USC Upstate Faculty, Staff Reflect on Kennedy Assassination
On Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy died in Dallas, Texas, the victim of a shot through the head that rung out as his motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza. The spot, marked with a white X, became the birthplace of dozens of conspiracy theories.
On the anniversary, several members of the USC Upstate faculty and staff tell us where they were when they heard the news that Kennedy had been shot.
These are their stories:
I was in fifth grade. I went to a Catholic school, and JFK was wildly popular there because he was the first Catholic president. A student brought in the message, and the teacher (a nun), announced in very somber voice–”the president has been shot”. We all said a prayer and went back to work–I think we were more dazed than anything. We brought our lunches in those days and we had just pulled them out of our desks to take them outside and eat. Then, another message came in. The teacher read it, and said, pausing after every word-President… Kennedy… has… just… died. Patrick Sherry, the boy sitting next to me, slammed his fist into his bagged lunch. We got down on our knees to pray, and then went out to eat our lunch. We were sad but there was also an air of excitement. This was first time we had experienced “Big news”, and we were too young to realize how bad this was for the country. When my dad came to pick me up that afternoon, I couldn’t wait to tell him what had happened. For some reason, I thought we were the only ones who knew. I remember him saying — “The country’s in a lot of trouble now.” That’s when it dawned on me that this was more than the loss of one man that we all liked — that if it were the communists, it could actually mean war.
From that point on, for the next four days, it was all about the assassination. In Los Angeles, we had seven television stations, instead of three like the rest of the country. Every station, even the local ones, had 24 hour coverage of the assassination. One local station only broke for two movies — “The Song of Bernadette” and “The Miracle of Fatima.” I don’t know if that was a tribute to JFK’s Catholicism or just a spiritual gesture. People wanted to get together to watch it all. My parents and I went over my aunt’s and uncle’s that first evening and another aunt’s and uncle’s the second evening. I remember two comments from those nights, both from my aunts. One aunt said that Lee Harvey Oswald should be given “to the women, so we can torture him to death” (Italian women are tough). The other aunt offered the first conspiracy theory on the subject. She was convinced the Mafia did it, and that Oswald was a patsy. My sister, who was a newlywed, said she woke up the morning of the assassination and for some reason had thought of Kennedy. She thought about how young he was, and wondered what he would do with himself after the presidency. For myself, I was fascinated by Jackie, and how regal she seemed during the funeral. I didn’t understand what it meant to mourn, so I didn’t understand what strength she was showing, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
The only other thing I remember was playing in the backyard that Sunday after the assassination. My dad was at work. My mother came to the back door and told me: “They just shot Oswald” I think she was so shocked, she had to tell someone, and I was the only one around. I can still see her standing there, looking absolutely amazed.
I also remember when TV started its regular programming after the funeral. There were several live shows in those days, and it was obvious that the performers on them were very nervous and uncomfortable. No one, least of all the people who had to entertain us, felt like it was right to go back to normal.
I was in the fourth grade in a small back country town in the Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia. The announcement was made to our classrooms over the loudspeaker system. Although there may have been two announcements, I only remember one: “President Kennedy has been shot and killed.” The room was intensely quiet. Then my teacher blurted out, “It was probably one of those damn Republicans!” This really struck me because my parents were Republicans and I couldn’t imagine them shooting a President! Anyway, my teacher must have realized what she had said and also became very quiet. The 40 minute bus ride home that afternoon was also very quiet.
My parents were building us a new house. The plan was that they would finish the basement and we would move into it while they finished the actual house part. That day they were working on the basement and I believe they were laying tile in the kitchen. Anyway, my brother (who was in the seventh grade) and I literally ran from the bus stop up the holler to our house, dumped our books, and then ran to the new house site. We blustered in, each wanting to be the first to tell our parents, but Mike ran faster than I did and I bounded into the room just as the words were tumbling out of his mouth. Mother looked at him and said, “Mike, quit carrying on with your nonsense!” She didn’t believe him. He kept looking at her and saying, “It’s the truth! It’s the truth! Somebody killed the President.” I, too, chimed in and they finally believed us.
We had one television and it had one station – NBC – with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Usually it was on only in the evenings – first for the six o’clock local news and weather; then Chet and David with national news at six-thirty. Local programming was from seven to eight and then national broadcasts from eight to eleven o’clock at which time a local minister said a prayer, the national anthem was played, and the station went off the air. During that week though all programming was suspended and nothing but coverage of the shooting, the funeral, and then the shooting of Oswald was broadcast. I don’t remember if they went round the clock or not – I had to be in bed by nine!
The funeral was mesmerizing. I remember the cortege being pulled by the white horses, the riderless horse with the boots turned backwards in the stirrups, and Jackie in her black veil. I had never seen a veil like that before – it fascinated me how she could see out of it!
We were all watching the TV when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. We were all just stunned. I remember my Dad saying, “How could someone get in there with a gun past all those policemen?”
I don’t remember much of the rest of that Thanksgiving. Seems like we may have been given the entire week off the following week, but I cannot be sure. I guess I’ll have to contact some of my school classmates to see what they remember.
I was 10 years old. Of course at that time, we were attending all black schools. I was in the third grade at Lincoln Elementary and High School. It was a Friday afternoon and all the teachers were in a meeting with the Principal. While the teachers were in their meeting, high school students watched over the classes. We didn’t have to do school work, but we had to busy ourselves with something and remain orderly (in other words, we couldn’t have any real fun). Suddenly, one of the other student teachers ran into our classroom and shouted President Kennedy was shot in the head! Our student teacher didn’t believe her so she asked us to sit quietly so that she could go and see what was going on. A few moments later she returned to the room and confirmed that the president was dead. Her next statement kind of puzzled me, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to us.” I didn’t fully grasp the meaning of what was happening, but I knew it wasn’t good because all of the regular teachers were crying as they returned to their classes. Shortly afterward, school was dismissed for the day. When I got home, the situation was much the same, sadness among my parents and my older siblings. It broke my heart to see my mom and older sister crying, so naturally, I cried too. That whole weekend was filled with sadness. It was cold, rainy and such a feeling of helplessness. I spent a lot of time sitting on my dad’s lap that weekend. Funny, how we recall things like that. November 22 was my parent’s wedding anniversary, but I don’t think they thought about it that day.
I was at Howard Bishop Junior High in math class (New Math) when Mr. Roundtree was called out of the room for a few minutes. When he came back he was visibly disturbed and he announced that President Kennedy had been shot. The class was stunned. Some students were crying. Mr. Roundtree just asked us to sit quietly. I really don’t remember anything else about that day except watching Walter Cronkite and CBS evening news.
I was in school — it must have been first grade — when the news came. The principal’s voice came through the intercom announcing the tragedy. It wasn’t clear at first who had been shot — I seem to remember we thought it had been the vice president who had been shot, but that childhood memory may merely reflect the confusion of the moment. I think we were dismissed shortly after the announcement. I remember going home with the neighbor children and finding our mothers, and later fathers, glued to radios and televisions, and learning that President Kennedy had died. It is hard to separate what I understand now from my child’s understanding of the event then, but I do know that awareness of its importance to our parents and the country gradually emerged over the course of the next few days. I remember alternately watching the funeral on TV and playing with the neighbor kids when one of them said, with the innocent bluntness of a child, “I want to see when they put him in the hole!” I’m sure I must have shared that sentiment. After all, our president was dead and needed to be buried. But it was also a kid’s way of reacting to the gravity of the moment—one of those rare moments which we all share as a society and to which we later give great significance as adults.