Most of the current affiliates of the Marquette Law School are too young to remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. But for those of us who do remember it, it is a date indelibly stamped in our memories. As part of the nationwide effort to mark the 50th anniversary of that tragic event, I share my memories of that day, and I encourage others to do the same.
I was in the 6th grade at King Johnston Intermediate School in Pearisburg, Virginia, in November of 1963. Although President Kennedy was extremely popular with my classmates, my family members were not especially big Kennedy fans. My parents had supported Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, and I don’t think that they had ever gotten past the idea that Kennedy had won the election because he was rich, handsome, well-connected to power, and willing to say whatever it took to get elected.
Still, I was shocked when I heard that he had been assassinated. Although I prided myself on my knowledge of current events, I don’t think that I knew that the president was in Dallas that day. I knew that presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley had been assassinated in the past, but I doubt that I ever had entertained the idea that a president in my own time could meet such a fate.
At the King Johnston School, we had all of our classes except band with the same teacher in the same classroom. My Class, 6-A, met in a room on the second floor near the staircase, and my teacher’s name was Mrs. Mary Dillon. It must have been around 2 p.m. or possibly as late as 2:30 on Friday afternoon, when Mrs. Lilly, Principal Cruise’s secretary, came to the door and motioned for Mrs. Dillon to leave the room. I can still clearly remember Mrs. Dillon reentering the room and telling the class that she didn’t want anyone to get too upset, but the president had been shot. She told us that she did not know if he was still alive or not. I remember that we were all stunned, and I think that she told us just to put our heads down on our desk and rest until it was time to go home. It was already late in the day and the school buses were probably already on the way.
I don’t remember receiving any more information about the assassination, but I do remember thinking that the principal Mr. Cruise would say something over the loudspeaker, but he did not. Before too long, we were discharged from class at the regular time, shortly after 3 p.m. I walked home as I always did, but I remember hearing over and over from people leaving the school that the president was dead. When I got home, I started to tell my grandmother, who lived with us, that I thought that the president had been killed, but she had already heard the sad news.
Everything else surrounding those events is something of a blur. I know that we watched the coverage on television that evening and the next day, but I don’t remember much else. I do remember going to church on Sunday morning, two days later, but I cannot remember if the Rev. Hankins preached about the assassination, although I am sure that he must have. I do remember going over to my friend Charlie Edwards’ house after Sunday dinner to watch the Redskins game. I remember being vaguely surprised that it was not on television, but being eleven year olds, we decided to go outside and play touch football. (As it turns out, the NFL made the controversial decision to go ahead with its games—the AFL cancelled theirs—and the Redskins actually scored a rare victory over the Eagles.)
During our game another friend showed up and told us that Oswald had been shot. By that point, everyone in the country probably knew the name Lee Harvey Oswald. While we were accustomed to seeing dozens of people shot on television every week in that era of the western and the detective show, it seemed surreal that so many famous people were getting shot in real life. As I recall, we accepted the news and continued playing touch football for another hour or two.
Other than what I have just recounted, I remember very little about the events of the next few days. I know that we didn’t go to school on Monday, but as far as I can remember, after that, sixth-grade life picked up where it had left off. I remember going out for youth basketball and getting picked for one of the four teams (for the first time) in early December. The next public event that I remember with clarity was the Bears beating the Giants, 14-10, in the NFL championship game at the end of December, and then the Beatles showing up on Ed Sullivan the following February.
I do, however, have one other JFK-related recollection. In June of 1963, the Hollywood movie, PT 109, was released to theaters with considerable fanfare. It starred Cliff Robertson as President Kennedy, and it told the story of the president’s heroic actions during World War II. In that era, there were only so many copies of each movie, so new movies usually started out in large cities and then made their way down to less populated placed. It often took four to six months for a popular new movie to make it to a rural village like Pearisburg (pop. 2400).
As luck would have it, PT109 was scheduled to open at the Pearis Theater, the week after the Kennedy assassination. I don’t know how the decision was made, but another movie (a western, but I don’t recall its name) was substituted for it. I assume that no one was ready to see a movie about the president so quickly after the assassination. As I recall, PT109 was not shown until sometime the following summer, and I do remember going to see it.
I think almost everyone over the age of 10 who was alive on November 22, 1963, remembers exactly where they were when they heard about the death of President Kennedy. And I assume I always will.