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Connellsville woman recalls experiencing JFK murder as 'scared' first-grader

| Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
Courtesy Library of Congress
President John F. Kennedy in the Dallas motorcade. His death remains controversial 50 years later. Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone or was there a conspiracy in Dallas that fateful day?
Courtesy Library of Congress
People lined up outside a store in Dallas

EDITOR'S NOTE: Laura Szepesi of Connellsville was 6 years old when President John F. Kennedy was killed. She remembers that day in this article.

Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, was a school day like any other. I was 6 years old, a first-grader at Hopwood Elementary, an old-fashioned red brick building near the post office. You could see the school from our house on Woodstock Street. We were so close that I could hear my teacher — Miss Hicks — ringing the handheld school bell that morning. I remember dashing up the street so I wouldn't be late.

We started the day as always, with the Pledge of Allegiance and The Lord's Prayer. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in 1962 to eliminate prayer in school, but it hadn't taken effect yet nationally. On the day that President John F. Kennedy was murdered, millions of students in thousands of schools across the nation said their prayers — but it wasn't enough to save him. I witnessed the disappearance of prayer the next year, in 1964, when I started second grade at a brand new elementary school named in honor of JFK.

It was class as usual on Nov. 22, 1963 — learning that 2 plus 3 equals 5 and struggling to transform ABCs into words: Dick, Jane and Sally, and “See Spot run.”

I don't know what time it was when I learned that something terrible had happened. I know it was after lunch; I had skipped home, and Mom had fed me like she did every other day.

What I do remember is Miss Hicks going out into the hall to speak to someone. When she came back into the classroom, she burst into tears, sat down at her desk and covered her face with her hands.

I recall being scared and confused; I was far too young to grasp the historic importance of what was happening around me. My big pastimes were playing with dolls and watching cartoons (when Mom would let me, that is).

The principal sent us home early that day. When I got to my house, the door was open. Inside the kitchen, my 2-year-old sister sat in her playpen by the window, bathed in the day's warm sunshine. She goggled at me, egg yolk smeared around her mouth. That told me that Mom had fed her a soft-boiled egg. But where was Mom?

I heard our black-and-white television playing in the living room. Venturing inside, I saw my mother. She was sobbing so hard that her shoulders were shaking.

Now I was seriously scared. My mother was not a crying woman.

Everything stopped for the next three days — except for the TV and my mother's tears.

I remember the eerie silence of the sea of people who attended JFK's funeral on Nov. 25 in Washington, D.C., and the clop, clop, clop of the riderless horse. I still envision the flag-draped coffin on its caisson — and the horror I felt when my mother became hysterical as they folded the flag into a triangle and handed it to Jackie.

I heard a litany that weekend about “Oswald this…and Oswald that.” I had no idea who he was except that he was a bad man. But I'll never forget seeing him shot dead by Jack Ruby on national TV.

When I grew up, I became a newspaper reporter. I've held other jobs as well and have lived through many historic disasters: the Vietnam War; the resignation of President Richard Nixon; the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; the televised suicide of state Treasurer Bud Dwyer and the explosion of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia.

I've even seen jumbo jets smash into the World Trade Center — and the carnage and sorrow that followed, including the deaths of thousands of young soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade.

But many of those things pale in comparison to the trauma I experienced as a wide-eyed first-grader the morning that my president was murdered in Dallas.

Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.

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