Tale of two days

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Life in Lancaster came to a standstill 50 years ago today

By Greg Summers

Optimism permeated much of Lancaster County in late November 1963 for good reason.


After almost three years of work by the Men’s Community Club, the Best Yet (B.Y.) Social Club and the Southside Socialite Club that grew into a community-wide effort to raise the money, the finishing touches were being put on at the Lancaster Community Center on Barr Street. 

Christmas decorations were going up. When he wasn’t answering calls, Lancaster Police Department Cpl. L.B. Sanders could be found on Main Street, routing traffic around workers hanging holiday decorations on light poles. Merchants were also decorating window fronts.

According to the Nov. 21, 1963, edition of The Lancaster News, downtown Christmas lights would go on the night of Nov. 22. 

That way, those who dragged Main Street after the Lancaster/Gaffney High School football game that Friday would have plenty to see.

If football wasn’t preferable, “Irma La Douce,” starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, was playing at the Parr Theatre on Main Street. Marilyn Monroe was supposed to star opposite of Lemmon, but after her August 1962 death, United Artists had to find another leading lady and chose MacLaine over Elizabeth Taylor.     

If you were not a fan of football or the movies, there were other options. Lancaster Speedway was gearing up for the Turkey 100, a Thanksgiving Day race planned for Nov. 28 at the half-mile dirt track. 

The Jaycees were readying for their annual turkey shoot fundraiser to be held that weekend on an empty lot near the Pit Stop on West Meeting Street.

Mr. and Mrs. Heyward Lucas of Erwin Farm had just announced the engagement of their daughter, Judy Ann, to Jerry Caskey.

Dedication services were held the prior Sunday – Nov. 17 – at the new Christ Episcopal Church on Plantation Road.

For most, it was business as usual, but that was about to become a tale of two days and what can happen in the blink of an eye.

As the crow flies, it may have been about 1,050 miles from the Lancaster County Courthouse to Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas – where John F. Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin’s bullet, but the impact here was just as somber. 

In the matter of a few minutes, on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963 – 50 years ago today – that wave of optimism was gone, along with the nation’s 35th president.

That afternoon, a usually bustling Main Street resembled an Old West ghost town, with merchants quietly greeting occasional shoppers who came in.

That night, the Hurricane gridiron clash with the top-ranked Indians, drew a crowd in excess of 8,500 fans. An overmatched and beat-up Wade Corn-coached team fell to Gaffney by a 27-0 score, despite the best efforts of the all-conference fullback Ray Plyler, quarterback Edward “Burger” Roddey, and teammates Jimmy Wrenn, Bob Holcombe and Maurice Emory. Fans at the game were more interested in what was happening elsewhere. The Monday, Nov. 25, 1963, edition of The Lancaster News traced the immediate change to the “miracle of television,” which “captured events too fast for the mind to comprehend that took place before our eyes.”

“The entire United States became a small screen on which our history was enacted as it happened,” the editorial read.

Nov. 25, 1963, became a day of national mourning.

Plyler and his Hurricane teammates didn’t go to class that day, government offices were closed and many businesses posted their “Closed” signs that day. Flags, including “Old Glory” in front of Stafford Graham Post 31, were lowered to half-staff.

Lancaster Mayor Ledell Steele urged local citizens to pray for the nation and its new president.

“Everything has been said as to the loss this country feels,” Steele said. “My request now is that the people of Lancaster stand behind and support our new president, Lyndon B. Johnson.” 

What might have been

On Nov. 27, 1963, Don Herd, the first dean and resident director of University of South Carolina Extension College in Lancaster (now USCL) broke news of a well-kept secret.

Herd told The Lancaster News, had Kennedy still been alive, there was a strong possibility the president would have come to Lancaster on March 15, 1964, for a non-political appearance to celebrate the 197th birthday of Andrew Jackson at Andrew Jackson State Park.

And this is no tall tale. Herd said the invitation had been formally issued to Kennedy by Fifth Congressional Rep. Robert Hemphill.

Since Kennedy had never been to this part of the Carolinas, Herd said the president was intrigued by the opportunity.

Herd said Kennedy was so interested in the idea that in late October 1963, White House staff members had started local negotiations to get the president here.

“It was felt that the president would welcome such an opportunity to visit South Carolina on the eve of the 1964 presidential campaign,” Herd said.  


Contact copy editor Greg Summers at (803) 283-1156