SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Between noon and 2 p.m. today millions of Americans will pause to remember just what they were doing at that time 50 years ago when news flashes and bulletins hit radio and television stations across the country announcing President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated while riding in an open motorcade through the downtown streets of Dallas, Texas.
For hundreds of Slippery Rock University faculty and staff now near age 60, those hours, and the following days, are solidly etched in their memory. For most, the details are vivid, precise and on instant recall in their memory bank. The enormity of the day's events will remain long after most other occurrences of their lives fade.
Random requests for recollections from faculty and staff resulted in the following comments:
Rebecca Badgett, assistant professor of special education, remembers, "I was sitting in my fifth-grade classroom and the teacher was called out of the room. When she returned, she was visibly upset, but she didn't share the information about President Kennedy being shot."
"When I went home that afternoon, I found my mother in the kitchen crying and staring out of the window. The television was on in the living room and she was listening to the reports," Badgett said.
"She sat down at the kitchen table with my brother and me and attempted to explain what had happened. Trying to understand something like an assassination is difficult at that age - as well as at any age. We spent a lot of time in the next few days glued to the TV watching all of the reports," she said.
"Everyone, everywhere we went, seemed so sad. Some of the things I remember seeing and vividly remembering were the blood stains on Mrs. Kennedy's pink suit, the horse in the funeral procession with the empty boots hung backward and little John Kennedy standing and saluting at his father's casket," Badgett said.
For Carol Holland, director of the SRU Counseling Center, details are pin-point accurate.
"I was in Mrs. Goble's fourth-grade class when the principal, Mrs. Blair, came in crying," she said. "Mrs. Goble began crying and then told us the president had been shot. We were sent home immediately. I ran home - before school buses - and I remember feeling frightened because everyone on the street was crying."
"I could not verbalize it at the time, but I knew something very wrong had happened and that it would change everything. For three days there was around-the-clock-reporting of the information and the picture of Jacqueline Kennedy's blood-stained dress was shown over and over," she said.
"I was sitting with my grandmother on her couch watching President Kennedy's funeral procession on her black-and-white TV. It was the first time that we experienced this kind of violence and bone-wrenching grief in our own living room. Watching the Kennedy's and especially Jackie hold up the nation with her courage made it personal. It happened to us - as a nation. Listening to some news commentators over the weekend, it was described as a time when we, as a country, 'lost our innocence.' This is apt," she said.
"As a side note, when my grandmother passed away, I asked for her copy of 'The Torch is Passed,' a 100-page hardcover book published by The Associated Press. It is the story of the assassination and the days after, and I still treasure it," Holland said.
For Richard Martin, professor of political science, it was a day embossed in his memory. "I was just 13 and sitting in a study hall reading when the principal made the first announcement that the president had been shot - and the second announcement that he was dead. I felt numb," he said.
"I clearly recall reading Time magazine about JFK's schedule on Jan. 20, 1961, when he assumed office. He had rapidly become my first political hero. My maternal grandfather had been an active Republican in southeast Ohio in those days. He was, however, a Lincoln Republican in an area filled with Southern, 'Copperhead' Democrats. Today, he would be a Democrat," Martin said.
"My father was in the Teamster's Union before the Kennedy's took on Jimmy Hoffa, and, therefore, he was a Democrat at the time. Because of my grandfather's stories about his grandfather and great uncle both of whom fought with [Gen. Ulysses] Grant in the Civil War, I was sympathetic to the cause of civil rights from my first political memories," Martin said.
"Obviously, I was a pretty abnormal child politically; but along with JFK, Martin Luther King Jr. and RFK [Robert F. Kennedy, President Kennedy's brother later assassinated while running for president in 1968] joined together in my personal pantheon of heroes. Now I teach a course on the Vietnam era. Today, I talked about the murders of the latter two. By June 5, 1968, I had no more political heroes and have never found another since," Martin said.
"This is probably a sign of maturity, but I feel we have all lost something when we so lack leadership today. Worse, following Aristotle's theories of constitution succession, our times are ripe for false heroes, men or women on horseback if you will. It is something to guard against," he said.
To show the impact of the Kennedy assassination, Martin said, "Some years ago, in the early '90's, I was presenting a paper at a political science conference in Dallas. In the airport I saw three badly dressed fellows and concluded they must be political scientists. They were, and we shared a taxi to town. When the taxi exited the freeway to downtown Dallas, we drove through Dealey Plaza, the site where President Kennedy was shot. We fell silent at exactly the same moment realizing where we were."
"We looked around as we passed though, but nothing was said. A day or two later, two fellow political scientists who I knew and I walked the mile or so from the Hilton where the conference was down to the plaza. I looked at the Texas Schoolbook Repository and imagined the shooter perched up there looking down. I was clear to me then that it was an easy shot. I thought to myself 'I could have done it." The only question was the rapidity of the second and third shots. We walked to the grassy knoll, then headed back to the hotel," he said.
"Again we were quiet as we walked. Near the end of our walk, one of us, I don't remember who, it could have been me, - we were all about the same age, the same training as academics and friends - said quietly but firmly, 'Things would have been different.' That comment summed up the feeling of a generation," Martin said.
"If JFK had lived, things would have been different. Would we have avoided Vietnam, or would it have been something else, but, the point was: 'things would have been different.' Better? But, whatever it would have been, it was lost on that day in November," he said.
For Alan Levy, SRU professor of history, the day provided a glimpse of the history and planted a conundrum that continues in his mind to present times. "My personal experience with the Kennedy assassination is, if anything, testimony to the sometimes unpredictable emotional states of children and to the highly debatable issues of how best to deal with them."
"I was 11 years old, in the seventh grade when the assassination occurred. It was a Friday, and my school's football team was scheduled to play its rival school in the season's 'big game' that afternoon. The two schools' administrations did not cancel the football game," he said, adding, "Along similar lines, as I recall, the NFL was much criticized for not canceling and playing their regularly-scheduled games that Sunday."
"That Friday morning, all the kids in my class were totally psyched about the day's big game. Classes let out at 2:30 p.m. As we were all milling about before the game, the death of Kennedy had just occurred and was obviously the topic of everyone's conversations," Levy said.
" Nevertheless, the 'buzz' in anticipation of the big game remained; 'testimony to the emotions of kids and to the ways we were being push-pulled with the planned events and simultaneous tragedy of the day," he said.
"We won the game 8-7, with a two-point conversion in the last minute, so, on the one hand, everyone was excited. Yet the obvious pall of emotion was there for all of us that day, as well as for the ensuing days and weeks. All the radio and TV programs that evening, throughout the weekend, and into the Thanksgiving week had nothing but materials on the assassination and on the Kennedy presidency." he said.
"I did see Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV," Levy said.
"There remains the question of how one deals with planned events in the context of intruding tragedies. Should my school have played its game; should the NFL have canceled; was playing football disrespectful? I recall that, in the very week after the assassination, Mrs. Kennedy insisted, even with all she and her family were facing, that there still be a birthday party for her 3-year-old son 'John-John.' What are the right/wrong ways to balance the ideas of halting matters in life versus the idea that it is best to go on with life?," he said.
"The assassination of JFK was my first major experience with that unresolvable conundrum," he said.
Gregory Sferra, SRU's director of campus recreation, said, "I was old enough to remember a number of things vividly. I was a fourth grader at Notre Dame Elementary School in nearby Hermitage, when the announcement came over the PA system disrupting our art class and telling us that President Kennedy had been shot. The class immediately prayed for him,"
"Later there was a confirming and horrifying announcement that the president was dead. School was dismissed early, but there was no jubilance about the early start to the weekend or that there would be no school the following Monday," he said.
"The election of a Catholic president created a sense of pride in my family. My father and mother being very upset and a feeling of uncertainty as to how the assassination might be playing into world events. For four days I watched the events unfold on our black-and-white TV with the same exact coverage on each of the only three channels we received at the time - ABC, CBS and NBC," he said.
"I could not gasp the complexity or enormity of the situation at the time. There was a sense of disbelief that the assassination had occurred and more of the same on Sunday, Nov. 24, when Jack Ruby assassinated Lee Oswald on live TV. Looking at the video it is hard to imagine such an unsecure scene in today's world. I can remember sitting on the floor at my grandparents' home on Monday watching the funeral procession and seeing young John Kennedy salute his father's coffin," Sferra said.
"The assassination of JFK created a sense of loss in a 9-year-old boy that continues today with the wonder of what might have been had the events of Nov. 22, 1963, not occurred," he said.
Herbert Carlson, assistant vice president for construction design and management, said, "I was 14 and living in Frankfurt, Germany. It was already evening, and my friends and I had gone to the film 'Mutiny on the Bounty' at the 97th General Hospital theater," he said.
"Part way through the movie, the lights came on, and we were told that President Kennedy had been shot. The show was canceled and everyone walked home," he said.
"Later that evening, we found out that President Kennedy was dead. The military was placed on alert and everyone was in shock," he said.
"I was 10 years old and in my native Nova Scotia," said Susan Hannam, dean of SRU's College of Health, Environment and Science. "I rarely was sick as a child, but on this particular day, I was kept home because of a cold. I was on the sofa and my mother had just given me a horrible-tasting Meloid throat lozenge. Suddenly a bulletin came on the TV, and I remember my mother coming into the living room as she was drying a cup and her face was very pale as she said 'Oh no!,'" Hannam said.
"I didn't know much, as a young Canadian, about President Kennedy, but I knew I had never seen my mother react in this way and that something horrible had just happened. My family was then glued to the television for the next few days. I somehow associated the taste of that Meloid with this awful event and never used them again," she said.
David Dailey, professor of computer science was an eighth grader. "I think the news came over the school's PA system. The immediate concern that most of the students had was that this was the beginning of World War III. The air raid drills were all very fresh in everyone's minds. It was hard to imagine that there was not some sort of plot," he said.
"I remember my English teacher, a very even-keeled fellow, becoming more emotional about it than I think I had ever seen a teacher be. Kennedy, to me, seemed a very distant figure, and not anyone to whom I had any personal feelings, but the magnitude of the adults' reactions impressed me," he said.
"In the hours and days that followed was the first time in my life that a majority of the population seemed glued to the television. Of course, the moon landing, Watergate and 9/11 were the others. Later, I was watching the television as Lee Harvey Oswald was shot. It all seemed quite surreal, though the term 'surreal' was not yet a part of my vocabulary," he said.
"I recall the day of President Kennedy's assassination," said Pearl Shaffer, associate director of alumni engagement. "I was attending East Lawrence Elementary School in Plain Grove and was in the library standing in line at the drinking fountain. It was announced over the PA system. We didn't realize the full gravity of what had happened, but knew it was something awful. We were given the day off for the funeral, so my family watched it on television. It was very sad. I remember my mother crying. I also remember when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby. I also watched that happen on television, and recall it vividly," she said.
"The whole President Kennedy story interested me greatly, and I remember in seventh grade writing a report and making a scrapbook about him. I still have it. It includes articles from newspapers and magazines, the front cover from 'Life' magazine, which was a large magazine published in color, and other printed material. To this day, I am still intrigued by the various assassination theories, that surround the day's events," she said.
Thom Cobb, associate professor of dance, has his recollections down to telegraph like statements. "Colfax, Ill., population 850. Ready for physical education class after lunch. Standing in front of my locker wearing maroon shorts and a white T-shirt with the number 8 on the front. Standing between Steve Benjamin, on my left, and Roger Damon, on my right. Mr. Keller, our teacher, came down the locker-room steps to our left. He leaned over, his head at the clock, - a little after 1 p.m. He said, 'Boys, the president's been shot. School is canceled. You can get dressed and go home.'"
"I spent the next days with my family watching the events unfold on TV, including the killing of Oswald on national live TV," he said.
Even as a second-grader Sandra Busch, publications manager in the University Public Relations Office, has memories of the fateful day. "I was sitting in class in Guardian Angels Elementary School, a Catholic School. The principal came in crying. She talked briefly with our teacher, Sister Virginette, and she too started to cry. I remember that they then sent us home and we watched TV with my grandmother who sobbed throughout the funeral."
For a comprehensive account of the events of Nov. 22, 1963, and the days that followed, click here: http://jeff560.tripod.com/tvgjfk.html
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