked like the start of another shining Texas day for the presidential couple.
And then shots rang out.
There were no cellphones or Internet then, no Twitter or Facebook to allow the instantaneous spread of observations and pictures from onlookers. Instead, word reached America through radio, TV and word of mouth.
News bulletins broke into daily programming. Announcements over public address systems interrupted school classes and work routines. Strangers asked people they encountered, “Have you heard the news?”
John Noga was among the first to know. The Twinsburg resident was a Navy radioman stationed in Puerto Rico, working at a tape relay station that received official messages and sent them on to sites such as embassies, government offices and other military bases.
Noga worked in a windowless room filled with maybe 75 or 100 incoming monitors and outgoing monitors, TV-size units used to receive messages or send them out. It had been a routine day, with messages spitting out periodically on narrow strips of ticker tape from the 10 or 15 receiving units he was responsible for monitoring.
Then suddenly one sounded a siren. The president had been shot, the tape said.
Noga is fairly certain the message came from the State Department. Some time later, it was followed by another: The president was dead.
“I was really upset and nervous,” he said.
No one knew yet who did it or whether the U.S. was on the brink of war. Immediately the military was put on alert, and Noga remembers watching the rest of the assassination coverage on a TV set in the recreation room of the barracks where he and his fellow servicemen were confined.
News unfolds slowly
Back home, Americans clustered around radios and TVs as the story unfolded, bit by agonizing bit.
For many, the most vivid memory of the frenetic coverage was the black-and-white image of CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, interrupting himself to put on his glasses and read from a paper he had just been handed:
“From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.”
Cronkite wasn’t the first to break the news, nor did the news flash represent the first word that Kennedy had died. CBS had already broadcast unofficial reports of the president’s death from Dallas reporter Eddie Barker and its own correspondent, Dan Rather. Other broadcasters, including CBS’s radio operation, had declared the president dead.
But the image of Cronkite is what most people remember — the avuncular newsman removing his glasses as he spoke and looking at a clock on the wall off camera, pausing and swallowing hard to compose himself, and then starting to speak again in a quavering voice.
He seemed to personify the despair of a nation.
Akron resident Roger Johnson remembers that image well. He was a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Akron then, watching the story unfold on television after returning home from class.
“He was crying, and I’m thinking, this guy is a professional. He’s on TV and he’s crying,” Johnson recalled. “To me, that was so overwhelming, because you think that is [a person] you aspire to be one day.”
Johnson remembers being left with a feeling of emptiness, a sense that his innocence had been lost.
“And this is coming from a black man who has already been exposed to Emmett Till,” he said, referring to the African-American 14-year-old who was murdered eight years earlier for reportedly flirting with a white woman.
The anguish was widespread. Catholics rushed to churches to pray for the president, the first from their denomination. Akron’s normally busy downtown streets emptied as people gathered in stores and other businesses that had TV sets. Strangers hugged and consoled one another.
School goes silent
Even schoolchildren shared the grief.
Akron resident Dan Hayes, at the time principal of Goodyear Junior High, remembers the eerie silence in the halls after he dismissed school a few minutes early that day. All he heard were footsteps, crying and some coughing. There were no children shouting, no lockers banging.
“Complete silence swept the building,” he said.
For those in the military, there was no time to mourn. Ted Karabinus of Mogadore was in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and remembers the soldiers being told to pack their duffel bags and prepare to be sent anywhere in the world.
“The company commander informed us [that] all U.S. military personnel were on full alert,” he said, “and the shooting of the president could be the beginning of World War III.”
Atwater resident Tim Norfolk was living in northern Germany, where his father was stationed with the British Army.
The news of the president’s death came late at night, he recalled. His father was awakened and dressed for duty.
“The rest of the night was full of rumbling noises in the streets, as tank transporters moved to the eastern border, preparing for the Russian invasion that was anticipated,” Norfolk said.
No invasion came, but much of the world remained on edge.
And across America, people with heavy hearts struggled to understand the senseless act that had taken their president.
Beacon Journal staff writer Kathy Antoniotti contributed to this report. Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or email@example.com.