Memories of JFK’s death still fresh after 50 years

In this Nov. 22, 1963 file photo, President John F. Kennedy's motorcade travels through Dallas. (AP Photo/PRNewsFoto/Newseum, File)

In this Nov. 22, 1963 file photo, President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade travels through Dallas. (AP Photo/PRNewsFoto/Newseum, File)

By David Lias

Superintendent Mark Froke was a fourth grader, attending class at Vienna Elementary School.

Maxine Johnson was in the student housing in Minneapolis, MN, that she shared with her husband, Allen, and was caring for their two young children, Mathew, 3, and Sharon, 1, while Allen was attending class.

Mayor Jack Powell was teaching mathematics on the University of South Dakota campus.

Jerry Wilson was walking across a university campus in Oklahoma, preparing to take an exam.

Like million of other Americans today, they all remember exactly where they were and what they were doing 50 years ago, Nov. 22, 1963, when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

“That day is our wedding anniversary,” Johnson said. “My husband was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. He was taking classes, and I remember calling him to tell him what happened.”

The couple had been married for six years on that day. She learned of Kennedy’s death from news bulletins on television.

“Our kids were little, and there was a cartoon they watched every day, and it was interrupted for the news,” Johnson said. “The thing I remember the most is when Walter Cronkite cried when he said the president was dead. For some reason, that sticks in my mind.”

Days after the shooting, Johnson joined the nation in viewing the president’s televised funeral, and the procession of his family and mourners who followed his casket to Arlington National Cemetery.

It was fitting, she said, to view such a somber occasion on a black and white television.

It wasn’t until reading a book about those dark days that included a color photo of the cemetery that she was reminded that it was a bright, colorful day, despite the sadness.

“It took me a long time to see that (in my mind) in color,” Johnson said. “Now, when I see it, it was so black and white and so sad. We watched every segment of it – we saw Lee Harvey Oswald get shot, and it was just a very impressionable time.”

Kennedy had traveled to Minneapolis during the 1960 presidential campaign.

“We always had, in the Midwest anyway, what they would call ‘bean feeds,’ and of course we were students and we were really interested in that, and we followed it.”

“I was teaching a math class on the third floor of Slagle (Hall),” Powell said. “When the news came out, we just canceled the classes. Somebody must have had a radio on in one of the offices and had come out in the hall and announced it.”

Powell had to break the news to his students.

“After the usual gasps, and things like that, it was just a matter of (saying) ‘we’re not going to hold class now. Let’s just take off.’ It just was amazing, unbelievable,” he said. “Of course, we didn’t have TV in the lounges and things like that at the time, so it was strictly people listening to the radio.”

Powell said he can’t recall specifically what university students did after hearing the news and leaving the classroom. Faculty members of the math department, which at the time was housed on Slagle Hall’s third floor, gathered in the main office, “shaking our heads and trying to catch the news on the radio,” he said.

“I’m like everybody else – everybody seems to remember where they were when they heard,” Wilson said. “I was a freshman in college down in Oklahoma, and I was walking past the tennis court on my way to take an exam, and somebody said, ‘Hey, did you hear the president’s been shot?’ And I said, ‘Nah.’ “

He was attending Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, OK, and soon learned the news was true.

“I got out of class and a pall had fallen over the whole place. That’s my direct memory,” Wilson said.

The breaking, tragic news didn’t immediately change the day’s routine. He remembers arriving at class and taking the exam, as scheduled.

“A little bit later, one thing I remember that impressed me was this was a Baptist university in Baptist Oklahoma,” Wilson said, “and I remember when Kennedy ran for president, there were a fair number of Baptists who said, ‘You can’t elect a Catholic.’

“I had some of those ideas in the back of my head, and to my surprise, the Baptist university held a special chapel and a memorial service,” he said. “It impressed me that not all Baptists believed we needed to take someone’s religion into account before we voted. I learned something from that. It was a small thing, but to me, it was important.”

Mrs. Fuhr, the fourth grade teacher at Vienna Elementary School in Vienna, SD, broke the news to Froke and his classmates.

“There were only two elementary classrooms left in the school … and I can remember the teacher coming in that afternoon and telling us President Kennedy had been shot, and that he had died,” he said. “Even at that age, I can remember the sadness that I felt from the loss of the president.”

Froke remembers that Mrs. Fuhr had been called out into the hallway.

“She had left the classroom, and had left us for awhile, and then she came back in,” he said. “I can see her walking through the door, and I remember that she told us then that the president had been shot. I can actually still envision her telling us – the classroom was very rustic, with hardwood floors and the black chalkboard.

“And I remember talking with classmates after school about it, and how everybody was really shocked at what had just taken place,” Froke said.

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