Local residents recall hearing the horrific news

Posted: November 22, 2013

The Winchester Star

Dot Royston, now 72, was sitting in her car in front of the old Tastee Freez restaurant in Berryville when WINC-TV interrupted its programming with the news of the assassination.
Sandy Sowada, now 65, of Berryville, was between classes at her junior high in northeast Colorado, when her boyfriend came up to her in the hall and grabbed her by the arm. “He said, ‘I just heard the president was shot and is dead.
Charlotte Eller of Winchester already had good reason to remember Nov. 22. It was her birthday and, on that day in 1963 she was marking a milestone: She was turning 21.
The Winchester Evening Star EXTRA front page from Nov. 22, 1963, shows the news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the swearing in of Lyndon B. Johnson as the new president of the United States.
Clarke County Zoning Administrator Jesse Russell holds his copies of the Feb. 21, 1964, Life magazine and Dec. 14, 1963, Saturday Evening Post, featuring Kennedy assassin and John F. Kennedy, respectively. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)
The Dec. 14, 1963, Saturday Evening Post and Feb. 21, 1964, Life magazine. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — At about 1 p.m. on Nov. 22, 1963, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 46, the first Roman Catholic and the youngest man ever elected president of the United States, was murdered in Dallas.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination by Lee Harvey Oswald.

Since that fateful day, those who were old enough always seem to be able to recall where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

Dot Royston, 72, was sitting in her car in front of the old Tastee Freez restaurant in Berryville that Friday when local station WINC interrupted its programming with the announcement.

“I started crying,” Royston said. “That sense of loss. It was a devastating feeling to know that could happen in our country.”

The Winchester Evening Star, then an afternoon paper, put out an extra edition that day.

The banner headline across the top of the front page told the story: “President John Kennedy Is Assassinated By Sniper in Downtown Dallas Motorcade.”

For many people, the moment became very immediate thanks to the spread of that new technology, television.

Dallas businessman Abraham Zapruder was filming the motorcade — originally intended for his personal use — with an 8mm home-movie camera, which captured for all the world to see in graphic detail the precise moment that the president was struck down.

Kennedy was riding in the rear of an open convertible with the first lady, Jackie Kennedy, just 34 at the time.

Riding in the same car with the Kennedys were Texas Gov. John Connally — who was also struck by one of the three bullets fired by Oswald — and his wife, Nellie.

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, a former Texas senator, was in a closed car two vehicles behind the president.

“It was a watershed moment,” said Sandy Sowada, 65, of Berryville. She was between classes at her junior high in northeast Colorado, when her boyfriend came up to her in the hall and grabbed her by the arm.

“He said, ‘I just heard the president was shot and is dead.’

“I leaned against the wall and saw the whole world going black. None of us had ever had a president die in office, and not only die but be assassinated.”

Television took Sowada to the center of a national calamity. All three networks — CBS, NBC and ABC — focused their programming almost exclusively on Kennedy’s death and its aftermath.

“It was the end of Camelot,” Sowada recalled, alluding to a term coined by Mrs. Kennedy after her husband’s death referring to the potential and promise for the future many believed the young couple exemplified.

After Kennedy’s death, Sowada explained, her generation no longer believed that good would necessarily conquer evil.

“We looked at that in a different way,” she said. “For my generation, it was a turning point.”

Kennedy was midway through a three-day “speaking tour” through Texas when he was shot, the Evening Star reported. In essence, it was a campaign trip ahead of the 1964 election.

Kennedy’s motorcade was to deliver him to a luncheon address when it made the slow turn into Dealey Plaza, in front of the seven-story Texas School Book Depository building.

Many still remember the images of Mrs. Kennedy, in her pink suit, crawling across the rear of the limousine and Secret Service agent Clint Hill leaping onto the rear bumper, and into the convertible, to throw himself across the president’s body.

Charlotte Eller of Winchester already had good reason to remember Nov. 22. It was her birthday, and on that date in 1963 she turned 21.

On a “working” scholarship to Seton Hill College — an all-girls Catholic school — she put in hours doing jobs around the campus to fulfill its requirements. On Nov. 22, 1963, she was assigned to the reception desk at the Main Building.

She first knew something was wrong when she saw students going past, in tears. Some were running but all were crying.

“They wouldn’t stop to tell me what was going on,” Eller noted, and she couldn’t leave her post to find out.

It wasn’t until her replacement arrived that she learned of the president’s death.

Her English class was scheduled to take a test on Chaucer and she went there, expecting that it would be canceled, because of the news.

“We were all in tears,” she said. But, Sister Aloysia told the young women, “This is a great tragedy, but life must go on,” and so did the test.

So many did so poorly on the test that the head of the English Department later persuaded Sister Aloysia to drop the scores from her grading.

Eller said she doesn’t remember the test or her grade. In fact, “the rest of the day is a blur,” spent in front of the television and hanging on the words of CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite.

The images from the screen, of Parkland Hospital and Mrs. Kennedy, “I remember those as if it was yesterday.”

Acting presidential press secretary Malcolm Kilduff gave the news to a waiting world that President Kennedy had died of a gunshot wound to the brain at about 1 p.m. (CST), The Evening Star reported.

Vice President Johnson and his wife left the hospital about 30 minutes later and went to the president’s plane, Air Force One, where he took the oath of office.

The Associated Press story reported that U.S. District Court Judge Sarah T. Hughes, of Dallas, administered the oath as Johnson stood between his wife and Mrs. Kennedy, still in the pink suit stained with her husband’s blood. AP noted that Hughes was the first woman to swear in a U.S. president.

Johnson’s first order, as president, was, “Now, let’s get airborne,” as the plane carried Kennedy’s body back to Washington.

U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th, told the Weider History Group this summer that he was working at the National Canners Association at 20th and K streets in Washington when he learned of Kennedy’s death.

“We were all in shock when Walter Cronkite said the president had died. I called my wife, Carolyn, who was working at what was then called the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. We walked together over to the White House, where it was like a vigil. It was getting dark and I remember seeing a helicopter landing. We thought it must be the Kennedys returning, but it was actually the new president, Lyndon Johnson.”

Mrs. Kennedy planned her husband’s funeral, covered by television nonstop.

It had been 62 years since President William McKinley died on Sept. 14, 1901, eight days after he was shot at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y.

McKinley, a Civil War veteran, had served with Gen. Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864.

Kennedy’s body lay in state in the East Room of the White House on Saturday. He was moved to the Capitol on Sunday, before the funeral service on Monday.

Wolf remembered his parents coming to Washington from Philadelphia for the funeral ceremonies.

“As we stood in a massive crowd on Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue, we heard that Lee Harvey Oswald had been shot.”

Oswald became the focus of a Dallas manhunt shortly after the president was shot.

The Evening Star reported that “a trail of strange circumstances led authorities to bear down on Oswald as the prime suspect in the killing.”

Witnesses reported seeing a man with a gun in a sixth-floor window of the book depository. The first police into the building actually saw Oswald, but did not suspect him because he was identified by a supervisor as an employee.

But, after a “sniper’s nest” of boxes and a rifle were found, Oswald was the only employee who fled the building and disappeared.

About 45 minutes later, a police officer stopped Oswald, near his apartment, and was shot to death.

Witnesses to that crime pointed police to a nearby movie theater where Oswald was arrested.

The Evening Star was able to headline Oswald’s denial of responsibility for the president’s death on Saturday.

But on Monday, news of Kennedy’s funeral shared the front page with shocking photographs.

In two pictures taken by different Dallas newspapers Sunday night, readers were shown the moment when Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner, pointed a pistol and fatally shot Oswald as he was being transported from City Hall to the Dallas County Jail. The murder was also witnessed by many on live television.

Now, Wolf recalled, “The nation was in a complete state of shock.”

Frederick County resident Rhonda Sargent was only 5 years old when her mother brought her into the house to watch the televised coverage of Kennedy’s assassination.

“She came outside and got me and told me I needed to watch this. That it was historic. I remember it almost like it was yesterday.”

It was, Sargent said, “the same sort of effect as 9/11: the horror and shock and disbelief.”

Sargent said her mother liked to read, and after her mother’s death, she found a Look magazine issue with coverage of the assassination. She still has it.

Kennedy was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, where an eternal flame marks his grave. His presidency is now the stuff of history, and American government classes.

Handley High School’s George Glossner just finished teaching a week on the 35th president.

“We tend to focus on his goals and what he tried to achieve with his New Frontier,” Glossner said.

Those goals, he said, included stimulating the economy, waging a “war on poverty,” advancing civil rights for black Americans and putting a man on the moon.

Glossner’s class also reviews Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis and the Berlin Wall.

“I don’t think these kids are as awestruck with the Kennedys as a lot of my generation was,” he added.

And, he said, Kennedy’s roughly 1,000 days in office meant that he didn’t have time to finish a lot of his program, though much of it was completed by his successor.

“We tend to give JFK the credit for things done by Johnson,” he said.

Glossner, who grew up during the Vietnam War, said he’s not a fan of JFK.

“I’m critical of the fact that he sent in more soldiers,” he said, even though the president knew the war was unwinable.

Glossner said he believes that Kennedy “would have taken us in a different direction” if he had lived and won re-election in 1964, but he criticizes the president for not having the courage to get America out of that war immediately.

“Good leaders tackle tough decisions,” he said.

Others reflect on Kennedy in a less critical light.

In 1963, Kitty Henry’s daughter, just 2 weeks old, had colic and she had taken her to see Dr. Thomas Iden in Berryville. The news came over the radio, which was being piped into his office.

“It came over the intercom,” said Henry, who recalls being shocked.

“He is my favorite president because he did so much for the country.”

Lifelong Boyce resident and former council member Melvina “Billie” Hott agrees.

“He was probably my favorite president,” she said, adding that he was “a genuinely nice person. He had the good of the country at heart. I wish the people we have in there now did.”

— Contact Val Van Meter at vvanmeter@winchesterstar.com