Western Pa. offers memories of John F. Kennedy's assassination 50 years later
Teachers cried. Businesses closed. Cities went silent.
Most people older than 55 remember where they were, what they were doing and who told them about the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
“If something like that happened today, I'm sure the nation wouldn't stop like it did in 1963,” said Roy Faulk of Greensburg, who was 11 when he and the other sixth-graders at Delmont Elementary School were called in from recess to hear the news.
The Tribune-Review asked readers for their memories from that day a half-century ago. Hundreds responded. Here are their stories.
Many recall an uneasy quiet that accompanied the news.
“Nobody could come up with anything to say,” said Regina Chicka, 67, of Forbes Road, describing the hallways of Greensburg Salem High School.
Bill Jung found silence in the usually bustling Idlewild Airport in New York. On a flight from Istanbul with his wife and their three girls, Jung said, the pilot announced Kennedy had been wounded as they taxied to a gate at the airport later renamed for the slain president.
“In silence, we all gathered our belongings and disembarked,” said Jung, 84, of Penn Hills.
Time seemed to stop.
“Mom stood there frozen, just staring at the TV and ignoring any questions I had,” recalled Robert Tylka, 54, of Scottdale. “I ran to the front window after hearing cars braking. Several automobiles were parked in the street; people on the sidewalk were leaning into the windows, listening to the radio.”
Lloyd G. Lasky, then a sophomore at Central Catholic High School in Oakland, tried to go ice skating with friends that evening in North Park.
“Of course, everything was closed,” said Lasky, 65, of Vallejo, Calif. “... I remember the father of one of the boys who was driving said, ‘Jack wouldn't have wanted everything shut down.' ”
Baby boomers heard the news in school.
Chris Retenauer, 59, of Penn Hills wondered why Sister Bernadette Marie hadn't come to his fourth-grade music class at St. Stephen School in Hazelwood.
“I could hear a lot of teachers gabbing out in the hall, and then Miss Verost came back in, looking very somber, closing the door behind her,” he said. “And then she told us. No one seemed to know what to do or say.”
Many recall school public address systems connecting to news radio.
“We quieted down and sat mesmerized, listening to the broadcast, completely forgetting about going to lunch,” said Joanne Barto, 63, of Washington Township in Westmoreland County, then a seventh-grader at South Allegheny.
Nancy Galvan was a senior at Oakmont High School when she heard the news on a radio in the music director's office.
“I went running into the principal's office,” said Galvan, 67, of Plum. “What a sight I must have been — incoherent, with mascara-blackened tears dripping off my chin.”
Word spread quickly through workplaces.
When it reached Ellye McAndrews' Downtown office, she and other secretaries at Chaplin McGuiness rushed to the Dow Jones news ticker.
“Since there were so many of us trying to read the deep purple imprints as they clattered onto the tape, one of our young brokers began reading the news as it was transmitted,” said McAndrews, 72, of Whitehall. “As he read, his voice cracked, and he was unable to read the latest report: PRIESTS SAY KENNEDY DEAD.”
McAndrews kept the news sheets for 50 years.
At what was then Greater Pittsburgh Airport, a co-worker told United Airlines ramp-service man John Baldassare that the president had been shot.
“The flag in front of the airport was slowly lowered ... and immediately we knew he was dead. I cried on the way home,” said Baldassare, 78, of Avalon.
As sorrow spread across the country, panic ruled the capital.
“The captain came into the barracks and told us what happened and told everybody to get their combat gear on. We were on standby,” said James Dixon, 72, of Hampton, then a corporal stationed at the Marine Corps Barracks in Washington, on the honor guard at the “8th & I” that marches in ceremonies and protects the president at Camp David, Md. “They thought the Russians would come in. It was all across Washington. The panic was unbelievable.”
Fellow Marine Stanley Brejda of Slickville found out when he and his platoon returned from the 8th & I touch-football championship across the Potomac River in Maryland.
“It became pandemonium,” said Brejda, 70.
That night, his platoon met Air Force One when it brought President Lyndon B. Johnson, Jackie Kennedy and the casket to Andrews Air Force Base.
“Then every day was detail after detail until after the funeral,” Brejda said.
At the Navy station in Yokosuka, Japan, a sailor awoke Neil H. James a minute before the “battle stations” alert sounded on the USS Oriskany.
“We had never gotten a ‘battle station' alarm in port before. It was always out at sea because of a fire or a Russian plane or ship was near,” said James, 70, of West Mifflin.
Fear filled the gaps in news.
“I was afraid I would never be able to get back to Pittsburgh,” said Dolores Krugh, 69, of Dormont, who sat in an apartment while the Army kept her husband, Ken, at Fort Bliss in El Paso.
“The ship stopped, and an announcement was made that the president was shot, and we had to wait for further orders,” said Norman Arendas of North Huntingdon, who was on a troop carrier in the Atlantic Ocean returning from a year of Army duty. “It was so frightening. We didn't know if we would be going to war.”
For many Roman Catholics, Kennedy was “our president,” the first Catholic to lead the country.
In schools and homes, Catholics reacted with prayer.
“It took me a couple seconds, probably long enough to ask God for the grace to give the news to the little ones,” said Sister Bridget James O'Brien, 84, of Baden, who as principal at St. Andrew School in Johnstown learned about the shooting from women in the kitchen. “We said a prayer, and I made the announcement.”
Sister Rita Yeasted broke the news to fifth-graders at St. Anne Catholic School in Castle Shannon.
“Without my asking, they got out of their desks and knelt in the aisles to pray the rosary for him,” said Yeasted, 74, who chairs the English Department at La Roche College in McCandless. “These were little kids who all knew the president and knew he was Catholic.”
In the third-grade art class at St. Aloysius School in Reserve, Regis Reinersmann didn't have his rosary.
“I counted the Hail Marys of each decade with 10 crayons,” said Reinersmann, 58, of Plum.
David Conti is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or email@example.com.
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