Fifty years later, memories of JFK's death stir emotions for local readers

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Anna Marie Lux
Sunday, November 17, 2013

Roberta Kerr was a junior at Milton High School and was attending band practice.

Charles Socwell was making a delivery to an Indianford restaurant.

Teacher Virginia Anderson was getting ready to give a vocabulary test in English class.

Without hesitating, people of a certain age remember what they were doing Nov. 22, 1963—the day President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas.

The Gazette recently asked readers for memories of the tragedy 50 years ago this Friday. Here is some of what they had to say.

“Our band had a special connection to Kennedy, as it had marched in his inaugural parade in January 1961,” Kerr said. “Senior class members who participated were still in the band.”

After news of Kennedy's shooting reached the school, students played music during band practice, but they were anxious. By the end of the hour, an announcement came that the president was dead.

The tragedy shocked Socwell.

“My legs turned to jelly right there on the spot,” he said.

Since the assassination, Socwell has been to Dealey Plaza and the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas twice.

“It is the most chilling experience I have ever known,” he said. “I've seen people get off the elevator, turn around and get right back on. I've been told some people just slide down the wall, sit on the floor and cry. Since this happened, I have read countless books on the assassination, and nobody will ever convince me that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy.”

At Janesville High School, Anderson recalls Principal Kenneth Bick interrupting class and announcing that the president had been shot.

“For a moment, there was stunned silence in my classroom,” she said. “Then everyone began to talk, voicing shock and disbelief. My own stomach knotted up. I was not particularly a Kennedy supporter, but he was such an intelligent, enthusiastic, charismatic young president with a beautiful wife and young family.”

Anderson wondered how such a tragedy could happen in the United States.

During the weekend, images of the shooting appeared on television, while Anderson tried to get chores done at home.

“Every time I walked by the TV, tears blurred my vision and I accomplished little,” Anderson said. “It was a sad, sad time in our nation's history and extremely emotionally draining for me.”

Dave Wedeward, retired Gazette sports editor, recalls that Nov. 22, 1963, was to be the long-awaited day of the first varsity basketball game in Edgerton High School's new gym. He was home from college and was preparing to cover the event for the Edgerton Reporter.

“Shortly after 12:30 p.m., I called a close friend,” Wedeward said. “His father told me President Kennedy had been shot. My first thought was that JFK probably had been hit in the arm or something. By 1 p.m., Walter Cronkite delivered the sad and astounding reality—President Kennedy had died. For myself, along with the rest of the country, it took hours, even days, to grasp the reality.”

That night's game was postponed as thoughts and prayers of people turned away from sports.

“For many who lived through the era of the early 1960s, regardless of their political preferences, President John F. Kennedy still is never far from their thoughts,” Wedeward said. “He was elected and inaugurated during my senior year of high school, and the ideals and hope he brought to us for the challenging 1960s remain there for all generations.”

Marlene Churchill of Janesville remembers visiting a girlfriend at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind., on the historic day.

“When I got to the dorm there was a very solemn feeling of sadness everywhere,” she said. “Students were gathered in small groups in a daze and talking quietly, much like in a funeral parlor. Everywhere you looked, there were easels with President Kennedy's picture and black cloths draped on them.”

Annabelle Burwitz of Beloit could not answer her 8-year-old son when he started to cry and asked: “Why would someone want to kill our president, Mama?”

“How very sad for our country,” Burwitz said. “Maybe our good ol' United States of America would not be in such a mess if John F. Kennedy had lived.”

Peg Slaback of Janesville said her heart still hurts when she remembers JFK's shooting. She empathized with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

“My family loved and related to the Kennedy family,” she said. “They were young as we were. I could only imagine Jackie's pain.”  

Robert Holden of Janesville met John Kennedy in Milwaukee in April 1960, when he was campaigning for the presidency.

“I was a carrier in the Orfordville Post Office,” he said. “Kennedy submitted my name to Congress for approval as postmaster at Orfordville the day after he was sworn in as president.”

Of the shooting, Holden said: “My wife was so stunned by the news that she stopped smoking that day, never to smoke again.”

Kennedy was the first president that Phyllis Knopes of Janesville ever voted for.

“I grew up at a time when the occupants of the White House were all considered 'old fogies,' and it seemed great to have such a beautiful, young family move in,” she said.

Knopes was a 27-year-old legal secretary, married with two small children, when Kennedy was shot. Her son had an ear infection, and she went to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription.

“When we walked in, there was a small black and white TV on,” she said. “I remember a lot of confusion, and people crying because it had just been announced that the President died.”

Len Griffith of Centerville, Ohio, worked in his children's clothing store in Janesville's Creston Park Shopping Center.

“The Kroger Store in the shopping center had an intercom system, and every store in the center had a ceiling speaker,” he recalls. “Howard Hessel, then manager of the Kroger Store, turned on the radio news. The news report was piped into every store, and everyone in our store stood motionless in disbelief.”

Dennis Schwartz of Brodhead was in seventh-grade literature class at Brodhead Middle School when he heard the news.

“The assassination was the beginning of the end of innocence for me,” he said. “Up until this time in my life, it seemed that there was only good in America, nothing really bad ever happened. It was quickly followed by Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, race riots and Watergate.”

Patricia Shuler worked at the drive-up window of the Merchants & Savings Bank, Janesville, when a customer told her about the shooting. He turned up the volume on his radio so she could hear the news.

“We must have listened for 10 minutes or more,” the Janesville woman said. “Finally, I went back to counting money, and wonders never cease. I balanced. The rest of the day was just a blur. It was as though one of my own family had died.”

Larry Malsch of Delavan was on active duty at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center when his instructor announced the terrible news.

“There was total silence as we left the classroom,” he said. “Everyone was in shock. I came home for the weekend to be with family. I felt the assassination of President Kennedy changed our future, and then the death of his brother Robert was the second dagger.”

Arlen Iverson's brother-in-law was killed in action in Vietnam before Christmas 1969.

Iverson and his wife, Bunny, believe that if President Kennedy had lived, he would not have involved the United States in Vietnam as much as his replacement, President Lyndon Johnson, did.

“Perhaps,” Iverson of Janesville said, "my brother-in-law would still be with us."

This article was revised Nov. 29, 2013, to reflect the following correction:


Robert Holden of Janesville met John F. Kennedy in Milwaukee in April 1960, when he was campaigning for the presidency. The date was incorrect in an earlier version of this article.

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