JFK: College student made trek to Washington for funeral
SCHENECTADY Many people who participated in The Gazette Newspapers’ “Kennedy Project” wrote brief accounts about their memories of Nov. 22, 1963.
Robert Corliss of Schenectady was a 21-year-old senior at the University of Connecticut and made some major decisions on the weekend the president was assassinated. Parts of Corliss’ reminiscence has been edited for space, but editors believe his long story is worth telling:
I was a senior political science major walking to my 2 p.m. Constitutional Law class with a classmate who was bound for a different class. Our conversation revolved around the upcoming weekend and a series of fraternity parties we had planned. I was the president of our fraternity and it was a “rush” weekend, meaning we were hosting a number of potential fraternity pledges at these parties whom we were hoping to induce to join our fraternity — the oldest on the UConn campus.
As we neared the social science building, we ran into a fraternity brother, a business major, who was rushing back to the fraternity house. He alerted us to the report that JFK had been shot, possibly killed, and he was hustling to call his broker to discuss what he should do with his stock holdings. Shock, alarm, fear and a real sense of unsettlement filled my friend and me.
As I reached my class, I saw Professor Fred Kort hunched over a radio, surrounded by a cluster of students listening intently to the news of Kennedy’s shooting. At that time, it was still uncertain as to the president’s condition, but there was great fear that we had lost him.
A time to grieve
We were 21 years old, we had lived under the threat of communism and nuclear war since our toddler days. It was an uneasy world here and abroad. But dealing with the assassination of a much-loved and admired president who had breathed new life into what it meant to be an American — that was something we did not see coming. With the knowledge of Kennedy’s death now certain and amidst enormous shock, Professor Kort informed the class that he could not go on and the class was canceled.
Returning to my fraternity house, I was confronted with the fact that I would be required to make a decision as to the parties scheduled that evening and the next evening. Already, one of the scheduled bands had called from Hartford asking about our plans.
I could not see any reason that a party should proceed that night or the next. I believed it was a time to grieve, not to celebrate. I took steps to cancel both parties. We hung an American flag at half-staff.
Since this all occurred on a Friday, it was not uncommon for several of my fraternity brothers to have begun the weekend celebration a bit early. Shortly before the dinner hour, these guys returned to campus somewhat inebriated and not fully cognizant of what had occurred in Dallas. Alcohol obviously colored their judgment, and fueled their anger once they learned the parties were called off. I don’t recall the exchanges I had with these guys, but words led to more words. In short order, I was involved in fisticuffs with my roommate. It was a moment both of us came to regret, but I held to my position and no parties were held.
Somehow, we managed to get through most of the weekend as every television network broadcast hour after hour of the goings-on in Washington. Just when you thought the events of the weekend were drawing to a close, I returned from Sunday Mass to learn that Jack Ruby had killed Lee Harvey Oswald on national television one hour earlier.
Headed to Washington
As Sunday evening closed in, a couple of us began to talk of going to Washington for the funeral the next day. We eventually persuaded a rather vulnerable freshman, Michael Patrick Brown, to take his car despite its shortcomings. The car had a serious engine problem. . . . The four of us departed at about 9 p.m.
Highways seemed extraordinarily busy and I was convinced that the nation’s people were flocking to Washington to be part of the mourning of the president. We were part of the movement.
Our engine seized up somewhere near Elkton, Maryland, around 3 a.m. A repairman informed us the car could not be repaired. Our only means of transportation was hauled away, leaving us stranded on a state highway in Maryland in the dead of night.
The next 30 minutes represented decision time. Two of our riders elected to turn around and hitchhike back to Connecticut. Fortunately, Mike Brown, young and adventuresome, was willing to join me on this historic trek.
We grabbed a ride with a trucker who was heading into Washington. Something of a redneck, he minced no words about his dislike for Kennedy. I guess we recognized the value of the ride and withheld much talk about our plans. Somehow, he dropped us off in the vicinity of St. Matthew’s Cathedral. So here we were at 6 a.m. — wandering around St. Matthew’s, which was to be the site of the president’s funeral in a matter of hours — with hardly another soul in sight.
As good walkers, we managed to get to the Capitol in less than an hour but quickly realized that we would never get into the Rotunda with thousands still standing in line at 7 a.m.
Shortly after, a moment in history commenced. The riderless horse with the boots reversed to mark the death of the rider, the horse-drawn caisson drawn by six horses, three with riders and three without, Mrs. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy bravely marching, the repetition of the drum beat and so many of us crying as a family.
The procession did not last all that long and then it was over. Onlookers dispersed, but we were left knowing that the world had converged on Washington and we were there.
As a postscript, among the tens of thousands of persons lining the funeral route, we happened to meet up with some other UConn students who made space for us in their van for the return trip to Connecticut. No car, no money, no problem.