He was working on his doctorate in philosophy at the university. I was writing my thesis for my theology degree from the Price Hill seminary. We often met at Frisch’s or the nearby Hitching Post for lunch, just as we did that November 22 in 1963. It was a Friday.
“The president has been shot,” the man in the dark suit with the slicked-back black hair announced as we approached the restaurant door. He only paused to deliver this shocking news and said no further word. I recall the sky was overcast.
I don’t think Jim and I lingered after we ate our usual vegetable soup for this lunch. But I do recall that shortly after lunch we headed for my nearby apartment on Shirley Place to switch on the TV for the news.
That would have been about 1 p.m. President Kennedy would be pronounced dead at 1:30. It wasn’t until 3:30 or so until Vice President Johnson was sworn as president in by a federal judge as our 36th president. That was 51 years ago today. I would guess that just about every American who was older than a first or second-grader recalls where he or she was that day and what he or she was doing.
Jim stayed at my apartment quite a while that afternoon. I’m sure we touched based on the phone with our wives, both working at their jobs. My wife Wanda was an editor at Standard Publishing. I don’t recall where Jim’s wife Betty was working.
TV reception was clear on the old portable black and white. Jim and I watched as Walter Cronkite related live reports from Dallas’s Parkland Memorial Hospital, struggling to hold back the tears. When doctors announced Kennedy was dead, Cronkite paused to collect his thoughts.
At some point that afternoon, Jim left for his apartment. Wanda arrived home from work shortly after. For the next few days, all that weekend, we were glued to the TV, except for church services at Westwood Cheviot Church of Christ where Wanda and I were members.
News related to Kennedy’s assassination dominated everything on TV for days. It was Sunday morning when TV cameras showed us the Dallas jail where the principal suspect Lee Harvey Oswald was to be transferred. Just as Oswald was being led out the back a heavy-set man in a dark suit partially obscured our view of the suspect. Then we heard shots and a moan.
Dallas police quickly grabbed shooter Jack Ruby to the words of the CBS announcer, “Oswald’s been shot, Oswald’s been shot!”
Over the following days, we got to see photographs from Friday of Johnson being sworn in as president, with Jackie Kennedy in her blood-stained pink suit standing nearby. Our TVs showed us the funeral procession, with the riderless horse, a man’s boots in the stirrups backwards, following the coffin on a wagon to the U.S. Capitol Rotunda where an endless stream of mourners lined to pass the president’s body lying in state.
Even before Kennedy’s assassination, the news of the times seemed to nurture rumors of great conspiracies that threatened our way of life. At a men’s church retreat in the mountains of Oklahoma a few years earlier, I heard a retired FBI agent warn that if we weren’t all dead in five years, we’d wish we were. I guess it was the Soviet Communists who were going to make such warnings come true.
But a president’s assassination fueled even more rumors. Assassination buffs soon denounced the Warren Commission’s exhaustive research that concluded Oswald was the lone assassin and was not part of a conspiracy. Anniversary’s such as the 51st today offer yet another occasion to promote an updated version of the old conspiracy.
Problem is, nobody can explain just why these nameless, faceless masterminds behind assassin Oswald would even leave a history-making event to a loner as disturbed as Lee Harvey Oswald. Well, I suppose there’s still money and fame to be made by promoting the so-called great Kennedy conspiracy.
I’ll observe this 51st anniversary by remembering the president’s lively, engaging press conferences, the charm of this most charming First Family, Jackie, daughter Caroline and little John – “John-John.” Indeed, who can forget that little boy holding a salute as his father’s casket is lowered in the grave at Arlington?
Then there was President Kennedy’s speech at the Berlin Wall. There was the Peace Corps. There was his personal story from his Navy days in “PT 109.”
I’m sure I’m not to the only American to associate the Kennedy era, as brief as it was, with the stories of Camelot. In so many ways, it was such a hopeful time. It was such a magical time. After 51 years, I still miss it.