Guest column/Memories of JFK are still alive

On Nov. 22, 1963, I was a fourth-grader at North Hills School in Marietta. It was my first week back to school following hospitalization for appendicitis and it had been a busy week making up school work. My class was taught in the morning by a part-time teacher, and the afternoon was taught by the school principal for our small elementary school. About 2 p.m. there was a knock at the classroom door, and it was my assignment to answer the door as I sat in the last desk in the room since I was always the tallest kid in the class. The school secretary was at the door, and in a broken, weak voice she asked to speak to Miss Zimmer. She walked out into the hallway to speak to the secretary, leaving the door partially open, so therefore I could hear parts of the conversation.

“The central office just called” … “shot” were the only words that I could hear. In 1963, the only communication that existed in a school was the telephone, and the only one was located in the school office. Miss Zimmer returned to the front of the classroom looking rattled, but continued with the history assignment and said that she would be reviewing our homework assignments. At 2:45 p.m., she excused herself and again went out the door to the office, which was located next door, and then her voice came over the school public address system to state that the central office had called to tell us that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas, at 1 p.m, and he was dead. She suggested that we monitor the local radio as the superintendent said that school may be canceled the next week before Thanksgiving. She returned to our classroom and said not to worry about our homework for the weekend; we would deal with it upon the return to school. (Which turned out to be a week later after Thanksgiving)

The dismissal bell rang at 3 p.m., and everyone quietly exited the school building. The custodian sat quietly crying in the corner of the lobby as we left, and teachers stood motionless with shocked looks on their faces. I walked home, and entered the back door, where my mother was usually doing something related to dinner preparation. Instead, there was no one in the kitchen until mom came rushing into the room upon hearing the door close. She asked if the school had told us anything, and I said yes, that President Kennedy was dead. She told me to come into the living room as she and grandma were watching TV.

President Kennedy was different to a fourth-grader in 1963. The earlier presidents we studied all seemed like grandfather figures to us, but Kennedy and his family seemed more like our dads and he even had a kid about our age. Caroline Kennedy had been featured in My Weekly Reader and Miss Zimmer had even made a bulletin board about her. (It stayed up for weeks after the assassination.) My mother had purchased a portrait of President Kennedy which she placed on the dining room wall, and she made us all watch the television special in 1962 called “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy.” My parents identified with the Kennedys as they were the same age. My mother always respected all American presidents, and called them “President Eisenhower” or whatever their name might be, in contrast to today’s lack of respect to our national leaders.

Dinner the night of Nov. 22 was a bit haphazard, as odds and ends were placed on the kitchen table, and everyone was told to “get a TV table” and come to the living room. We all sat silently before the black-and-white TV screen soaking in every bit of news coverage. My father and grandmother would exit to the dining room to check the radio coverage to listen if they had anything different. Our neighbors across the alley brought a Parkersburg newspaper over that they had purchased for us in the late evening, as the Marietta newspaper had already been to press when the assassination took place.

Only my 3-year-old brother seemed out of the loop with the situation – he wanted people to play with him and couldn’t understand people’s disinterest in games. On Saturday, the eating-in-front-of-the-TV continued. Dad and I went downtown so he could buy newspapers, which were stacked high at the newsstand. He observed that many Putnam Street stores were closed and traffic seemed slim compared to a typical Saturday. At home, the phone rang several times during the day as relatives called just to talk. The evening news on TV was brief, and a general statement was that meetings and gatherings had generally been canceled for the weekend.

The next few days were a blur as we watched all of the funeral events in Washington, D.C., and learned about the sights and sounds of the funeral events. The procession to Arlington National Cemetery seemed to take forever, and my single recollection was the presence of Gen. Charles DeGaulle of France being present in the midst of the dignitaries as we had just learned about him in school.

The restarting of school brought some normalcy back, and eventually the face of my parents returned to what I had come to enjoy. The portrait of JFK remained on the dining room wall until I closed their estate in 2005.

In 1965, I was part of the sixth-grade field trip to Washington, which consisted of a 20-car train that took all of the sixth-graders from Washington County, Ohio, and Wood County, W.Va., to D.C. for a one-day whirlwind tour of the capital city. Upon returning home, mom wanted to hear all about the trip, especially the visit to Arlington Cemetery. I told her that there was a very long line to visit the Kennedy grave, and I described the scene to the best of my ability.

On later trips to D.C., I visited Arlington and saw the “new” Kennedy gravesite and was taken by a comment made by a National Park Service staffer. I asked if there was another way to the front gates without passing through the crowds that still visit the Kennedy gravesite, and he said, “Yes, take the walkway to the left past the grave that was most popular until 1963.” He wouldn’t tell me who, but as I walked I could see a large marker surrounded by trees. It was Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s only child to live into adulthood. Will JFK ever suffer the same fate?

(Hall, a resident of Steubenville, is director of the Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County.)