“From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago,” a visibly shaken Walter Cronkite would report on Nov. 22, 1963. “Vice President Johnson has left the hospital in Dallas, but we do not know to where he has proceeded. Presumably, he will be taking the oath of office shortly and become the 36th president of the United States.”
We were just kids living in a time of innocence.
Just another day of classes for us at Seventy-First High School on that Nov. 22, 1963, Friday as we headed through the hallway toward Charles Ellis’ classroom for U.S. History lessons.
“President Kennedy has been shot!” a student said.
No one much took the student’s words seriously, and we went about our daily routines as seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen. After all, John F. Kennedy was president of the United States. We only studied about the assassinations of our American presidents in U.S. History classes — about Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865; James Garfield on July 2, 1881; and William McKinley on Sept. 6, 1901.
Soon enough, the intercom in our classroom affirmed that the 35th U.S. president had suffered massive wounds to the head in Dallas, the victim of an assassin. And at 2:38 p.m. came the news on the intercom.
“The president,” we heard, “is dead.”
Charles Ellis would sling his chair across the classroom.
“God d…,” he would blurt out for all of us to hear.
The moment was surreal.
Lloyd Ray Washington pulled a photo of the president from his wallet. He just stared at the photograph in disbelief as we waited for the 3 p.m school bell that would send us toward our yellow school buses to take us home.
I walked out behind Loyd E. Auman, the principal all of us admired. He was tall and lean. On this day, he hung his head low. He said nothing. He was crestfallen. He was, like all of us on that fateful day, in shock.
‘This can’t be happening’
Glenn Riddle recalled the news as a junior at Gray’s Creek High School.
“My thoughts ranged from ‘unbelievable' to ‘sadness,’ to ‘This can't be happening in the United States,’” he says. “We spent the afternoon watching a small television in the auditorium. Needless to say, everyone was glued to watching the TV and most all were either crying or in shock that our president was dead. For the next several days, I remember the news coverage, most of it live, of the Kennedy family, the swearing in of our next president Lyndon Johnson, and especially the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby.”
Riddle’s wife, Gail, recalls Nov. 22, 1963.
“As a military kid, this put all of us and our families on high alert as we knew there would be repercussions and that our parents were likely to be called upon in some matter to maintain normalcy,” she says. “I imagine it was much the same for the military kids at Fort Bragg and Cumberland County.”
Weeks Parker, a longtime local historian, remembers coming home from then-Fort Bragg, where he was a schoolteacher.
“I heard it on television,” says Parker, who’s now 93. “It saddened me so much. I am sure it was a great shock and sadness to millions of other people all over the world. It was the last thing I thought would ever happen. I went out to my workshop and tried to bang my fist through the wall. I was sad and it burned me up to think somebody would do that.”
Rudolph Singleton was a 33-year-old lawyer and remembers walking from his legal offices at the old Scottish Bank along Russell Street toward the old Cumberland County Courthouse.
“When I got to the Johnson Cotton Co. parking lot by the courthouse, I heard the news about President Kennedy,” says Singleton, now 93. “Actually, Kennedy was not the most popular in Texas.”
He went there, Singleton said, “to mend fences” for a second presidential term.
JFK knew he needed Texas in the ensuing campaign. He insisted that First Lady Jackie Kennedy join him because she was popular with potential voters, and especially women. She wore a pink suit and pink hat. The presidential motorcade moved through downtown Dallas and out toward the grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza, where fathers, mothers and children were cheering the president’s motorcade.
From the nearby Texas School Book Depository overlooking the plaza, three shots rang out around 12:35 p.m. (CST). Two bullets, according to reports, from the assassin’s 6.5-mm Carcano rifle struck the president's neck and head as he slumped toward his wife. Texas Gov. John Connally, riding in the front seat of the topless presidential limousine, was shot in the back.
Two Catholic priests, according to reports, would administer final rites to the president at Parkland Hospital, and Cronkite, the CBS News icon, would deliver the somber word all of us feared to hear.
“From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago,” a visibly shaken Cronkite would report on Nov. 22, 1963, from the CBS news desk in New York. His voice would momentarily quiver. “Vice President Johnson has left the hospital in Dallas, but we do not know to where he has proceeded. Presumably, he will be taking the oath of office shortly and become the 36th president of the United States.”
‘It shocked the nation’
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the youngest American president (and the first Roman Catholic) when he assumed the office and the White House on Jan. 20, 1961. He was handsome with thick hair and a piano-tooth smile, charming and charismatic in pinstripe suits. He had an engaging sense of humor and liked playfully bantering with White House press corps reporter Helen Thomas at his weekly news conferences. He was ever the optimist.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy,” he said, memorably, “but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.”
He championed civil rights for all.
He challenged us.
"Every accomplishment,” he once said, “starts with the decision to try.”
Now, 60 years beyond, JFK at age 46 was dead, the youngest American president to die in office.
“It shocked the nation,” Singleton says.
Lee Harvey Oswald, 24, who worked at the school textbook depository, would be arrested within two hours and charged with the president’s murder, and the murder of a Dallas police officer. A Communist sympathizer, Oswald stubbornly maintained his innocence.
Oswald was fatally shot at 11:21 a.m. on Nov. 24 by downtown nightclub owner Jack Ruby as he was escorted by police from the Dallas Police Headquarters basement. Oswald died at Parkland Hospital. His shooting played out on national television.
“All the sudden the guy pulls out a pistol and shoots,” Singleton says. “They tried Ruby for murder.”
Ruby was convicted on March 14, 1964, and sentenced to death. The conviction was overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, but the 55-year-old Ruby died Jan. 3, 1967, at Parkland Hospital after being diagnosed with liver, lung and brain cancer.
“It’s always remained a mystery of who carried it off and why,” Singleton says. “They had the Warren Commission. They pretty well rubber-stamped that the president had been killed as they thought he had. There were all kind of theories. One shooter or two shooters.”
Still, I see myself as a 14-year-old freshman staring at the intercom box in Charles Ellis’s classroom and hearing those chilling words that an American president was dead from fatal gunshot wounds from an assassin’s rifle.
Rudolph Singleton remembers, too.
“I can’t believe the passage of time,” he says.
Neither can Weeks Parker.
“It’s like it was yesterday,” he says.
Glenn Riddle relives Nov. 22, 1963, as well.
“As I think back,” Riddle says, “I realize that we were witnesses to an unforgettable historical event.”
And, some may say, an end to our innocence.
Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at email@example.com or 910-624-1961.