Remembering November 22, 1963 and the assassination of John F. Kennedy

November 22, 2020 – West Bend, WI – November 22 is the 57th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy.

U.S. Senator, president-kennedy

The 35th President of the United States was assassinated in 1963 while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.

On a history note, Kennedy campaigned in West Bend while he was seeking the democratic nomination for President of the United States.

The Research Center at the Washington County Historical Society provided a photo of Kennedy’s visit to West Bend on February 17, 1960, when he was a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. The picture shows Kennedy walking north on Main Street with Thomas F. O’Meara Jr. on his right. Former West Bend alderman Tom O’Meara III said his father was head of the Washington County Democratic Party in the 1960s and was the one responsible for bringing Kennedy to town.

Remembering November 22, 1963 and the assassination of John F. Kennedy

Rex Melius was a student at Slinger High School. I was a freshman sitting in English class in the “old” Slinger High School when the announcement came over the loudspeaker announcing that President Kennedy had been shot.

I remember our English Teacher (Mrs. Louden) gasping and leaving the room. She returned crying and it was shortly thereafter the announcement was made that President Kennedy had died. The remaining classes for the rest of day were literally canceled, even though we had to attend. The halls were quiet and there was a lot of conversation within the classrooms as to what this meant for all of us and what the future would bring.

I don’t believe we returned to school on Friday, I believe it was a national day of mourning. Everyone was glued to their TVs to listen to and watch any sort of word that help alleviate the pain the entire nation was feeling.

Carol Heger of West Bend lived in Chicago in 1963.  I was in 2nd grade in suburban Chicago (Sherwood School, Highland Park).  My teacher was called out of the classroom, and my fellow students and I were left alone, a very uncommon occurrence. We could see that the other teachers from our wing of the school also left their classrooms and headed toward the main entrance and office.  When the teacher re-appeared, she was crying; she then announced that President Kennedy had been shot.  I remember soon afterwards we were dismissed, and in the school bus on the way home I thought to myself that I must tell my mom that the President had been shot, it was urgent.  Of course, when I arrived home my mother had already heard the news.

Wayne Sargent of Kewaskum was living in New Hampshire in 1963. Being only 8 years old, growing up in Bedford, NH I remember the assassination of President Kennedy like it was yesterday. The memory’s having lived through the campaigning of President Kennedy was memorable in itself. He spoke in such a way that I can never forget, maybe it was that Massachusetts accent we had in common, I’m not sure just what it was. I clearly remember to this day watching his motorcade coming down South Willow street in Manchester, NH. The wait for his limo to approach was exciting. It was an amazing site; he and Carolyn were sitting high up on the back seat of his black Lincoln waving the crowds lined up on both sides of the streets as far as one could see. There were campaigners walking along in front and behind the Limo passing out campaign buttons and such. The Secret Service men walked closely next to the car as they proceeded down the street to City Hall where JFK would speak. It was an unforgettable sight.

Then one afternoon in November school closed early and without reason, we were sent home. I got off the school bus and went into our house, my mother was in the living room watching tv (black and white) she was crying. “What’s wrong, why did school close”? President Kennedy was shot!!! I was stunned; I cried, as young as 8 years old I couldn’t believe what was happening. Back then, the thought of someone even thinking of killing a President was unheard of, the news of him being shot was unbelievable, shocking!  I think now that living so close to Massachusetts President Kennedy was special, our local hero. The realty and excitement of having seen a President in person brought him that much closer to us.

The days leading up to his funeral were dark and devastating, everyone was glued to the TV, there was nothing else on. There wasn’t a person around that wasn’t sadden, not with hate but with deep sorrow. The realization that the President was shot was unheard of, it was like a close friend was gone. The day of the funeral everyone gathered around the television in silence, there wasn’t a person that didn’t cry. I remember watching the procession like it was yesterday. Probably one of the most memorable times of my young life, never to be forgotten.

Darlene Hefter of Allenton said she “Remembered very well.  Got married Oct. 19 and back from honeymoon and back to work at Gehl Co. and it was a Friday and a car load of girls (no seat belt yet required) – Dee Dee, Vi, Darleen, Barb the driver and myself went to Dot’s Club for a fish fry at noon and on the way was a special announcement about the shooting of our Pres. Kennedy.  We were all so shocked that I can’t remember if we ate fish fry yet or turned around and went back to office – it was quite an emotional time for everyone – later on the news for days.

Ray Hamlyn – WBHS Class of 1960 –  It’s one of those things you never forget.  I was in my senior year at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and was walking by Memorial Library when another student coming out of the library said to me Kennedy had just been shot.  I was just a few minutes away from my apartment on State Street which I shared with three other students including Doug Jaeger, who was also from West Bend. We all gathered around a small B&W TV set in somewhat of a state of shock; assassination of a president was part of American History belonging to the 19th Century, not something that could happen today.  But it was real, and we all had an immense sense of loss… Some additional info on this.  My former roommate Dick (from Green Bay, now in Atlanta) had responded that he didn’t remember the details but did remember watching the events unfold on the TV in our apartment.   That jogged my mind it why it was so significant to me, and this is what I replied to Dick:

I think one reason Kennedy’s assassination was so unbelievable to me, was that I had seen Kennedy in person in West Bend when I was a senior in high school.  I think it was in February 1960 when he was out or starting out on the campaign trail.  Our senior social studies teacher, Ms Fransen, got her class out of school that day to see a man who she said was going to be the next president of the United States.  At that time, we previously discussed in her class that we didn’t think Kennedy, a junior senator at the time, had a chance…  until we heard him speak and saw his beautiful wife!  They were very real and impressive! And it would be our first time to vote!

Doug Jaeger – I had finished a class or two on the Chemical Engineering campus at UW Madison the morning that JFK was shot and I went over to the cafeteria next to that campus to speak to a friend who had heard I was driving north the next day and he asked if I could give him a ride. That is where I got the JFK news on the cafeteria television.

Wisconsin deer season was starting the next morning (Sat.) but I had to stick around Madison for classes on Friday morning though everyone else in my party had used that day to drive north. Of course, I was not happy missing opening day of deer season since our party was usually quite large:  my father Roland, my brother, an uncle and a cousin, and another half dozen of my father’s friends.  This was an annual event that I had been attending for the past 7 deer seasons.

I went back to our Madison apartment and got an update of the news.  There my friend called and asked if he could bring along another friend of his also needing to be dropped near Eau Claire. I was happy to help because our deer camp near Ashland is a 300-mile drive from Madison and Eau Claire is on the way. I got the two guys up north by midafternoon on Sat. and continued my drive to deer camp. All day we were listening to continuing events on our car radio.

I have no memory of who I took north with me or who his friend was. But toward the end of our trip, they told me that the second friend was dating someone close to the Kennedy or Johnson family (not a daughter) and he had to get to Washington, DC for a dinner that evening.  That was startling news.

Mark Hofert – West Bend – “At that time I was 11 years old and a 5th grade student at Barton School.  It was a Friday, and we were off from school that afternoon.  Most likely it was an early release day because teachers were doing report cards.  I was playing in the basement rec room with my siblings.  At some point we came upstairs and our mother was watching the news and told us what happened.  I don’t recall much more about that day. I do recall several days of news coverage.  On Sunday, the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald was killed while being transported by the police.  Kennedy’s funeral was on Monday.  This was a different era when in came to news coverage.  Three networks, stations shut down broadcasting at night, black and white TV for most households, etc.  Certainly not an age of 24/7 cable news stations, remote broadcasting, internet coverage. Print media and photojournalism played a much larger role in disseminating the facts and absorbing the impact of an event like this, whereas Television was more of an entertainment medium.”

Owen Robinson – My dad was in college at the time at Texas A&M. He was one of the students responsible for building and burning the mighty Aggie Bonfire It was always burned the night before the game against Texas when it was played at home, or two days before the game when it was in Austin. When Kennedy was shot in ’63, Texas A&M thought it would be inappropriate to burn their giant bonfire so soon after his death, so they dismantled it instead. My dad groused about it until the day he died. He didn’t like Kennedy to begin with and he didn’t appreciate not being able to burn the bonfire that year!

Mary Lynn Bennett of West Bend lived in Wausaukee in 1963. Here is what I remember of Nov. 22, 1963.  The whole week was an emotional blur. We have talked about it, my cousins and I of what it meant to have news commentators broadcasting nonstop for a week, through the funeral.

On Friday, Nov. 22, 1963 at 12:30 pm, I was in Sister Mary Ellen’s shared sixth-eighth grade classroom, on the third floor, at St. Augustine Catholic School in Wausaukee, WI, about 60 miles north of Green Bay.  I lived in a small rural farming community of less than 600.  There were 16 in my 8th grade class.

It was after recess and we kids were tired of the “New Math” and the Pier Ghent Suite classical music Sister loved.  We had practiced how to survive the pending nuclear bomb attack under our school desks, with the “Duck and Cover” Drill.

We were probably wondering if Sister really had any hair under her stiff habit coif that left an embedded crease on her forehead.  Did she realize her rosary always jingled, warning us before she entered the classroom?   Did we remember to cross ourselves with holy water before we entered her classroom, to keep us safely blessed?  Who would get the first deer on Saturday morning’s hunt?   All typical important thoughts for a Wausaukee kid in 1963.

My cousin Darlene was home with the mumps, watching the Kennedys’ Dallas motorcade on TV.  Shots then blur.

My Aunt Kate frantically called the school.  Sister Mary Ellen immediately had us out of our desks and on our knees on the hardwood floors, praying the rosary, petitioning God. There was not even time for two rosaries to be said before we were told JFK was dead.  We continued to pray, crying, terrified but of what we didn’t know.  Just very very afraid and so very sad.  Then we were sent home, to be with our parents, who were already seated around the TVs.

What I felt from the adults on that Friday afternoon was a shift away from feeling safe in my town.  It would be years before I recognized what was taken from all of us, but especially from us kids, by three shots on a grassy knoll, by Lee Harvey Oswald.

That afternoon, what we saw streaming through our TV screens was not “Leave It to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best”. It wasn’t even Paladin delivering justice with a gun, to a bad guy who fell bloodless off his horse and died, away from the camera.

It was instead a woman who wore a blood-stained pink suit, standing alongside LBJ, hand raised on a Bible, on Air Force One.  It was the death of a young father, a husband, a Catholic like my dad and my uncles, rerunning over and over again.

In 1963, Wausaukee was a safe place to be a kid.  McNeilley’s Drug Store had swivel stools and a soda fountain. Our freezer in the basement was full of our garden vegetables and meat wrapped in white butcher paper by Mom and me.  Every adult in Wausaukee knew whose “kid” you were.

It all changed that day, when Walter Cronkite, took off his dark framed glasses on CBS News, and said President Kennedy died at 1 pm CST.


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Photo courtesy The History Center of Washington County.

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