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JFK's death: People recall where they heard the fateful news

10:33 AM, Nov 21, 2013   |    comments
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  • Lynette Ray, first grade, All Saints School in Portland, Ore.
  • Lorraine Kish, seventh-grade health class in Collingswood, N.J.
  • John Moses, Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y.
  • Wendy Klenetsky, seventh-grade math class, P.S. 99 in Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Pat Mazor, Mrs. McCarthy's sixth-grade class in Enumclaw, Wash.
  • Marty Friedman, sophomore, Waco High School in Waco, Texas
    

About 40 million of the 190 million Americans alive at 12:30 p.m. CT on Nov. 22, 1963, were in school. That's where they learned President Kennedy had been assassinated, and where the first, often most vivid impressions of the moment were seared into memory.

And so, 50 years later, they recall things like a mother running down the hall at a school in Scarsdale, N.Y., saying the president was dead and the school was closing; a teacher spontaneously reciting a poem to his first-graders that they couldn't possibly understand; a nun ordering a class to its knees in prayer.

A man recalls walking home that Cold War afternoon and nervously passing the air raid siren. A woman who was picked up after school let out early remembers the color of the family car and what she said to her mother. "The flag is halfway down the pole,'' she said. "How come?''

Students learned the news in crowded urban schools, such as P.S. 99 in Brooklyn's Flatbush, and one-room schoolhouses such as Sid Litke's in Aulne, Kan. They learned it from their teachers, some of them in tears; from principals' disembodied voices on the PA; from forbidden transistor radios.

"I suspected the news of that day would most likely be remembered more than anything else said or done in the classroom," says John Moses, who was teaching at a progressive private school outside New York City.

Students drew different lessons from that news. Some were inspired to greater patriotism or idealism; for others, the shooting and its troubled investigation sowed seeds of cynicism and bred distrust of government.

But almost all felt that something besides the president died that day. For Stephen Baldwin of New York, it was a 7-year-old's optimism. He'd hoped "that he might not be dead - this could just be another of his adventures, like PT-109," the movie about JFK's service on a patrol boat in the Pacific Ocean in World War II.

Bill Colson, who was in typing class at Roman Catholic High in Philadelphia, wonders "if what happened that day can be seen through the eyes of today with any real understanding.''

Maybe you had to be there. So we asked the witnesses. Here's testimony from USA TODAY readers:

Rosalie Sacco Karl, Mrs. Johnson's eighth-grade history class, Hudson Grammar School in Union City, N.J.

Mr. Elliot, the science teacher, opened the door. With complete disbelief and shock in his voice, he announced: "The president has been shot!" A noticeable gasp for air, then silence fell over the room. We looked at each other and looked at Mrs. Johnson. She started to cry. So did we.

Lynette Ray, first grade, All Saints School in Portland, Ore.

Mother Superior darted into our classroom, crying: "The president has been shot! On your knees!" The entire class, including the teacher nun, dropped to their knees, and our teacher led us in the Our Father and Hail Mary. Mother Superior left the door open as she ran to the next classroom, and I began to hear the wave of prayers emanating from the other classrooms along the hallway. Our teacher quickly brought our prayers into sync with the other classes. She began to cry. We were soon all crying.

Parents were called to pick up their children. I remember standing in the schoolyard, waiting for my mother to arrive in our brown-finned Buick. I remember the flag was at half-staff - or, as I explained to my mother, "The flag is halfway up the pole. How come?" Mother arrived and left the car door open as she ran to me, picked me up and ran back to the car. She was crying, and she seemed very afraid.

How sad everyone was on the black-and-white television we had. Walter Cronkite was sad, and he was normally so cool and unaffected. I remember seeing the funeral - people in military uniforms and kings in attendance. I remember watching Caroline and feeling very sorry for her and her little brother.

Marty Friedman, sophomore, Waco High School in Waco, Texas

I was in study hall with 50-60 other students. Someone turned on a radio, and we heard the news. Our teacher immediately started crying, and so did many of the girls. A couple of wiseguy boys made stupid jokes, but everyone else was very shocked. I felt ashamed that someone in Dallas, and so close to Waco, had shot the president. Then I thought, "What if the killer comes to Waco?" I was confused and sad and scared and excited all at once.

When I reached home, my mom was crying, and we turned on the TV. For days, everyone I knew had the TV on. That's the first time that everyone I knew was watching the same thing.

Even though I lived in Texas and heard crazy, racist and paranoid remarks, everyone I knew respected the president and the government, even if they didn't like Kennedy. I remember feeling sad to see my mom and dad so upset. We had some pretty quiet supper-time conversations for a few days.

A couple of days after JFK was shot, I was at a friend's house watching TV when Lee Oswald was shot. It felt like the safe world I'd lived in was turned on its axis at a strange angle.

It seemed to me that before JFK was shot, we lived in a pretty orderly country. We were all scared of the Communists, yet we felt safe and secure - and we essentially trusted our leaders. I don't think any of us were prepared for the shock waves that resounded throughout the '60s.

John Moses, Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y.

I was teaching first grade. I was full, I hoped, of practical idealism. I asked the children to stand by their desks for a moment of silence, and then recited this to them:

"In the heart the loom of feeling,
In the head the light of thinking;
In the limbs the strength of willing.
Weaving enlightening,
Enlightened strengthening;
Strengthened weaving.
Lo! This is man."

(The verse was written by the education philosopher Rudolf Steiner.)

Pat Mazor, Mrs. McCarthy's sixth-grade class in Enumclaw, Wash.

The principal came on the intercom and said that the president had been shot. Whatever we were doing stopped. I remember everyone looking around as if trying to find some logic, some normalcy. This was the era the media called Camelot. President Kennedy was young, compared with Eisenhower. He had little children - younger than us. We had survived the Cuban Missile Crisis a year earlier, and even those of us who were too young to understand saw the possibility of nuclear war. Most of us had seen the movie PT-109. To me, President Kennedy was a hero.

Some cried. Some prayed. I remember Mrs. McCarthy sitting at her desk, her hands folded in front of her, looking like a statue, tears silently forming a stream down her cheeks. And then, some 45 minutes later, the principal's voice was heard again, and I can still remember his words: "We have just been told that President Kennedy is dead. Please gather your things. We are going to dismiss you all for the day."

Dan Nolan, second grade, St. Rita's School in Portland, Ore.

Mother Superior came into our classroom and told us to lay our heads on our desks. Then she told us to pray. She said that the president had been shot. Later, she came back and told us to go home, the president was dead. I remember walking home wondering what was going to happen, and who would or could kill the president. When I arrived home, my mother was crying, and the television was on. So I watched the end of an era, and I realized that there were bad people in the world.

Lorraine Kish, seventh-grade health class in Collingswood, N.J.

The announcement came over the intercom. Everyone just sat in their seats in disbelief. Who would want to shoot President Kennedy? He was so young, and a father with two small children. Then, what seemed like a few minutes later, another announcement was made. Our president was dead. Everyone was dismissed. In the hallways, you saw teachers crying and students seemingly in shock. I walked directly home, wondering if my mother had heard the news. When I entered my house, there was my mother, vacuuming. I told her the news. She had not heard and replied, "What are you saying?" Then she turned on the TV.

We watched the funeral on TV - there wasn't anything else on TV. I can still hear the drums in my head. It is a sound that is so daunting you never forget it.

Lynda Davis, junior, Gainesville High in Gainesville, Fla.

A friend and I were attending a Business and Professional Women's luncheon away from campus. When I returned to class, everything was in chaos, and a classmate told me, "The president has been shot." I thought he was joking, and said, "OK, what's the punch line?'' Then, when I saw the look on my teacher's face, I knew it was no joke. My reaction was that this is something that happened way back in history - this doesn't happen in 1963.

Tom Parks, Mrs. McElreath's fifth-grade class, Horn Elementary in Bellaire, Texas

Only the sixth-grade classrooms had TVs. Typically, the only time the TVs were on was during a space shot, so we knew something was up, as we could hear the audio. But we were not invited in to view as we normally were. Mrs. McElreath gathered the class before dismissal and told us that the president and Gov. Connally had been shot. I was too young to understand the implications but old enough to discern the gravity.

JFK was in Houston the day before, and my den mother, Mrs. Henderson, took the Cub Scouts to the airport to see Air Force One land. Vice President Lyndon Johnson stepped out of the entourage to work the crowd. I got to shake the vice president's hand the day before he became president.

Wendy Klenetsky, seventh-grade math class, P.S. 99 in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The classroom had wooden desks nailed to the floor, so you had to turn around in your chair to speak with your friends behind you. I was speaking with a guy behind me, and he was telling jokes. The last one he told was hysterically funny. Just then, our teacher walked into the room, so I stifled my laugh. Before the teacher could start the lesson, the principal made an announcement over the PA: "President Kennedy has been shot and killed. Let us bow our heads and observe a moment of silence." But I couldn't hold back the stifled laugh any longer. All of a sudden, I let out the LOUDEST LAUGH you ever heard! All the kids and the teacher stared at me with venom in their eyes and yelled at me at the top of their lungs. I sat there and cried my eyes out; I was so ashamed!

Larry Binder, fifth grade, William Jennings Bryan Elementary in North Miami, Fla.

After lunch, our teacher, Mr. Price, was late getting back to the classroom. It was obvious something was wrong. He addressed the class on the greatness of our country. He began to tremble, and I recall a tear falling from his eye (this was a big, strong man who had never shown such vulnerability) as he broke the news. He asked that we put our work away, gather our stuff and go home. As the 50-year mark approaches, I take a load of pride in the fact that Mr. Price was right - this is the greatest country on earth, and I am very grateful to have been born here!

Rick Hampson, USA TODAY

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