TRAVERSE CITY— Life changed forever on Nov. 22, 1963, when news of President John F. Kennedy’s death sliced into the national conscience.
In the case of former Michigan Gov. William G. Milliken — then a state senator — the grim news came over his office radio, leaving him stunned and sad, said his son, William Milliken Jr.
Palma Richardson, a young mother of two, recalls her 4-year-old son being upset his favorite shows were preempted by the non-stop television coverage. Many baby boomers heard the powerful and bewildering news over their classroom P.A. systems.
The response was a stunned silence. Then tears.
“It was like 9/11, the shock of it, the violence,” said Richardson, 75, who lived in southern California at the time. “Gov. (John) Connelly got hit, too. Bullets were flying everywhere.”
Gloria Morkin recalled watching a talent show in the St. Francis High School gym: A girl belted out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” while a smart-aleck guy with a transistor radio whispered about the president getting shot. Students were “shishing him.” A girl told him to stop joking around. It wasn’t funny.
“We thought he was a prankster,” said Morkin, 66, who wrote an essay years later of the tragic day. “But then the principal, Sister Arlene, came on stage, and a hush went through the auditorium. She said, ‘President Kennedy has been shot. Let’s keep him in our prayers as we continue the show.’”
About 10 minutes later, Sister Arlene was back on the stage, visibly shaken.
“She told us he had died,” she said. “... It was the end of our childhood innocence.”
Morkin said most St. Francis students leaned Republican, but they were drawn to Kennedy’s charisma and liked the fact he was the nation’s first Catholic president. Donna Rebman, 61, a Catholic who attended Sabin Elementary, said her connection to Kennedy seemed very personal.
“I liked that he was young and he was handsome, and, yeah, he was Catholic,” she said.
Mindy Morton’s baby brother was born just nine days before. The announcement of Kennedy’s death came over the P.A. system during her seventh grade class in Rochester, N.Y.
“Some people giggled, some were just really, really quiet, and I remember my music teacher was just furious with us,” said Morton, 62. “She was crying, breaking down, and here were a bunch of 11- and 12-year-old kids just staring at her, and a couple of giggles. But that was just a nervous release. They didn’t think it was funny.”
Morton was scared and wondered what it meant. Lyndon Johnson had been sworn in as president, but it didn’t make her feel any safer.
“We had just gone through the missile crisis, what, one year before that? We were told we could go to war with the Russians and it would mean getting blown to smithereens. Ever since I was little, we were taught to duck and cover. So later on, when the president died, I wondered, ‘What does this mean?’ We had been under a cloud ever since I could remember,” said Morton, a Northwestern Michigan College history instructor.
Tom Czarny said his fifth grade class at a Catholic grade school in Detroit was in the middle of spelling the word “elephant,” when the principal came on the P.A. system to say, ‘Let us pray for the soul of our dead president John F. Kennedy who’s been killed in Dallas.’”
“I reacted how everybody did. Disbelief. A sense of unreality,” said Czarny, 60, a Traverse City Central High School biology teacher. “It was just a sense ‘this can’t be happening. This is not the way it should be’. I don’t think it really registered until I came home and found my mother sitting at the kitchen table, crying with her head in her hands. I knew why she was distraught and there was nothing to be said.
“It’s vivid. It’s an eidetic memory, one of the few I have as a child.”
Marben Graham, 87, was in the teacher’s lounge at a Royal Oak high school when he learned of Kennedy’s death. Knowing what lie ahead, he tied up student work assignments for the school paper before heading home. The country was deeply, politically divided at the time. Kennedy was a liberal, a Catholic and far from universally liked, he said.
“We don’t think of that much now, but it was one system of Christianity versus another,” said Graham, who lives in Elmwood Township. “One of the things that still sticks in my mind, in one of the other schools, the classroom stood up and cheered. I talked to the kids who did that, later, when they were older, and they never felt it necessary to defend that.”
Rod Bearup, 66, an Empire metal sculptor, said his most vivid memory occurred three days after the assassination. He was alone, watching TV in the tiny den of his home where his family liked to eat dinner on TV trays.
“I watched Lee Harvey Oswald being walked down the hallway and watched him get shot. That image was indelible. I remember jumping up and screaming to my mother, ‘Come quick, come quick! Oswald’s just been shot.’”
Thirteenth Circuit Court Judge Philip Rodgers Jr. was a young seventh grader in Cadillac. He and bunch of boys were playing army soccer at recess, chasing a big brown ball across the field. They were called in, and a teacher — a friend of his dad — told them the president had been shot and killed. It was near the end of the school day, and Rodgers and his classmates went home shortly afterward.
For the next few days, Rodgers’ family was mesmerized by the television coverage. The streets were empty, he said.
“I was 11 years old,” he said. “I didn’t understand why someone would shoot the president. I understood it was huge, everyone was in shock. But there was no real explanation. Was it revenge? The result of a Russian coup? Something to do with Castro? The news coverage was, ‘It happened. Now there’s a funeral. Now there’s a procession.’ I don’t recall any insight into why or how this had happened.”
After that day, everything changed, he said.
“The Beetles came to America in 1964. It was a roller coaster ride after that. Sirhan Sirhan, Martin Luther King, the war, the protests, the election, the riots. It was like a line in the sand,” he said. “The only constant good thing in that era was the space program.”