Mon Valley residents remember a shocking, somber day
By Stacy Wolford
Published: Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
Fifty years have passed since the assassination of U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, but many Americans still have moments of clarity from that day – they remember where they were when Camelot fell.
The Valley Independent asked readers to share their memories of that dark day in American history, Nov. 22, 1963. We received dozens of responses from Mon Valley folks sharing tales of hearing the news from crying teachers and loved ones, and encountering silent streets and work offices.
Here's a roundup of those memories.
‘She loved this president'
Mary Andras Smith of Monessen still gets choked up talking about the day she learned the president died.
She was living on Castner Avenue in Donora and remembers how rare it was to be able to put her son, Joe, and twin daughters Judy and Jan, all down for an afternoon nap at the same time.
“I decided to sit for a while and watch the Mike Douglas show at 1 p.m. He just began to interview Heloise when Bill Burns (KDKA reporter), broke in with a special report. In a trembling voice he announced, ‘The president has been shot in Dallas.'” Smith recalled.
She immediately tried to call her mother, Elizabeth Andras, but couldn't get through on the busy telephone lines.
“Locking my door, I ran down the yard and called out to my mother in Slovak, who was in an upstairs room sewing,” she said. “She started crying uncontrollably when I told her the president was shot.”
Smith, now 79, said grocery shopping in Donora the day after was “eerie.”
“The supermarket was quiet and shoppers spoke in whispers as though a beloved relative had passed,” she said.
Smith said she'll never forget seeing the first lady on television wearing a blood-stained suit, and watching Kennedy's funeral and burial.
“My mother watched, cried and prayed the rosary,” Smith said. “She loved this president.”
She still has vivid memories of watching on live television when Jack Ruby shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald.
“It was unbelievable,” she said.
Smith said she will try to avoid watching today's news coverage.
“It seemed like it was just yesterday, like I was transformed there. I can still see myself running down my yard to tell my mother,” she said through tears. “I just can't watch it. All those emotions come back for me.”
A ‘helluva' military man
In November 1963, lifelong Monessen resident Ron Chromulak was stationed at the U.S. Air Force base at Duluth Municipal Airport in Minnesota. President Kennedy had made a trip there about a week before his assassination and Chromulak was able to get to the fenceline to shake his hand.
“Several days later my wife was in the hospital waiting to have our second child born. The news of his assassination came as a shock to us as it must have to all the citizens of our country,” Chromulak said. “My son was born on Nov. 24, the day before my birthday, and I thought back to just one year earlier when we stood on the brink of nuclear war over Cuba.”
Chromulak, now 71, remembers Kennedy a year earlier telling the troops to prepare for deployment.
“We were on 24-hour duty and I was flying two missions a day of ‘Operation Eyeball' in the back seat of a T-33 Jet Trainer, looking for anything Soviet that might be coming over the Northern Pole area toward the U.S.,” he said. “After it was all over, we discussed and admired how great of a man he (Kennedy) was to stand up to Krushchev the way he did.
“We all cried the day he died and thought that he was one helluva military man...”
A teacher's gasp
Belle Vernon resident Nancy Gigliotti said she will “never forget” the details of the day JFK was assassinated.
She was in sixth grade at the former Williams School in Monongahela, sitting in the last row on the right by her friend, Linda Pankiewicz.
“Our principal, Miss Wickerham, came in to tell our teacher, Mrs. Hagerty, that something had happened. She was whispering and then Mrs. Hagerty gasped,” said Gigliotti, who teaches certified nursing assistant classes at the Mon Valley Career and Technology Center in Speers. “She told us that President Kennedy had been shot. Some of the students started to cry. One started to laugh. I found out many years later that it was somewhat of a ‘hysteria' reaction – people are so overwhelmed with some type of tragedy that they don't know what to do – so they laugh.
A black-and-white television was brought to the classroom, where the students and teachers spent the next two days watching news broadcasts about the assassination.
“There was not a peep out of any of the students for two days. We all sadly watched and listened,” she said.
Road trip detour
Joe Grata of Washington Township has vivid memories of the day JFK was killed.
The Penn State University student was with his classmate, soccer star Don Gregg, traveling from State College to attend the sold-out PSU-Pitt football game the next day.
Their journey was short-lived.
“When we stopped at a Howard Johnson's Restaurant along Route 22 in Duncansville, we encountered stunned-looking, silent patrons who heard the heartbreaking news only moments earlier: President Kennedy had been assassinated. Several were following developments on transistor radios,” Grata said.
The Pitt game was postponed to Dec. 7, but because of the late date, officials failed to invite the 9-1 Panthers to a post-season bowl despite it being perceived as the “best team of the modern football era,” said Grata, a retired journalist.
Grata said he spent that weekend with Gregg “glued to his TV,” watching the chain of events unfold.
Over the years, Grata visited Dealey Plaza in Dallas, where the “unthinkable, ghastly shooting took place,” he said.
A day of disbelief
Wilma Crumrine can still picture how beautiful the weather was on Nov. 22, 1963, in Fredericktown.
She had just returned from the neighborhood grocery store and was tending to her young children.
“My son, who was in morning kindergarten, wanted to play outside. I told him to stay in the yard, but made my 3-year-old daughter go in the house with me while I put groceries away,” recalls Crumrine, of California, Pa. “It wasn't even two minutes later when a neighbor called for me. I wondered what he (her son) was into already. She told me it was on the radio that President Kennedy had been shot.”
Crumrine said she turned the radio on and heard music. She assumed her neighbor must have been mistaken.
She said she thought, “no one is going to shoot the president in this day and age.”
“But when they repeated the bulletin, I turned the TV on, and (they) were already covering the story. I made my son come in and was glued to the TV for the next several days,” she said. “It was an emotionally draining period.”
High hopes shattered
Fred Natale says his memories of the JFK assassination are still clear as if they happened yesterday.
He was a U.S. Army Specialist 4th Class on active duty, with only 12 days left of his two-year-term. He did postal work handling mail for the trainees in the First Training Regiment at Fort Jackson, S.C.
“During the last year we served the members of the Cuban Volunteer Training Program,” said Natale, of Monessen. “Some included members of the Cuban 2506th Brigade Unit recently released by Fidel Castro after having been incarcerated after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion of April 1961.”
Natale had that afternoon off and was taking a nap in the barracks when he heard the news.
“I was awakened by a fellow soldier who exclaimed, ‘Hey, Fred, they shot the president!' Before I could process what he said, he added ‘It serves him right for backing (civil rights),'” Natale said. “Before I could respond in anger over his pleasure in hearing of a president being shot, he left the building.”
“I had great hopes for the Kennedy presidency, and the future of our country as a level playing field of opportunity for those of us, Catholics, etc., who were not usually part of an ‘establishment,'” he said.
Bad case of the measles
Washington Township resident Michael Yetsconish Jr. was in the Walston Army Hospital at Fort Dix the day he learned the president was shot.
“I was in (the hospital) with a bad case of the measles, while my girlfriend, now my wife (Carol Stofko), was working at The Valley Independent (in Monessen),” said Yetsconish.
“While I was lying in bed, a news flash came on about the shooting in Dallas. I called for the nurse to come in and we watched until the announcement came over about the death of the president,” he said. “We could not believe this was happening. We were all in shock.”
JFK's Monessen visit
Mary Jane Barker had just returned from her lunch break while working at the Bonsh Agency in Charleroi when she learned the news.
It was difficult for Barker, now 90, to accept that the president she had seen during a visit to Monessen a year before was gone.
Barker, who still lives in Monessen, remembers standing among the thousands of people in downtown Monessen to catch a glimpse of JFK, who was stumping for a governor candidate.
“My husband Albert drove me to the Vocational School on Rostraver Street and I walked downtown where I was part of the crowd in front of Rusemen's Furniture Store at Sixth and Donner,” she said. “I'll never forget that.”
Retired Charleroi Area High School teacher Bernie Medved always taught his students about Kennedy's assassination.
As part of those lessons, he shared his own memories with his students.
“I was in seventh grade at the old Elizabeth Forward junior high. It was right after lunch and I was in Miss Masick's class,” said Medved, of Elizabeth. “She came back in the classroom - it was Room 107 - all teary-eyed.”
Medved said the radio was turned on over the school's public address system. The students sat in stunned silence as they listened to the events unfold.
“You could hear a pin drop,” said Medved, who retired in 2009 after 35 years with the school district. His wife, Cathy, is also a retired Charleroi Area teacher.
Bad news messenger
Patty (Koval) Mountain was working as a hall monitor at the former Monongahela junior high school when she was given a daunting task.
“I was told to go tell John Pallini, who was teaching his Problems of Democracy class, that the president had been shot,” said Mountain, of Monongahela.
Her high school sweetheart and future husband, David Mountain, was in the classroom. The Mountains are both 1964 graduates of Monongahela High School.
“When I delivered that news, it was such a state of shock that everyone was in,” she said. “I'll never forget that.”
‘We drove all night'
Joe Barcelona, 82, of Dunlevy remembers hearing of JFK's assassination while teaching at Charleroi High School.
Then 32 years old, Barcelona packed his Ford van and headed with friend Bobby Atkinson to Washington, D.C., to pay his respects to the murdered president.
“We drove all night and the funny thing is, I have no recollection of driving down or driving back,” Barcelona said. “I travel an awful lot and I can tell you about stopping for food on my way to California. … But this drive was somber and I could not recollect a thing.”
However, Barcelona does remember the uncomfortable atmosphere while waiting outside the Capitol building. Across from the Capitol building, Barcelona said he stood atop a marble block and could see when Kennedy's wife, Jackie, and her two young children walked up the steps.
Barcelona said he and Atkinson were initially close to the Capitol steps but police kept pushing them back as thousands filed in from two side streets. The pair ended up waiting in line for more than half a day to walk past the president's casket for less than 30 seconds around 9 p.m.
“I thought maybe there would be people there next to him like regular funeral but there wasn't. You stayed on your side of the rope and went past in ones or twos,” Barcelona said. “To be honest, you're in a stage of shock at that time. It's nothing you can absorb or assimilate. All you know is: here's the president and he's dead.
“It was very unsettling in a sense, but afterward I was at ease because I paid my respects. You did what you came here to do and it was time to go home. … I do remember getting home. I hadn't slept in 24 hours but I wasn't sleepy.”
A former councilman remembers
Former Monessen councilman Anthony Mascetta feels privileged that he was part of the “reception committee” when JFK stumped in the city in October 1962.
Mascetta, who served on council three terms spanning the 1960s to 1990s, said the scene was “chaos” as thousands of people poured into the city to catch a glimpse of the president. Kennedy was in Monessen as part of a mid-term campaign tour in southwestern Pennsylvania.
From a stage on the Sixth Street side of the A&P parking lot on Donner Avenue, he told Mon Valley residents to vote the Democratic ticket from top to bottom.
“There had to be over 25,000 people on Sixth Street and Donner Avenue,” Mascetta said. There were Secret Service people, sharp shooters on roof tops, it was crazy.”
Mascetta said then Monessen Mayor Hugo Parente “was the guy” who had the connections and relationship with the president.
“One thing that I don't think was ever printed is that Mrs. (Adeline) Parente was afraid to have the president stay at their house, so that's why he stayed in Washington, Pa.,” said Mascetta, a retired Westmoreland County juvenile probation officer.
More than a year later, Mascetta says he watched in disbelief as the president, who charmed thousands in his hometown, was shot to death.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said.
The perfect photo
John Benyak was determined to get images of President Kennedy with his new 8 mm camera during his 1962 visit to Monessen.
He took his wife, Joan, and their sons downtown for a chance to hear and see JFK.
“We came down and stood by Check's Furniture, but I wanted to get closer,” said Benyak. “I tried to go up Sixth Street, but you couldn't get through there. So, I went on the upper street and stood up on the steps. I caught him in the car waving just as he went by. It was perfect.”
He learned about the president's death the following year while he was working at the Holy Name Society.
“My wife came down to tell what happened and I just couldn't believe it.” Benyak said. “It was just a really, really bad time.”
Staff Writer Rick Bruni Jr. contributed to this story. Stacy Wolford is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-684-2640 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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