Armstrong County shares vivid memories of JFK assassination
On Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a motorcade in Dallas.
News of the tragic event quickly reverberated across the nation and around the globe.
Closer to home, in Armstrong County, the day is fixed in the memories of area residents. Many recall the day's events 50 years ago as if they happened yesterday.
George and Marlene (Beatty) Sober of Gilpin were preparing for their wedding ceremony. John Smeltzer of Kittanning was in the middle of taking a welding exam in New Castle. Victor Schall was visiting his father, Charles, at the Kittanning General Hospital on South McKean Street.
James Wyant, who was working for the Pennsylvania Department of Highways, was listening to the radio while touring the I-79 project near Zelienople. Milton Veronesi of Mahoning, had just installed a radio in a customer's car, and Betty Yassem of Manor was settling in to watch her favorite soap opera.
All of them recall the shock of hearing the news of the president's death.
George Sober said his wedding ceremony was scheduled to take place that evening in the old Union Baptist Church, near Cadogan.
“I wanted to shine up my 1960 Rambler,” Sober said. “My mother hollered out to me while I was washing my car that the president had been shot.”
By then, he said, it was too late to cancel the wedding — which he recalls was rather somber.
Veronesi said he switched on the car radio to see if it worked and heard the words “President John F. Kennedy has been shot.”
The car radio stayed on as employees gathered around to hear the news.
“He was a hell of a guy,” Veronesi said. “It seems just like yesterday.”
Judy (Delacour) Switzer, who grew up in Madison Township, said she still gets emotional when she thinks about what happened that day.
Switzer was 15 when Kennedy campaigned in Kittanning along Market Street on Oct. 15, 1960. She, along with several other area girls, dressed in red, white and blue and cheered on Kennedy as he addressed the crowd.
“I loved him,” Switzer said. “We cheered him on when he came up to the podium. After his speech, he turned around to us girls and held out his hand.”
Switzer was pregnant with her first child, dusting the furniture in her Rimersburg home, when she heard the terrible news.
Children in school
Many who were schoolchildren at the time recall being sent home early from school that day and seeing the expressions of grief on the faces of their parents, teachers and other adults.
Armstrong County Commissioner Bob Bower said he was sitting in his eighth grade English class “when all of a sudden, over the PA system, came the news about President Kennedy being assassinated.
“I remember all the class recognized the horror. I heard gasps, and then there was just silence,” Bower said.
Patty Forringer of East Franklin was in art class in St. Mary School in Kittanning when the principal announced the president had been shot.
“At that moment, I looked down at my art work and noticed that I had drawn a cross before knowing anything about that fateful day in history,” Forringer said.
Dennis Cramer, who recently finished composing a work for a double trombone choir and narrator to honor the 50th anniversary of the assassination at Indiana University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday, was 10 at the time of the assassination.
He was a student at East Franklin Township Elementary School when he learned of the news and recalls how the teacher burst into tears when the school secretary whispered the news to her.
“I remember watching closely for the next few days in the same living room where I still watch television today,” Cramer said. “For a 10-year-old, the scenes were almost surreal. I certainly remember seeing Lee Harvey Oswald being shot, the lines of the viewers, the Lincoln catafalque and hearing the military bands playing the dirges on the way from the Capitol to Arlington.”
George Hooks was 10 at the time, attending the three-room Reesedale Elementary School.
He remembers being struck by the fact that his teacher, Mr. Lewis, had tears in his eyes when he relayed the news and how he loaded up the students into his Oldsmobile to bring them all home.
Michael O' Hare, news editor of the Leader Times, was a high school freshman and was sitting in a second-floor classroom, waiting for the geometry teacher's arrival when he noticed the flag outside the building lowered to half-staff.
He recalled that it was a Friday in November and thoughts had already turned to Thanksgiving and the Christmas holiday beyond.
“None of us knew time was about to stop — or so it seemed to me when the news hit that our president had been assassinated,” O' Hare said. “As a fairly new-minted teenager, I expected life would change, but none of us could have foreseen the upcoming stress that would envelope the nation, one year after the next during that turbulent decade.”
Patricia Delacour, who grew up in the Templeton area, was living in Panama, where her former husband, William Storey, was stationed with the Army as a helicopter crew chief.
It was the day after Kennedy's assassination when she first heard of the tragic events because Storey had tried to shield her from the news.
Delacour said she and her husband had been traveling by bus to Gorgas Army Hospital to pick up her baby daughter, Tami, who had been born earlier that month and required an extended hospital stay.
“A man on the bus had a newspaper, and I sort of screamed,” she said, after reading the headline announcing the president's death.
Henry Wojciechowski of Washington Township was serving in the Air Force and was on temporary duty (TDY) at Barksdale, La., learning about the latest missile systems.
While playing a poker game during some free time, a radio news bulletin announced that Kennedy had been shot.
“Being there on TDY, we had no place to go,” Wojciechowski said. “We spent the afternoon listening to the radio reports and finally heard that the president was dead. The thought also hit us that these events were happening only about 200 miles from us. While I wasn't real keen on his politics, nonetheless, I was still saddened by his death. He was my commander in chief, and really, the first president that I felt I knew a lot about.”
Not long after Stephen Hika, an aviation electrician with the Navy, heard the news, he made plans to return home to Cadogan from Virginia Beach, where he was stationed.
“I was standing watch over our squadron's 14 jet aircraft,” Hika said. “I was listening to a portable radio when I heard the news.”
He recalled when Kennedy campaigned for president and made a stop in Kittanning.
“The whole weekend was a bad time. The military put us on full alert at first, but then later changed the status,” he said.
The next day, Hika hitched a ride home, but the vehicle crashed. He and the other occupants walked away from the scene, and Hika eventually made it to Cadogan.
Victor Firment, who grew up in NuMine, was 18, stationed in Korea and tasked with Charge of Quarters duty. He and a security guard were the only ones awake at the time, around 3 a.m., when he received a phone call from district headquarters that the president was dead.
“It was a cold night, and I didn't even have a jacket,” Firment said, adding that he remembers going from building to building, waking people up.
“I think about it every year on the anniversary,” he said. “I remember when he came to Kittanning (during the 1960 campaign).”
Brigid Beatty is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-543-1303 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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