Kentuckians remember where they were on Nov. 22, 1963, the day of JFK's assassination

gkocher1@herald-leader.comNovember 21, 2013 

  • Watch 1963 coverage

    Starting at 1:40 p.m. Friday, CBS News will stream its 1963 broadcast coverage of the Kennedy assassination. Find a link to the live stream at WKYT.com.

The crack of rifle fire in Dealey Plaza echoes 50 years later in the hearts of people who remember where they were on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was shot to death.

More than 350 readers responded to the Herald-Leader's request to share their memories of where they were when they heard the news.

They were students sitting in class. They were farmers stripping tobacco. They were getting haircuts or getting their hair done in preparation for weekend dates. They were homemakers watching As the World Turns. And then anchor Walter Cronkite interrupted the soap opera: "Here is a bulletin from CBS News. ... "

"Even after 50 years, the feelings are raw," wrote Jesse P. Mark, 84, of Lexington.

More than half the respondents were students in elementary, middle or high school, or were in college or some other postsecondary classes on the day of the shooting. Those who were in the primary grades recalled that they had never heard the word "assassinated" until that day. Many had never seen adults sobbing uncontrollably. Other respondents expressed a sense of loss that lingers, what author Lawrence Wright calls "the permanent unanswered question about the country we might have been."

And many no doubt share the feelings of Roy Crawford, 62, of Whitesburg, who wrote: "For the first time in my life, I wept over the loss of someone I didn't know."

Here are some memories from that day:

Merry Jones, 62, Lexington

Jones and two classmates were seventh-graders in Dallas, and they had excused absences from school to go with a parent to see Kennedy.

"We anxiously waited along the parade route, fascinated as we watched police motorcycles and convertible limousines filled with government officials and security details pass by. ... But when the roar of the crowd from up the street began to swell, we all began to lean in closer to the street for a better view.

"Within what seemed like seconds, we could see the open limousine carrying the Kennedys and Gov. and Mrs. Connally. Almost faster than we could anticipate, their car was driving past us, and they were waving to the crowd. The President was closest to our side of the street, which gave me and my classmates the chance to see him up close and wave frantically, trying to get his attention. As we screamed his name, we were certain he had heard, because he seemed to have waved and smiled right back at us."

After the motorcade passed, they turned to go back to the car that had brought them downtown. Laughing and "giddy with excitement," they jumped when they heard what they thought were the "pops of a car backfiring ... which made us laugh even more."

Only later, when they got into the car, did they hear a radio bulletin that the president had been shot. They went to school, "but we were told to stay in the office until further news was available, since we had information that not even our teachers had yet. The radio in the principal's office was providing updates minute by minute." Soon the news came that the president had died at Parkland Memorial Hospital.

Jones and her classmates looked at each other in shock. "We had just become a small part of history by being part of a group to have last seen President Kennedy alive. Only later did we piece together that what we thought had been a car backfiring had actually been the echoing shots of an assassin's bullets."

Bill Douglas, 63, London

Douglas was 13 and in elementary school in Hazard. He knew something was wrong when his teacher had not returned to the classroom after lunch.

"A few minutes later, she walked into our room, crying uncontrollably," Douglas wrote in an email. "The room became deathly quiet. She sat at her desk for a couple of minutes, trying to gain some composure.

"She finally raised her head and said, 'Boys and girls, President Kennedy has been shot and killed. We will end school early today.' About a minute later the principal began playing the national anthem on the intercom."

When the music ended, the teacher told Douglas and his classmates they could go home.

"Teachers were standing in the hallway by their classroom doors, crying, as we left," Douglas wrote.

Barry Peel, 68, Lancaster

Peel was a student, too, a senior at Lancaster High School. He and a classmate, Helton Long, had volunteered to mop the cafeteria to get out of chemistry class. A teacher came in and told them that somebody had called the school to say the president had been shot.

"I'll never forget a mental image running through my head of someone walking up and shooting Kennedy in the shoulder with a pistol. Nobody — nobody — actually killed the president in those days," wrote Peel, a retired WKYT reporter.

In any case, "we were told to go out into the parking lot and find a car with the keys in it so we could activate the radio," Peel wrote. "The first car we came to was unlocked and had the keys in the ignition — a full measure of the innocence we lost that day. Reports said he had been shot, so we raced back in and breathlessly reported that. We were told to go back and monitor developments, but by the time we got back to the car, the president was reported dead."

Joe Gibson, 70, Danville

Gibson had been in class at the University of Kentucky. He and a group of other students went to the Mechanical Engineering Library to work on "some particularly tough problems in thermodynamics."

As the afternoon wore on, Gibson noticed a librarian making her way down the aisle, leaning over and whispering to each table of students.

"When she reached our table near the back, she leaned over and said, 'The president's been shot.'

"My study-mate across the table said, 'Does she mean President Oswald?'" referring to John Oswald, who became UK president earlier in 1963.

"We soon learned from other students in the library that indeed John F. Kennedy had been shot," Gibson wrote.

Gibson commuted with others from Danville to UK each day, and they decided to "head home to friends and family for comfort and healing."

Gibson remembers that "endlessly long" November weekend, "with each of us in a kind of sleepwalk" as they watched black-and-white images on TV, including "brave little John saluting his father."

Tom Dixon, 82, Lexington

Dixon was working at an insurance agency on the city's north side. He and co-workers had planned a surprise birthday party for a fellow employee, so he'd left to get a birthday cake. A bulletin bearing news from Dallas came on the car radio.

"As I drove down New Circle Road to pick up the cake at Magee's Bakery, again I heard a bulletin, and they reported that John F. Kennedy had died after being shot in Dallas, Texas," Dixon said.

"I immediately began to cry. When I arrived at the bakery, everyone there was also crying, and to this day I cannot remember picking up the birthday cake or bringing it back to the office."

In 1983, Dixon and his wife visited Dallas and went to Dealey Plaza and the grassy knoll. "I cried again," he wrote.

Ann Eads, 65, Lexington

Eads remembers going to downtown Lexington after school with her mother. They watched as "store after store" near what is now the Center Pointe lot "draped their windows in black bunting in tribute to Kennedy."

Later that night, they picked up her father at Blue Grass Airport. He had been in Washington, D.C., on business and had his own story to tell.

"His plane was on the runway ready to take off when the pilot announced that they would be delayed in departure," Eads wrote. "The reason for the delay was the return of Air Force One with the late President Kennedy's body and our new president, Lyndon Johnson. Everyone on the plane silently crowded to one side" to see the flag-draped coffin unloaded and whisked away.

Angene Wilson, 74, Lexington

For U.S. citizens living in foreign countries, news of the assassination brought new insights into what it means to be American.

Wilson was a Peace Corps volunteer in the West African country of Liberia with her husband, Jack. They had stopped at a gas station to fill up their Jeep when a station attendant exclaimed, "Our president has been shot!"

The attendant meant Kennedy, not Liberia President William V.S. Tubman.

"Like us, Africans felt a special kinship with Kennedy," Wilson explained in an email. "As one of our students wrote in a theme, 'President Kennedy was the first president to be interested in Africa.' Liberians called the cheese distributed by CARE, the humanitarian agency, "God Bless Kennedy cheese."

The Wilsons sat by their radio in disbelief, listening to the Voice of America all that weekend.

Gordon Hogg, 63, Lexington

In 1963, Gordon Hogg was 13 and living in Italy, where his father was an exchange officer at the Italian Naval Academy in Livorno. Unlike his American contemporaries, Hogg doesn't have a recollection of a sudden shocking announcement interrupting his school day.

Instead, Hogg remembers "just my crestfallen father coming into my room after a brief telephone call to tell me the awful news.

"I spent much of that Friday night tuning in Europe on my little AM radio, picking up fragments of reports all over, hearing now-spooky snatches of JFK's speeches emerging from the drone of a dozen languages as newscasters tried to make sense of the event. It was all just too strange, too sudden."

As he watched the graveside ceremony's final moments at Arlington National Cemetery, Hogg said, the sight of so many world leaders walking — Charles de Gaulle of France, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia — "moved me very deeply."

"For a time I once again felt self-conscious as an American in our small town, but in a way that now made me also very sad to be an American, but lucky to be among people who took note of our loss and stopped to mumble words of kindness or grief, to shake hands, or simply look our way through tear-filled eyes," Hogg wrote. "In the midst of all the turmoil, I felt somehow comforted — safe."

Gil Russell, 83, Hustonville

For those in the military, sworn to protect the United States, the assassination posed another level of stress and anguish as they learned that their commander-in-chief was dead.

In 1963, Gil Russell was a weather briefer for a B-52 bomb wing at Andersen Air Force Base on the Pacific island of Guam, a U.S. territory. B-52s were the four-engine jets poised to strike the Soviet Union or other attackers during the Cold War.

Russell's home telephone rang at 6 a.m., and a voice said, "Report to the briefing room immediately. This is not a drill."

"I knew something serious had happened," Russell recounted in an email. "I quickly dressed, kissed my wife and four sons, and reported to my duty station.

"I asked the guard at the door, 'What is going on?' He responded very seriously, 'The president has been shot.' We had to get our planes in the air, since we didn't know what was going on.

"I quickly scanned the weather reports and delivered the briefing to the assembled (flight) crews. They were soon in the air waiting for further orders. It wasn't until several hours later that we learned the truth about the assassination; that it was not a foreign power, but a single individual."

Doyle L. McCollum, 69, Richmond

McCollum had joined the Army in June 1963, and that November he was in Quarternaster Depot Supply School at Fort Lee, Va. He was in class when he heard the news. Because classes were cancelled until the following Tuesday, McCollum and four other classmates caught a Greyhound bus to Washington, D.C.

"We stood in line for over nine hours to walk by the dead president as he lay in state" in the Capitol rotunda. "In all that time, there was very little talking or any kind of noise. Most of the ladies would cry for a while, stop, start again. It was surreal."

The soldiers decided to stand on the street to watch the state funeral, but they arrived to find crowds standing six to 10 people deep on the sidewalk. "So us soldiers climbed up in the trees so we could see the funeral procession for President Kennedy. ... It was the saddest ... expression of grief I have seen. Down through the years I have watched several film clips of that day, saw several soldiers in the trees, but could never pick myself out."

Windy Cranfill, 64, Lexington

Cranfill and her mother also witnessed history firsthand by standing on a street corner in Washington, D.C., to watch the mournful pageantry of the state funeral. Cranfill wrote that her mother felt compelled to be there.

"The somberness was almost smothering, and then the sad street was filled with 'that sound:' the incessant drum beat that accompanied the horse-drawn caisson bearing the body of our beloved president. The clip-clop of the horse hooves pulling the caisson. Walking behind it, an army of Kennedy family members clad in black. Jackie with a black veil covering her gorgeous face. Bobby beside her with a brigade of mourning family and loved ones huddled closely behind.

"Mom and I freezing and shivering on the corner, unsure if it was the temperature or the reality of what we were witnessing. Did this really happen?"

Of those days, when the country was transfixed watching a martyred president being laid to rest, Cranfill wrote: "It was an amazing, unforgettable experience that still brings tears 50 years later."


Watch 1963 coverage

Starting at 1:40 p.m. Friday, CBS News will stream its 1963 broadcast coverage of the Kennedy assassination. Find a link to the live stream at WKYT.com.

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @heraldleader

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