Fifty-two years ago on Friday, November 22, 1963, the political landscape in our country changed forever. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. It was an event that anyone old enough to understand will remember all through their lifetime. I was 17 years-old, and a senior at Juniata High School. As soon as the faculty heard of the shooting in Dallas, which occurred shortly after noon, high school classes were dismissed and the student body was sent to their desks in the assembly room.
Perhaps some explanation about Juniata High School is needed here. It was a small high school, about 65 students. All the students knew each other, many having lived all their lives in that small town. I, having attended a small one-room country school through eighth grade, and being one of a small handful of Catholics in a Protestant community, was somewhat of an outsider. There was a great deal of anti-Catholic sentiment among the parents of many of my classmates. Some good friends told me many years later that their mothers forbid them from dating me because I was Catholic. My outsider status was accented by the fact that we had no telephone so I was unable to chat with my girl friends, and boys were unable to call me for a date. It was a real social disadvantage for a girl in the ‘60s. But, I digress. The Assembly room was a large room in the north east portion of the building’s second floor. Every student had a desk in assembly with space under the seat for our text books. We did not have lockers. Freshmen were seated on the west, progressing to seniors along the east side of the room. We assembled there in the morning, pledged allegiance to the flag, listened to any announcements, and then went to our first classroom. Study hall was in the assembly room. On Fridays the last item of the day was a pep rally, led by the cheerleaders, in the assembly for the team playing that evening.
When we all were seated in assembly, wondering what was happening, it was announced that the President had been shot. A television was brought in, where from I don’t know, perhaps Coach Jones’ house across the street. There normally was no television in the building. At about 1:30 Walter Cronkite announced that the President had died a half hour earlier. Some girls began to cry. I don’t recall if we went back to classes or spent the remainder of the school day watching the TV, but I think we watched TV.
As soon as school was dismissed, I drove out to District 35, one mile east of our house, where Agnes was in the 8th grade. I do not recall which car I drove. I usually drove my folk’s ’49 Plymouth to school, but sometimes got to drive the ’59 Plymouth with push-button drive. Mildred Grabil was the teacher. She had been my teacher at District 28 for several years, and also had given Agnes and me piano lessons at her house. She had not heard about the assassination and was shocked when I told her. Agnes remembers that on the way home from her school I said to her “You will remember this day the rest of your life.”
We spent the next three days glued to the television. On Saturday the President’s body lay in state in the East Room of the White house. On Sunday his flag draped coffin was carried on a horse-drawn caisson to lie in state in the rotunda of the Capitol building. The procession included a riderless horse with boots backwards in the stirrups. Mrs. Kennedy, holding her two children by the hand, led the public mourning. In the rotunda, she and her daughter Caroline knelt beside the casket, which rested on the Lincoln catafalque. I remember her kissing the flag which draped her husband’s casket. Mrs. Kennedy, the most beautiful and dignified First Lady in my memory, maintained her composure as her husband was taken to the Capitol to lie in state, as well as during the memorial service.
The state funeral was held on Monday, November 25th at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. Monday was a national day of mourning; schools, government offices and many businesses were closed. We spent the day watching the unfolding events on television.
A funeral procession, on foot, from the White House to St. Matthew’s Cathedral, was led by Jacqueline Kennedy, wearing a long black veil, and the president’s brothers, Robert and Edward Kennedy. This was the first time that a first lady walked in her husband’s funeral procession. The two Kennedy children rode in a limousine behind their mother and uncles.
Following the funeral Mass, the casket was borne again by caisson to Arlington National Cemetery. Moments after the casket was carried down the front steps of the cathedral, Jacqueline Kennedy whispered to her three year-old son, after which he saluted his father’s coffin. The image, viewed around the world, became an iconic representation of the President’s funeral. The children did not attend the burial service, so this was the point where they said goodbye to their father.
At Arlington, following the burial service, Jacqueline Kennedy lit a taper from a candle held by a nearby soldier, bringing the eternal flame, marking the President’s grave, to life.
Pat Renschler was in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri in November 1963. The day of the assassination he was standing in the rain in a water-soaked fox hole. Suddenly their sergeant ordered them to double-time–a slow run by troops in step–back to their barracks some miles away. They ran in wet clothes covered by ponchos. He remembered that as they ran steam rose up from under the ponchos. When they got back to the barracks, the fort was in lock-down—no one entered or left. No one told them anything about what was happening. This was during the Cold War and his first thought was that there had been a Russian attack. Thoughts of being sent to war went through his head. Eventually the soldiers learned that the President had been assassinated and the military was on alert in case of an attempt to overthrow the government. They were eventually allowed to watch some of the mourning and funeral on TV.
The assassination of President Kennedy was one of those shocking, momentous occasions about which people will always remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. I will always remember the shock when I heard the news, and also the grace and dignity of Jacqueline Kennedy. Little John-John saluting his father’s coffin is a picture burned into my consciousness.