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JFK: Our readers share memories of shock, sadness

Sunday, November 17, 2013
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Cynthia Swanson of Niskayuna holds The New York Daily News publication "Four Days" at her home. At left, the Swanson family in the early 1960s. Pictured are Ronald and Cynthia with children Kristin and Thomas.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Cynthia Swanson of Niskayuna holds The New York Daily News publication "Four Days" at her home. At left, the Swanson family in the early 1960s. Pictured are Ronald and Cynthia with children Kristin and Thomas.

Cynthia Swanson was washing storm windows on a warm November day.

Grant Van Patten was on the job at WRGB television, taping a fashion show.

Marcia Davis was at a pep rally at Mohonasen High School.

They remember their actions and reactions on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963 — the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, The Sunday Gazette is printing memoirs from people who will never forget Dallas — and the events that unfolded over that late autumn weekend. The newspaper’s “Kennedy Project” asked readers to send in their stories; the Life & Arts department received 110 submissions.

Stories were dramatic and descriptive. People wrote about an emotional collection night on a paper route, prayers inside St. Joseph’s Church in Schenectady, a reluctant trip to the hospital.

We have published our favorites, editing some for space considerations, and have excerpted other contributions.

The stories include memories — sometimes poignant, sometimes sorrowful, sometimes funny — from a time long past. For some, it’s still a time that seems close enough to reach back and remember names, places and emotions:

‘In a bad dream’

For those of us of a certain age, we certainly do remember exactly where we were and what we were doing on November 22, 1963. I was a young mother with two toddlers: daughter Kristin was 2 1/2, “helping” me wash storm windows outside and putting them in place, and son Tom at 1 1/2 was taking his nap. Kris and I came in to take a break, have some lunch, and watch “Password.”

Turning on TV changed everything in an instant. My husband, Ron, walked in the door about 20 minutes later, a look of incomprehension on his face having heard the same awful news on the car radio. I’m sure I looked the same way — this could not be happening in our country, and to the president of the United States.

With two small children, their world didn’t stop, and we went through the motions of making meals, giving baths, reading stories at bedtime, etc., but it seemed as though we were in a bad dream.

The next evening, we had dinner with another couple at their home, planned long before the 22nd. We felt guilty even going, and the subdued conversation that evening never veered far from the events of the previous day. The next morning, I was making breakfast, and Ron was watching TV when the news of Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder was broadcast. Ron yelled for me to come in the living room and, again, we sat in stunned disbelief at what was happening. There are times when one simply cannot make sense of events, and this was one of those times. I remember thinking that the word ‘assassination’ sounded so archaic and belonging to another era, e.g., Abraham Lincoln or Archduke Ferdinand, but certainly not in 1963 America.

— Cynthia Swanson, Niskayuna

Sticking with the network

I was a TV director at WRGB (now CBS6). We had set up the studio for me to videotape a 15-minute fashion show called “Solomon’s Fashions on Parade” to be played on the air in a few days.

There were TV monitors in my booth as well as in the studio which were showing what was on the NBC TV network. Both the models and I saw the very moment when NBC interrupted their regular programs to announce the breaking news from Dallas. I stopped our fashion taping for 30 minutes so we could absorb what was happening. The final take on the “Fashions on Parade” show was never shown on the air.

Our local programs on WRGB were all canceled for the next four days while we stayed with the NBC network, which included the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. During those days, my job (and the job of the rest of the production staff) was to simply cut away from the network once an hour for five seconds to show our station’s call letters, which was mandated by the FCC.

We ran no programs nor commercials for those four days. This was the one time in my 20-year career as a television director that I have never forgotten the details as to what happened during four days in a row on my job.

— Grant Van Patten, Saratoga Springs

Mistaken identity

In November of 1963, I had been elected vice president of the seventh grade by my classmates at Saint Michael’s parochial school in Cohoes. This provided me the privilege of collecting the daily attendance list from Sister Alexandria’s desk and carrying it to the principal’s office, giving me five full minutes of freedom and a smile and a nod from Sister Flavian, who otherwise was as stern as they come.

In the middle of a history lesson, our classroom door burst open and Sister Mary Frances, the fifth-grade teacher, rushed into the room, the loose black skirt of her habit trailing behind her. “Our president has been shot!”

I thought, “Who would shoot the president of the fifth grade?” At that age, this was the extent of my sensibility and experience — my mind couldn’t make the connection that it was even possible for our president to have been struck by a bullet. When I arrived home from school, I saw my mother, an immigrant from Poland who had lived through the horrors of World War II, weeping over the framed color photograph of JFK that she had clipped from the newspaper and kept hung in the hallway. I started to realize the extent of what had happened.

— Emil Jarczynski, Scotia

‘Crying was infectious’

It was a typical Friday for a fifth-grader at St. Patrick’s School in Watervliet. I was a few weeks short of my 10th birthday. Sister Mary Charles was teaching when the principal, Sister Mary Rosalie, entered the classroom.

She had the most somber look on her face. She announced that President Kennedy has been shot and instructed us to pray. We prayed for about 15 minutes then resumed class. After 15 more minutes, Sr. Rosalie returned crying. She said that President Kennedy had died.

We were all shocked. After a short prayer, we were sent home. I got my younger sister and we walked the six blocks home. When we arrived, we found our mother on the couch glued to the black and white TV, tears streaming out of her eyes. I went over to her and put my arms around her, holding her tight. The crying was infectious and I began to cry. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

— Nick Bomba, Glenville

Collection of tears

At the time President Kennedy was assassinated, I was 12 years old riding home on the school bus. The bus driver had told us at about 2:15 p.m. that the president was dead. I was shocked and thought something more was going to happen to our country.

It was a Friday and I worked as a paper boy for the Union Star evening newspaper. I had about 80 customers and it was a day to collect payment for the week. The papers usually arrived at my stop about 3:30 p.m. That day they stopped the paper to change the headlines, so that made the paper arrive about 7 p.m.

As I rang the doorbells of my customers to collect, I could see women on their knees crying in front of their television. What an emotional night for me.

That week our television was not working, so we went to my grandmother’s for the days following the assassination to watch the funeral. At that time it was a black and white television set.

I will always remember, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

— Larry Dalessandris, Schenectady

The wedding goes on

It was a day I will never forget. I was 19 years old at that time. My sister Marie was to be married the next day. My mom, sister and I were at Rita’s Beauty Shop on Saratoga Avenue in Mechanicville to have our hair done for the wedding.

The radio was on and the news of Kennedy being shot sent shock waves through the salon. Tears started to flow and “Oh my Gods” were heard throughout the beauty salon.

Someone muttered to my sister, “Maybe you should call off the wedding.”

Needless to say, the wedding still occurred the very next day. It was raining and cold the day of the wedding and the topic of conversation was all about Kennedy’s assassination.

On a brighter note, my sister and her husband will be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary on November 23rd.

— Bernadette Steele, Charlton

Amazing announcement

As a high school junior, not only do I know where I was and what I was doing, I know the same about maybe 1,000 other young people. We were all assembled in the Mohonasen High School gymnasium for the kickoff of winter sports pep rally.

We were enjoying skits and silliness, cheering the teams, introducing players and coaches when senior Hugo Bach, emceeing the rally, made the unbelievable announcement. Isn’t it amazing that a student would be given the task? For a brief second, we waited for the punch line of the gag, but quickly realized the severity and the gravity of the news that our president had indeed been shot.

We managed to get home from school and all of us embarked on a new experience — sad and terrifying events played out live on TV in a way we had never seen before. With an unprecedented suspension of commercial television, thus began days of watching from the hospital to the courthouse, to the president’s plane and eventually to Arlington Cemetery. We saw and felt it all.

— Marcia Davis, Scotia

Prayer for the president

The morning of November 22nd started like many other work days, catching the bus to go to my job in family court. That afternoon proved to be not like any other.

Shortly after lunch, one of the Probation Officers appeared in my office. Known for his wit and funny stories, he started with “Did you hear our president has been shot?” Thinking it was a joke, I quickly said that it was not funny to joke about things like that.

When I looked up and saw his face, I then knew he was not kidding. A feeling of disbelief and fear gripped me. Shortly after, we received a call to close the office and go directly home.

Walking down State Street to get the bus, people were flocking into St. Joseph’s Church; all had the same look of bewilderment. I too stopped in to say a prayer. It was eerily quiet. On the bus, the talk was of the shooting. Everyone had the same questions, who did this and why, but we had no other information yet. It may be hard for some people to believe, there were no cellphones, tablets or laptops.

Arriving home, my mother had her biggest pots and pans (which were used on holidays and when there was a death in the family) on the stove. Our house was already filled with neighbors as we were fortunate to have that old Philco TV.

It was then that the reality of what had happened set in. It was a sad day for America, the American people and the world. For those of us who witnessed first-hand the events of that tragic day and the days that followed, the memories will always stay embedded in our minds and our hearts.

— Lucy Freudigman, Glenville

‘No one believed me’

On Friday, Nov. 22, I received my normal payroll check. When I opened it, I almost fell over. The check was in the amount of $60,000. No one had made that kind of money back then, let alone now. Remember, it was 1963. I proceeded to the payroll department to inquire about the amount of the check.

While in the office, I was surprised that everyone was running around like in a frenzy, saying President Kennedy was shot. I left the payroll department shortly and began telling the workers on the factory floor. One fellow said, “You’re nuts,” another said, “You’re crazy” and a third told me I had too much to drink the night before. No one believed me.

After a short time, management started coming on the floor to validate the news. There were a lot of apologies said to me. That made me feel better. As for the $60,000 check, it was cleared up on Monday. However, it was a Friday I’ll never forget.

— Giuliano Isopo, Glenville

Nine rings

I was a student at Emerson College in Boston, studying radio and television broadcasting. My friend Bob and I were sitting in an English class next to our college station newsroom. We had just learned the difference between a bulletin and flash, and their different bell rings.

When the wire service machine started sounding its bell, Bob and I started counting the rings. When it rang the ninth time, we knew it was a flash and something major in the world had just happened. We both raced to the newsroom and Bob got the flash saying that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. I grabbed a station tape recorder and headed out to Beacon Street in Boston. As I started out, the second flash came from UPI that President Kennedy was dead.

Beacon Street in Boston was very quiet. Cars were parked everywhere on the street, with every driver just listening to their car radios. People were crying, both in their cars and on the streets as well. I walked a few blocks and it was the same everywhere in a normally very busy Boston. Classes were canceled for the next week and everyone sent home. That’s how my day, Nov. 22, 1963, was.

— David Long, Malta

Unlucky break

I was in 10th grade in Beacon High School in Beacon, New York. The dental hygienist called our math teacher to the door and began whispering to him. The bell rang and we went to our last period class. I had French. They announced it on the loudspeaker near the end of the period. Our gym teacher insisted that we still had our volleyball intramurals after school, so I went and played. In the course of the game, I think I broke my finger.

I went home and my father, who was a big John Kennedy fan, was glued to our one TV set watching all the news of the assassination. At this point, I really knew my finger was broken and he would have to take me to the emergency room.

This is before VCRs and my mother did not drive. I remember standing in the doorway to our living room saying “Daddy, I really think my finger is broken and we have to go to the hospital.” It was another time obviously and, although my father was a wonderful father, he did not want to leave the TV. He got up and said to me, “You better hope that it is broken!” He took me to the hospital emergency room and fortunately I had broken my finger in the volleyball game!

— Christine Sutphin, Clifton Park

Broken note

Fifty years ago this November, I was a 25-year-old surgical resident at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., with one 2-year-old and a nine-month pregnant wife. That afternoon everything stopped when the news of the assassination came. People were openly and silently weeping. But as the afternoon waned, life resumed at the hospital. The mundane and heroic things we did on a daily basis began again.

Three days later after a Mass at St. Matthew’s for the president, the caisson was directed to Arlington Cemetery. Our small apartment was in Rosslyn, near the cemetery. This was a historic moment for our country, and we were determined to be there. We walked with throngs of other people to the cemetery. There was a nice spot on the hill where we could watch the procession come over the Memorial Bridge. Washington was strangely silent. The caisson with JFK’s body was preceded by the clip-clop of horses and a riderless horse in the lead. A group of F4 fighter planes flew overhead in the “Missing Man” formation, and then Kennedy’s Air Force One, a huge Boeing 707, flew over and dipped its wing in a tribute to JFK.

The thing I remember most was “Taps.” As a trumpet player myself, I realized how difficult it would be to play. Emotions were high. The bugler had played “Taps” a thousand times before, but when he played the G in the call, the poor man cracked. Musicians call it a clam. I’ll never forget it. In the New York Times, Rich Goldstein wrote, “The ‘broken note’ was the perfect embodiment of our sorrow.”

— Dr. John Spring, Glenville

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at wilkin@dailygazette.com. Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or at bbuell@dailygazette.com.

 
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