Where were you when Kennedy was shot?
In 1963 I was too young to vote but old enough to remember the events of Nov. 22, 1963.
That Friday was one of those days most Americans — and surviving Baby Boomers — knew where they were at the time they heard of President Kennedy’s death.
Politics for a young sixth-grader growing up in Reno did not fuel everyday fodder like it did for our parents or news reporter; however, I also remember my peers at the time were a little more cognizant with the current events of the time. Three years prior to the president’s untimely death in Dallas, Students in my third grade class in Reno picking sides in the presidential election. The class overwhelmingly supported Richard Nixon, no doubt mirroring their parents’ preferences. On the other hand, several of us said Kennedy was a better choice even though we didn’t know what we were saying … just more rhetoric channeled from parents to their children.
In 1960, Nevada was a very blue state with a strong Democrat power base: governor (Grant Sawyer), two senators (Paul Bible of Fallon and Howard Cannon) and the lone congressman (Walter S. Baring). Kennedy and his running mate, Lyndon Baines Johnson, won with a little more than 2,500 votes or 51 percent. The Kennedy fascination captured many of the young boys at the time. Kennedy’s book, “Profiles in Courage,” was also an interesting book for young boys, and episodes of his portrayals appeared weekly on one of the network television channels. Both the book and movie of the same name, “P.T. 109,” presented an account of when a Japanese destroyer rammed into the torpedo patrol boat, slicing it in half. The story told of Kennedy’s heroism of saving his crew and leading his men on a long swim to an island in the Pacific. Eventually, Kennedy and his men are rescued.
More than a year before the assassination, Americans glued themselves to network news reports and newspapers during the Cuban Missile Crisis, wondering if the next step in the chess game between Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev would cause World War III.
The first three years of the presidency, no doubt, gave people a better insight into Kennedy and his own background.
That brings me to Nov. 22.
It was a Friday, just like today’s 50th anniversary occurring on the same day of the week. The day was uneventful unless you were one of the students who incurred the wrath of our teacher, Russell Rhodig, who had a penchant for assigning dictionary words, a task that required the perpetrator to copy down the entire definition including the different parts of the speech for which the word could be used.
Sixth graders lined up for lunch first, followed by the other classes. On that Friday at about 11:30 a.m. Reno time, we lined up as usual, waiting for the lunch lady to serve us our food. Shortly afterward, our principal made an announcement, telling the entire school that President Kennedy had been shot and died in a Dallas hospital. The mood grew silent, almost eerie. Some students took their food to one of the tables, others bolted out of line, knelt and began crying.
All of us were in shock, and I remember our teacher coming to our part of the cafeteria and sitting with us.
Once we finished eating our lunch, students returned to class, and we heard the radio news announcements being replayed over the speaker until we were bussed home. Most students were transported to Brown School, which was located south of Reno near the Virginia City highway, Several times during the afternoon, news accounts replayed Walter Cronkite’s famous announcement that JFK had been shot.
More parents than usual picked their children up that afternoon. My mother, who looked as though she had been crying for hours, also drove to the school to take me home.
The remainder of Nov. 22 and then the next three days became history in the making. News programs showed photos of Johnson taking the oath of office, while other photos showed the Kennedys in Dallas earlier that day. News commentators discussed the day’s events, some of them visibly shaken. Stories resurfaced about Kennedy’s life from his military service to his days as a Massachusetts’ senator. On Sunday, Nov. 24, my parents and I saw more events unfold in the basement of the Dallas Police headquarters when Jack Ruby, a Dallas strip-club owner, walked up to Lee Harvey Oswald — the assassin who not only killed the president but also a Dallas police officer — and shot the 24-year-old former serviceman in the stomach with a .38 caliber hand gun. Within hours Oswald coincidentally died in the same hospital where the president passed away.
I don’t think too many Americans veered away from their television sets on Monday, Nov. 25, during Kennedy’s funeral procession, which was very somber, very emotional. The scene of a caisson slowly moving the casket on a Washington street was moving. A view of a young John Jr. saluting his father’s casket also gripped viewers.
For those of us who watched these events 50 years ago, the JFK assassination is one ugly chapter in our country’s history that we hope never repeats itself.
Steve Ranson is editor of the LVN.