Looking back 50 years

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Newsroom staff share personal memories and thoughts on life, death of JFK

By The Staff

The lasting impact of John F. Kennedy

I’d have to say I’m a little bit of a “Kennedy-ophile.” I always feel like I’m copping out when people ask me who my favorite president is and I respond with, “JFK,” but it’s the truth.

Completely separate from the events that happened 50 years ago – 26 years and 42 days before I was born.

The stories of the second son to Rose and Joseph Kennedy, who began life as a sickly child, but would eventually become a decorated war hero and President of the United States, are now the stuff of legends.

In his whirlwind of a presidency he would help establish The Peace Corps and Navy Seals, further civil rights, and restore the Special Forces.

He was the first true “television” president – with his dashing good looks, attractive family and comfortable on-screen appearance. His presidential debate with Richard Nixon was the first to be televised and, more tragically, his death is credited as the first completely televised national disaster.

In addition, the conspiracy theories and mysticism surrounding his death have entwined him so much in our popular culture.

Looking at all of the “what-ifs” surrounding the life and death of President Kennedy, it’s impossible not to imagine how the world and my life might be different had Kennedy not been shot in Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963.

As someone from a younger generation (if you didn’t do the math, I’ll be 24 on Jan. 3), I can’t say that I will truly ever understand the emotional impact the death of John F. Kennedy had on the nation, but a person doesn’t have to experience a historical event first-hand to be affected by it.

– Features Editor Laura Caskey

My research paper took a back seat

I was a college student in Charlotte and was on a personal assignment that day, compiling research for a Statistics Class term paper. You know, stuff like Mean, Medium, Mode and the Bell-Shaped Curve. 

I chose the state parks in South Carolina for my paper. They were closed; race was the culprit. 

For me, it was an open-and-shut issue and one of those things where I had already made up my mind as to the outcome. I felt that most Sandlappers were like me and wanted their parks open and weren’t fussy if black folks were allowed inside.

I thought it would make a good topic. Once I made my share of random phone calls and got opinions, I was right. Folks around here felt that everybody had a right to visit state-funded park, regardless of race.

But that day, I had made arrangements to stop by Andrew Jackson State Park on my way home to talk to park ranger Cecil Hayes about my project. 

At the time, I was commuting to and from Charlotte in an old Ford pickup without a radio, so I had no inkling of what was going on in Dallas.

It was about 2 p.m. when I got there. Well sir, the park gate was closed, but Mr. Hayes was parked out front waiting on me.

“Son, JFK’s been shot,” he said. 

Mr. Hayes was the first person to tell me our president had been assassinated.  We sat in his truck listening to the radio. The rest of that day, my paper didn’t seem quite as important.

– ‘Remember When’ columnist W.B. Evans

Conversation at the ‘foxhole’ ditch 

As I headed home that notable Friday afternoon, I was on the verge of one of those standstill moments – where were you then?

I was a third-grader in Mrs. Wingate’s class at Rice Elementary. At that time, we lived a stone’s throw from the school, now known as the Rice Building at Lancaster High School.

Mrs. Wingate’s class was in the east wing of the school. As I walked up the slightly sloping grade, I recall seeing two boys. My older brothers, Jimbo and Bill, sometimes marvel about what I remember from our childhood, but ask me who those guys were, and I draw a blank.

I do recall what they said. I don't think I'll ever forget.

The boys were in the area of the school grounds at the corner of Normandy Road and Springs Street. At that time, there was a wide ditch there. We often played there, using it as a foxhole when we played “army.”

“Did you know the president was shot?” one boy said.

“I think it was a black man,” said the other boy.

The other said, “No, it was a white man.”

Not to make light of the incident, but as the late Paul Harvey of radio lore used to say, “now, you know the rest of the story.”

We now know that all races were impacted. TV and newspaper accounts of the day show people of all races expressing their feelings, some openingly weeping in America’s streets.

Later that somber November day, I went to the Lancaster-Gaffney football game at old Roach Stewart Field, now site of the Lancaster County Parks and Recreation tennis courts and swimming pool.

I went to the game with neighbor Ken Bell and his father. We walked to the game which drew some 8,000-plus fans for the annual Blue Hurricane clash with the Indians. Ken and I later worked together at The News.

Gaffney, Lancaster’s long gridiron nemesis, rolled to a 27-0 win that night.

A lot of folks were sad, hurt, disappointed and frustrated that night, but it had little to do with football.

– Sports Editor Robert Howey

Assassination on TV a revelation  of reality

Not feeling so hot, I rest my throbbing head on my arm. With my math book open, I was taking notes as Mrs. Wade explains the calculation on the blackboard. 

She might as well be talking in tongues. 

But I make an effort. That’s the only reason I pass.

Then the PA’s crackles barge through the early Friday afternoon monotony.

“Give me your attention please.” A pause, then... “The president of the United States has been shot and killed.”

Everyone grows quiet. No one is breathing. Lancaster High School is quiet. Only the furnace hums. Then clapping by some students.

Clapping? I’m awake now. Wide awake.

Sitting straight up, a cold chill replaces the body aches. Not sure why – the message or the clapping.

Shock, sorrow, uncertainty reign. Televisions become magnets. Never witnessed a murder except in movies.

Following days bring more events. Oswald arrest. Oswald murder. Ruby arrest.

Images continue – mourning spouse, saluting toddler, riderless horse.

Not the first American tragedy. History confirms – Civil War, Pearl Harbor, Normandy beaches. But I only read about those. Never watched them unfold through a cathode- ray television in my parents’ living room on Erwin Farm.

He’s not long in the ground when his death spurs debate – political, distrust, cover up, single bullet. Debate continuing today.

Perfect person? By no means. Are any of us?

True impact is anyone and everyone's opinion.

For a naïve Lancaster teen, it's a precursor of tragedies we were to witness again. And again. And again. Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon, 9/11...

– Editor Barbara Rutledge

I didn’t know why I was crying

For me, the death of John F. Kennedy is a clothespin.

As hard as it to explain, that day holds my very first memory. At the time, I was barely 3 years old. 

Now, we weren’t very different than most middle-class families here; at the time, both of my parents worked for Springs. Momma sewed fitted sheets in the sewing room at Grace Bleachery. Daddy worked third shift in the screen printing department there, but also drove part time for Mahaffey Funeral Home and Ambulance Service, hence the nickname – Deadman – many know him by. 

During the days, “Mrs. Rena Mae” (Rena Mae McIlwain) watched me, while taking care of a few routine household chores, including laundry.

Whenever she hung out the wash, she would sit me on the hood of Daddy’s 1949 Ford pickup. 

If a bird or a airplane, happened by, I stayed occupied as she hurriedly fastened clothes on the line. 

After hanging out the wash that day, we headed back indoors. Soon after, the phone rang.

Whoever called – possibly one of her family members – told her what had happened. 

“Mrs. Rena Mae” came into the den from the hallway and cut on the TV to watch the news coverage.

She started crying. 

Although my young mind couldn’t fathom what was happening, I cried with her. 

As the next few days unfolded, I have to honestly admit I really didn’t understand any of it. The one thing that sticks with me still is how sad everyone was.

To this day, an item as simple as a clothespin takes me back to that day.

– Copy Editor Gregory A. Summers