It was the middle of the afternoon on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. One can imagine the students at East Washington Grade School, on the corner of North Wade Avenue and East Beau Street, were getting antsy, with a weekend of freedom in grasp and then a short week following that, due to Thanksgiving arriving the next Thursday.
A woman on the school’s maintenance staff walked into the classroom of Florence Rice, a fifth-grade teacher, and uttered a stunning piece of news that was overheard by some of the children at their desks.
“Kennedy’s been shot.”
“Miss Rice didn’t know what to do,” remembers Cary Jones, a Washington attorney who was one of the students in that classroom. “She left and went into the hall to talk to some of the other teachers.”
Though Jones doesn’t remember if they knew yet whether President John F. Kennedy had been killed while riding in a motorcade one time zone and 1,200 miles away in Dallas, some students started crying and Rice asked them to pray. Once Jones got to his East Chestnut Street home, his father was trying to fix a television that had gone on the blink in order to try to get more information.
Kennedy’s assassination, 50 years ago this Friday, remains an etched-in-the-brain “flashbulb” moment, like the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Everyone who was alive and cognizant recalls vividly where and how they heard about it, though the ranks of those who do remember it is, with the passage of time, dwindling – if you were in primary school then, you are now teetering on the verge of retirement.
And though Kennedy was the eighth president to die in office and the fourth to be assassinated, he was the first chief executive whose life was cut short in the age of television and radio, where news of the gunshots in Dealey Plaza could spread to millions of people within minutes of it occurring. Kennedy was also a president tailor-made for TV, with his youthful, handsome looks and cool wit. Although Americans voted for Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower in larger numbers than they did for Kennedy, it’s fair to say that they never felt the sense of intimacy with Roosevelt or Eisenhower that they did with the slain president.
On that cloudy November afternoon, with the temperature hovering around 60 degrees, workers in shops and offices around the Washington County Courthouse scrambled to find television sets where they could watch the stream of bulletins from Dallas. There was some confusion, as one television network was saying that Kennedy had died, while another reported that efforts were continuing to save his life.
A Main Street crowd “was caught between grief and indecision,” The Washington Observer reported the next day. “Some stood fast ... stony-faced with the news from Dallas. One woman dabbed at her eyes.” A city policeman asked one of the newspaper’s reporters if it was indeed true that the president had died.
“There were no smiles on Main Street in Washington Friday afternoon. Only the crying of (a) little girl, and even the traffic moved slowly – like a funeral procession.”
The Washington Reporter, the city’s afternoon paper, was able to make over its front page in order to accommodate the news. Once the newspapers hit the streets and front porches around 4 p.m., they carried the banner headline “President Kennedy Is Assassinated in Dallas,” accompanied by a United Press International story that continued on an inside page. There must not have been time to change other parts of that day’s edition, however – an editorial on an inside page referred to Kennedy in the present tense.
To the south, in Waynesburg, a transistor radio in the Greene County commissioners’ office was switched on, even as a state official was giving a presentation on reducing the number of distribution points for surplus food. “But he might as well have been talking to himself,” the Observer reported. “All attention was riveted on the little box as it first gave out a statement that the president was dead, then more hopeful news that he was living and in the emergency room.
“As the official word came that was indeed dead, secretaries received the word in stunned disbelief.”
Flags were lowered to half-staff, church bells began pealing and parishioners began streaming into St. Ann Roman Catholic Church to mourn. Surjit Singh, a professor of chemistry at Waynesburg College, who, the newspaper noted, was possessed of “the placid, contemplative attitude of the Eastern peoples,” told the Observer’s Waynesburg correspondent that Kennedy had “done the most to stem the surge of communism throughout the world.”
Despite his popularity abroad, Kennedy had not always been popular in Washington and Greene counties in the three years between his election and his assassination. Both counties were Democratic strongholds in those days, and Kennedy managed to carry both of them in his whisker-thin triumph over Republican opponent Richard Nixon in 1960. But both the Observer and the Reporter editorialized against Kennedy before his election and during the two years and 10 months he was in the White House. The 2011 book, “The Religious Factor in the 1960 Presidential Election: An Analysis of the Kennedy Victory over Anti-Catholic Prejudice” by Albert J. Menendez, points out that “anti-Kennedy voting was widespread in Pennsylvania” thanks to his being Catholic, with it being most pronounced in the southern and central parts of the commonwealth thanks to the heavy preponderance of Lutherans, German Protestants and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians in the region. For example, Nixon won Franklin Township in Greene County in 1960, the first time a Republican presidential candidate had ever carried the community.
Kennedy stopped in Washington on a campaign swing through Pennsylvania in October 1962, speaking outside the Washington County Courthouse. Some protesters were there as he appeared with Gov. David Lawrence, one carrying a sign that said, “Jobs Not Jibes,” while another simply stated “Talk, Talk, Talk, Talk, Talk.”
Jones stood outside with his family to see Kennedy’s motorcade pass by when the president was in Washington, and is sure many of his classmates did the same.
“All of us at the grade school lived within walking distance of East Beau Street, and I have no doubt that all of us were present somewhere along the motorcade route when (Kennedy) visited Washington,” Jones recalled. “I can’t say what went through the mind of every 10-year-old in the classroom when he or she heard the news that the president had been shot, but aside from the raw shock and fear and grief for those who were experiencing death for the first time, there had to have been the memory of seeing him the previous year.”
Santa Claus had been due to parachute into Washington at the county airport on Saturday, but it was canceled, as were scores of other events in the two counties. The Washington County Courthouse closed its doors and would not reopen them until the following Wednesday. A Saturday Knights of Columbus meeting at Immaculate Conception Church was pushed back to Dec. 1, 1963, and a dance at the Washington branch of the YMCA was called off, as was a meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution at the Fort Jackson Hotel in Waynesburg and a dance at Waynesburg’s Elks club. The blessing of a new organ at St. Hugh Roman Catholic Church in Carmichaels was followed by a service honoring Kennedy’s memory, and it included renditions of “Ave Maria” and “Come Holy Ghost.”
On Sunday, “churches reported extraordinarily large attendance at services,” and Waynesburg College had a memorial program in its gym. With Kennedy’s televised funeral looming on Monday, classes were called off at Washington & Jefferson College, and Washington municipal offices were closed and the city council meeting postponed.
Life did go on, though. Movie theaters in the area remained open, and among their offerings were “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Wives and Lovers,” “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die,” Burt Lancaster in “The Leopard” and Brigitte Bardot in “Please, Not Now!” Louis Armstrong was scheduled to appear at Bethel Park High School on Monday, and a man hit a stray cow that wandered into a road outside Waynesburg on Sunday. The driver escaped uninjured, but the cow was killed and the car ended up with $225 in damage, about $1,700 in today’s dollars.
On Monday, all attention was focused on Kennedy’s funeral and its images of the riderless horse, Kennedy’s young son, John, saluting his father’s casket and Kennedy’s interment at Arlington National Cemetery at about 3:30 p.m., ending a long, solemn ceremony and a painful four days in the nation’s history. Almost all businesses were shuttered in downtown Washington, as people stayed behind closed doors and watched the funeral on television or listened to it on the radio.
The Reporter wrapped up its coverage of Kennedy’s killing on Tuesday by editorializing that “we have and will survive wars and other catastrophes over which we often have little or no control.”
Then, it continued, “But we cannot survive, and the world cannot survive, any substantial trend toward decision by violence or judgment by bullets.”