By Mary Beth Breckenridge
Beacon Journal staff writer
It’s been said that everyone old enough to remember can tell you what they were doing on Nov. 22, 1963, when word came of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Here are some of our readers’ recollections.
Bob Kane Jr. wanted to get out of his sixth-grade class at Rankin Elementary School in Akron, so he got permission from his teacher to go to the restroom. Instead, he went to his locker to sneak in a few minutes of listening to music on his contraband transistor radio.
The broadcast was interrupted by an announcement that the president had been shot.
He went back to the classroom and told the teacher what he’d heard, which got him into trouble for his illicit act. The teacher told him he was mistaken.
“Everyone in the class had an opinion or smart remark,” said Kane, who lives in Akron. “I remember one kid said, ‘Good. I hope he’s dead.’ ”
About 10 minutes later, the principal came onto the public address system to announce that Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.
“The room was quiet except for people crying softly,” Kane recalled, “including the boy who hoped he was dead.”
The Rev. Robert Pahler of Cuyahoga Falls was serving St. Christopher Catholic Church in Rocky River at the time and remembers a crowd converging at the church.
Some wanted to kneel in silence. Most prayed.
“Others wanted to talk and hope the news would go away,” he said. “Some asked for confession as if there were ‘common guilt.’
“It was one of the saddest days of my life.”
Fred L. Stevens of Cuyahoga Falls was 10 years old at the time, a fifth-grader at Akron’s Margaret Park Elementary School. Classes were let out early that day, and Stevens returned home with his little sisters to find the TV tuned to the assassination coverage and their mother weeping.
“I remember asking her why she was crying, and she told me that a man who cared about the welfare of blacks in America ‘was gone,’ ” recalled Stevens, who is African-American. “I always figured that he was an important figure in our household by the way my mom and dad spoke of him and his brother Robert F. Kennedy.
“I was sad simply because we lost a president. In time I became sad because of who and what he represented.”
Kimberlee Martin had her tonsils out at Akron City Hospital on Nov. 22, 1963, when she was 5 years old.
“When I woke up, everyone in my room was crying — my parents, nurses, everyone,” the Akron resident recalled. “I thought I was going to die, and that was why they were crying. They were too upset to explain what was going on. I couldn’t talk to ask them, so I started crying, too.”
She spent her recovery time watching TV coverage of the assassination and funeral, upset that she couldn’t watch cartoons.
“I didn’t grasp the gravity of the event until many years later, when I went to Dallas with my family to visit the site where it happened,” she said.
Nancy Foye-Cox first saw Kennedy in 1958, when she was a 12-year-old tourist sitting in the Senate gallery and he was a senator from Massachusetts. Two years later, she walked with the rest of the student body from Immaculata Academy in Miami to Rickenbacker Causeway to see the president-elect ride in an open-air convertible on his way to Key Biscayne for a meeting with then-Vice President Richard Nixon.
When the president was shot, she watched the television coverage with her mother, Rose.
“My mother identified so closely with Jackie Kennedy, because my own father was killed in an airplane crash in September 1952,” said Foye-Cox, who now lives in Akron. “… My mother was pregnant with her fourth daughter and was unable to be present at my father’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery. So watching JFK’s funeral with the riderless horse at the same cemetery was for her living through my own father’s burial.
“Mom spoke of how her own strength was drawn from remaining strong for her children, as she witnessed Jackie Kennedy do also.”
In November 1963, Barb McAdoo had just moved to a grand century home in Bedford. Her former neighbors were eager to see her new house, so she invited them to a brunch on Nov. 22.
She spent the morning preparing and didn’t have time to turn on the TV. So she was troubled when she answered the door to find them sobbing, having heard the news on their car radios on the way over.
“I was a strong Kennedy supporter, so I joined in their grief,” said McAdoo, who now lives in Hudson.
It was, she said, “the saddest party I have ever had.”
Even before Kennedy’s assassination, Nov. 22, 1963, was bound to stand out in Bob and Melanie Richards’ memory. It’s the day the Hudson couple married.
They had planned to wed in April 1964, but in November they decided to move the date up because Bob Richards was due to be drafted, and married men were exempt. The decision didn’t sit well with Melanie’s father, who ordered her to leave the house.
She managed to find a friend and then a cousin to take her in for a week while she and her fiance planned a small wedding at Forest Hill Church in Cleveland Heights. Melanie Richards said she was getting her hair done before the ceremony and was sitting under the hair dryer at Higbee’s department store when she saw all the women in the salon race off toward the furniture department, where TVs were broadcasting the events in Dallas.
“We are celebrating 50 years together this year,” the Richardses wrote. “We will always have to share our happy day with one of the saddest days in American history.”
Kennedy’s death made a lasting impression on Bishop Richard G. Lennon, who was 16 when he heard the news announced during history class at Matignon High School near Boston.
Not only was Kennedy the first Catholic president of the United States, but he was a fellow native of Massachusetts.
“There was a feeling that these are our people. He was one of us,” said Lennon, who now leads the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland. “Even though I didn’t know him, I felt related.”
Lennon looks back at Kennedy as “a symbol of the enthusiasm for engagement.” The president challenged people to contribute to the public good, he said.
“His vision, his genuine solicitude for people who are on the margins or in real need of support didn’t end with his assassination,” Lennon said. “It is still alive today in many of us who are working on behalf of people in need.”
In November 1963, Ken Himes of Mogadore was a young engineer with a 3-year-old son, Jeff.
The night of Nov. 21, he said, he dreamed he and Jeff were walking hand in hand in a park with marble benches when a handsome man approached. It was Kennedy.
“After some greetings and small talk, he patted Jeff’s head and said, ‘You have a fine young man here,’ ” Himes recalled. Then he told them he had to leave. “I have a very important appointment,” he said before walking on.
“That was 50 years ago, and I can’t tell you many of my dreams since then,” Himes said. “But that was my ‘I had a dream.’ ”
In 1963, retired Kent State professor Noel Blankenship was a parts clerk with Pratt & Whitney Aircraft in Florida, a major contractor for the development of the rocket engine needed to carry out Kennedy’s vision of putting a man on the moon.
After work on the day of the assassination, he went to see a friend who came from generations of wealth. The friend had a winter home in Palm Beach, with dozens of rooms filled with antique furniture, Bentleys in the garage and a home theater complete with a disappearing projection screen.
“He had not heard about JFK’s assassination,” said Blankenship, who lives in Kent, “and when I told him, his instant response was, ‘Isn’t that wonderful!’ ”
“That was my first encounter with the attitude of the Old Rich toward the Nouveau Riche — those on the Social Register, and those not. And [it was] my first real insight into the extremes of Republican/Democrat visceral antipathy.”
Akron resident Phyllis Wharton and her husband were on their honeymoon, watching the water skiing show at Cypress Gardens in Florida, when suddenly and without explanation the music stopped, the skiers dropped into the water and the flag was lowered slowly. For about five minutes no one knew what had happened, until finally an announcement came over the loudspeaker that the president had been assassinated.
They spent the next several days glued to the TV and finally decided to drive from Florida to Washington. They went to Arlington National Cemetery, where Kennedy had just been laid to rest.
Wharton remembers the eternal flame flickering, the flowers mounded on the grave and the arrival of several dignitaries to place wreaths. She also remembers the silence. Despite the huge crowd, the only sound was movie cameras running, she said.
When Kennedy was killed, Rick Ivan was a dental student at Georgetown University in Washington. He and his two roommates drove downtown that night to experience the scene at the White House and Capitol Hill. They encountered an eerie setting — “dark, foreboding, empty of all human life.”
They went back to Georgetown for a beer, and as they drank and talked with some of the other patrons, they spun the theory that Jacqueline Kennedy had killed her husband in revenge for his unfaithfulness. It seemed like a bizarre conclusion, he said, and he put it out of his mind.
Then, almost 50 years later, he came across Reality Reviewed, a website in which British physicist Neville Thomas Jones purports the same theory. Jones insists footage from the famous Zapruder film shows Jackie Kennedy firing a pistol into the president’s head.
The theory “is easy to skeptically slough off as poppycock,” Ivan said.
But he isn’t sure.
Copley resident Rick Lockshin’s bar mitzvah was planned for Nov. 23, 1963, but Kennedy’s assassination put a damper on the joy of his special day.
At a celebratory brunch on Sunday at Rosemont Country Club, most of the guests were watching TV in the lounge when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald before the TV cameras.
“All in all, it was a weekend to remember, but not for the good things,” Lockshin said.
As a second-grader, North Canton resident Dan Lias was too young to fully understand the events of Nov. 22, 1963. He remembers his teacher screaming and fainting when news came over the loudspeaker at Sawyerwood Elementary in Springfield Township. He also remembers his mother appearing at the classroom doorway, telling him to come with her. She took Lias, his older brother and their infant sister to St. Bernard’s Church in downtown Akron to pray.
When they got home, he still didn’t quite understand why his mother was crying or why his father was so quiet when he got home from work, but he began to fathom the situation as he watched the news on TV.
“I really knew that something terrible had happened when I saw my dad, Harold, begin to cry,” Lias said. “Harold was a pretty tough guy, especially to me. I immediately knew that something historic had happened when he just could not talk or explain the events to this little boy.”
Marge Elliott of the Uniontown area of Green was 21 and living in Berkeley, Calif., when Kennedy ran for president in 1960. She worked as a registered nurse in an emergency room and during her free time volunteered for Kennedy’s campaign, working at the headquarters in Berkeley and handing out fliers door to door.
“I was really committed. Why? He gave me hope. HOPE,” she wrote. “Hope that we in this country could grow to live together, work together, accept our fellow man and try to have a world that was at peace.”
She heard the news of his assassination early enough that she was able to get to church to light candles and pray before her work shift.
Since then, she has visited his grave about six times and been to Dallas three times.
“I still think sadly of what could have been,” she said. “… I still have a picture of him on his boat in Hyannis that says, ‘Every man can make a difference, and every man must try.’ ”
Tom Dukes, an emeritus professor at the University of Akron, still remembers the reaction of his teacher, Mrs. Courtney, when news of Kennedy’s assassination reached Millbrook Elementary School in Aiken, S.C.
“It was like seeing God cry,” he said.
Jeff Dunn of Ellet was a student at Manchester High School and had just asked Patricia Davis out on a date a few hours before Kennedy was killed.
He was 16. She was 14. For each, it was a first date.
Finding something to do that weekend proved challenging. Downtown Akron was desolate. They managed to find one movie playing, Palm Springs Weekend at the Strand Theater.
“We’ve been together ever since,” Dunn said. They married in 1970, but they still celebrate that Nov. 22 as their anniversary.
Larry Schrader of Suffield was 22 and on active duty with the Army Ohio National Guard, stationed in Fort Dix, N.J. He was terrified, he said, and he wanted to share his feelings with his family members back home in Akron.
He wrote them a letter, which he still has.
The letter describes hearing the news from a trainee and thinking it was a joke, and then listening to the news unfold on radio. He ate little for supper that night, he wrote. He’d lost his appetite.
“I always thought quite a lot of JFK,” he wrote. “He was the first president that I ever took an interest in. … He was a college graduate, a veteran, a good Catholic, and a young man, who seemed to appeal to the younger people.
“Overlooking politics, I think President Kennedy was a great president. He stood up for what he thought was right. He didn’t back down in regards to the Cuban crisis. He was also a model to the young men of this country. …
“As you can see, I’m very much concerned with the death of JF. Being on active duty in the Army and probably first to go in case of war, I pray and hope that this crisis will pass and now President Johnson will do as well a job as JFK did in the past. I hope no trouble develops over his death.”
Surinder Bhardwaj was horrified when he learned of Kennedy’s assassination.
He had come from India to America for graduate studies and was living in Minneapolis when he heard the news on his landlord’s television. “I immediately wondered if his death was intended to sabotage the civil rights process that was going on at that time,” he said.
Bhardwaj, now a Hindu priest and professor emeritus in Kent State University’s geography department, said the assassination intensified his bewilderment about the inequality he saw in a country that was reputed to be a place of opportunity for all people.
“Kennedy was a man who some despised because he was Catholic. He was hated by some because he was speaking out against the forces of apartheid, meaning the white voices — particularly in the South — that wanted to continue oppressing blacks,” Bhardwaj said. “Although I was still absorbing the controversies, I couldn’t help but wonder if his assassination had something to do with his courage to go against the current.”
John Shepherd of Akron remembers hearing the news over the PA system at Firestone Park Elementary School. His teacher, Mr. Rasicci, told the students to watch TV when they went home, because what was happening was a historical event.
“He was right,” Shepherd said. “I became almost obsessed with the story and for years read all I could about the assassination. I believe that was the only time a teacher told me to go home and watch TV after school.”
Beacon Journal staff writers Colette Jenkins and Rich Heldenfels contributed to this report. Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org.