RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Throughout history, there have been certain dates that conjure up often-horrific images of events that occurred on that particular day.
For the “Greatest Generation,” it was Dec. 7, 1941 — the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For most Americans today, at least those 21 and older, it was Sept. 11, 2001 — the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and elsewhere.
And for “Baby Boomers” and “Greatest Generation” Americans, an equally significant date was Nov. 22, 1963 — the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a motorcade in Dallas.
Though it seems hard to believe, the 50th anniversary of that black day is Friday. It marked the end of what had been referred to as Camelot, and it wouldn’t be the last assassination of a political leader in the 1960s: JFK’s brother, Robert, and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were shot and killed less than five years later.
Asking area residents for their recollection of, say, Nov. 15, 1963, or Nov. 27, 1963, probably wouldn’t generate any responses. But ask them where they were on Nov. 22, 1963, and that’s more than enough to spark memories — and often a remark along the lines of, “Can it have been 50 years?” Yes; on Friday it will have been a half-century ago.
Rio Ranchoan Paul Morton, whose main interests are stamp collecting, plus chess and Bobby Fischer, can never forget where he was when JFK was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald.
Although many Americans remember seeing the televised coverage of the motorcade and events that ensued, he saw all that — and much more — at his job.
“I was a young technician working in the Tucson central offices of American Telephone and Telegraph,” Morton recalled. “AT&T provided network TV feeds to the local TV stations in the Tucson metro area. Our television operating center was normally unmanned,as it basically was a simple feed-through to the local stations; however, I happened to be watching the network feed of the Kennedy motorcade when the shooting occurred.
“I believe that the coverage I witnessed was edited out by most of the local TV stations, as it actually showed the Secret Service and, possibly, the FBI swarming all over Kennedy’s open car to shield the president and Mrs. Kennedy,” Morton said. “As I recall, some of the edited coverage was a bit graphic in nature. Events happened very quickly and the motorcade took off at very high speed, but for a few frames on the TV monitors, I could see the president slumped forward (as I recall) after being shot.
“As a result, I quite vividly remember exactly where I was the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated,” he said. “The follow-up coverage of Kennedy’s death was quite traumatic to me and left me with an empty feeling and the obvious question of ‘Why did this happen?’ A great many Americans also shared my feelings.”
Rio Rancho Stamp Club member Cheryl Bryan, whose club specialties include JFK, remembers the day well, too.
She was in eighth grade in the three-story building that was school for Mapleton’s kids.
“A girlfriend went home to lunch, came back and said, ‘The president’s been shot.’ I said, ‘That’s not funny.’”
But it was true.
“The teachers lived in town and went home and lugged these heavy TVs so we could watch what was going on,” she said. Later, Bryan remembered, “I went home and talked to my dad. I knew the vice president would take over.”
A stamp collector at the age of 7, Bryan later decided to commemorate her admiration for JFK by collecting stamps, cachets and first-day covers dedicated to Kennedy. A display of a small fraction of her JFK philatelic collection was contained within two “frames” at the recent NewMexPex at Meadowlark Senior Center.
“I realized America wasn’t the only place who admired Kennedy,” she said.
She finds it odd that 77 countries have released JFK stamps and that the U.S. hasn’t had a JFK stamp since 1971.
“I was so impressed that these countries were printing a stamp of our president,” she said.
Not every country apparently knew which of the trio of Kennedy brothers was JFK: Bryan wryly noted that one JFK commemorative stamp contained an image of Robert Kennedy instead.
Here’s what other people recall about that fateful day:
Rio Rancho Mayor Tom Swisstack:
I was going to St. John’s Cathedral High School in Paterson, N.J. I was sitting in an English class with Sister Mary Clare when it came across the loudspeaker that President Kennedy had been shot and killed. You actually could hear the silence and some tears. I was a sophomore then.
We had TVs in our rooms — they actually turned on the news. The whole school shut down and we watched TV, (seeing) the news events that led up to it, the misinformation — for almost three hours of that day we were engaged in just watching the media portray what happened.
Centennial author Don Bullis:
I was in Bowling Green, Ohio, attending Bowling Green State University. I was working nights, so I was in bed sleeping (when it happened). I woke up and turned the radio on; the radio was on CKLW in Windsor (Ontario, Canada). The announcer came on with the news, “President Kennedy was shot in Dallas, and we now return to our regular programming.” I changed the station and that’s all that was on the news.
City Councilor Lonnie Clayton:
I remember that like it was yesterday. I was in the Goodyear tire shop in Chesterland, Ohio. They had a small TV out in the waiting room and it came out the president had just been shot.
Former state Rep. and Sen. Pauline Eisenstadt:
I was teaching in high school in Tucson. We found out that it was happening and we had a little TV in the room. The kids were scared — we were all emotionally impacted. He was the president that I admired a great deal and I had high expectations for him. I was teaching history and social studies and it was hard to answer the questions about how this could happen and what was going on. It was an emotional drain. When I got home, my husband (Mel) and I talked; I cried.
Rio Rancho Public Schools Superintendent Sue Cleveland:
It was during math (in an APS middle school) and I remember my teacher saying that, “You are seeing one of the most tragic events in American history unfold right before your very eyes.” We did not have any televisions in the classrooms back then, but we were able to listen to the events on the radio. It was a very emotional and fearful situation for both staff and students. I remember all of the conjecturing about who had done this terrible deed and what were the reasons behind the assassination (White supremacists? Russians? Cubans? Mafia?). APS quickly closed the schools and sent everyone home.
My parents never allowed television during the day, but they made an exception given the historical significance of those events. Somewhere, I have some articles and publications from that day.
A historical note: Prior to that time, President Kennedy had been to Albuquerque for a visit to Sandia National Laboratory and I had the opportunity to see him, courtesy of a friend’s father. Kennedy was also wildly cheered and warmly received in a parade down Central Avenue, if my memory is correct.
Rio Rancho High School Principal Richard Von Ancken:
I was in fourth grade; Miss Dotson was my teacher. We heard about it in P.S. 70 and we got dismissed from school around 2 o’clock, 2:15. I remember being home at about 2:30; my parents had (the TV) on, listening to Walter Cronkite. … My dad owned a business, a grocery store; we lived in the back. A lot of folks coming in and out of the store were talking and commenting about it. I remember seeing a lot of people upset and emotional. I was 9 years old.
RRPS spokeswoman Kim Vesely:
I was in fifth grade at Cloudcroft Elementary. It was noon recess on a sunny, cold day and there was a fair amount of snow on the ground. Our classroom had a door to the outside and I was sitting on the porch beside the open door (it was the warmest place to be) when the classroom loudspeaker came on — the school office was running the live radio broadcast through the speakers about the president being shot. This was pretty stunning news, even to a 9-year-old; my little brother (third-grader) was on the football field playing with his friends and I ran over to break the terrible news. They pelted me with snowballs.
After that, the bell rang and we all sat in the classroom listening to the radio until after it was confirmed that President Kennedy had died. The teacher then let us all go down the hall to the restroom, and I remember many of the little girls in my class were crying.
Interestingly enough, I had seen President Kennedy in person just a few months before. He flew in to Holloman AFB and my parents took us to see him. It was really, really hot — like 100 degrees. We stood along the rope line by the tarmac and he walked down the line shaking hands and greeting. If I had been bolder, I’m sure he’d have shaken my hand, but I was too shy to stick it out.
Rio Rancho Regional Chamber of Commerce President Debbi Moore:
I was in Claremore, Okla., and my dad, a pastor, was at the church. Our house was next to the church and I remember running across the field and over to the church to tell him the president was shot. It had to probably be on the radio because we didn’t have a TV. (And later) I remember listening to the funeral on the radio.
RRRCC vice president of member services Paul Barabe:
I was a senior in high school at St. Pius (in Albuquerque). We broke from class — and went to church; we had Mass in the gym. I still remember one of our classmates going down the hall, saying Kennedy was shot — and nobody believed her. They canceled classes and we watched TV all weekend.
District Judge Louis McDonald:
I was in Cuba (N.M.) Elementary. It was kind of strange; I was only 8 years old at the time. I was walking from the classroom to the library when I heard about it; it was kind of surreal and like a movie. I remember the scenes on TV — that’s all they showed. We only got three or four channels.