Where were you?
50 years after JFK's death, memories remain clear
There are moments that glide by unremarkable — the featureless commutes, the evenings of TV, the tooth brushings, short jogs, 10 a.m. meetings, trips to the store. They may be noticed but they are easily forgotten, necessary and expected.
Time flows onward and these moments rarely even ripple the surface.
Then there are those crystalline moments of flash freeze, when time stops and every detail, every movement, every word, every breath stands out with vivid color. These are the moments that time can’t rust, that could have happened a minute ago or decades ago, the feelings and memories fresh and remembered.
The morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The day the space shuttle Challenger exploded. The 1969 moon landing. The sunny morning of Nov. 22, 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
For almost everyone old enough to be aware and remember, where they were and what they were doing 50 years ago when they heard the president had been shot is a memory preserved in amber — the details unclouded, the feelings recalled with acute clarity.
Ask anyone: Where were you when you heard the news?
“We were at lunch at Mike Palm’s Restaurant,” recalled Bill Cleary, 88, who was working for U.S. Rep. Wayne Aspinall in Washington, D.C., at the time.
Cleary and an office assistant were at the Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant when a waitress approached their table “and said, ‘We just heard the president got shot’,” Cleary said. “I knew (U.S. Rep.) Mo Udall was at another table, so I asked her to go tell him and next thing you know, he goes running out of the restaurant.”
Like so many, Cleary remembers a feeling of unreality. He’d met Kennedy on Nov. 30, 1959, when the then-senator made a half-day stop in Grand Junction and appeared on Cleary’s half-hour KREX show “In Town Today.”
“I don’t remember if I asked him directly if he was going to run (for president),” Cleary said, “but he did say it was a little early to decide.”
Cleary said he ended the show by asking Kennedy what he thought the Founding Fathers would say if they could see the United States as it was then, in 1959. Kennedy said he thought they would be astounded by the changes and pleased by how their guidance had held up, Cleary recalled.
“Then, after the show was done, he said he thought that was a good way to end the show,” Cleary said.
Four years later, Cleary would take his seven sons to watch as Kennedy’s casket was taken from the White House to the U.S. Capitol, where it would lie in state.
— Bill Cleary, 88, Grand Junction
The morning of Nov. 22, 1963, Peggy Nagel was a ninth-grader conjugating verbs in Spanish class at Cole Junior High School in Denver. She remembers thinking nothing of it when a school administrator entered the classroom and whispered something to her Spanish teacher, but then her teacher faced the class and told them the news: President Kennedy had been shot.
“We all sat there and bawled,” recalled Nagel, 64. “It shook us pretty hard. They immediately allowed us to go home and I went home and just bawled.”
She and her parents gathered around the TV and watched for hours. Eisenhower had been the first president she was aware of, she said, “but I was so enthralled with the Kennedy family. Here was a young person to lead us on and I was really excited about him, even though I wasn’t politically motivated at that time. They were just a beautiful little family and it really hit me hard that their daddy was gone.”
— Peggy Nagel, 64, Fruita
“I was lying on the living room floor in front of the fireplace,” said Forest Reichen, 58. “My brothers and I had all gone in and gotten our tonsils out, and all three of us were lying in front of the fireplace.”
Their mom was letting them watch a little TV as they recuperated in their Denver home and that’s when they heard the news that Kennedy had been shot.
“It was just a weird feeling,” he said. “Even at 8 years old I think I realized things weren’t right. My mom was in disbelief and just really upset, and as soon as my dad walked in the door from work that was all they talked about.”
After that moment, he said, it seemed like the country was in an uproar. In the following years, his parents occasionally would let him watch the news before bed, “and after Kennedy was assassinated, it seemed like you’d keep hearing these things, Martin Luther King being shot, the casualty reports from Vietnam. It felt like it started that day (Kennedy was killed).”
— Forest Reichen, 58,
When he heard the news, Jim Eisenhauer, 75, was walking to a Chamber of Commerce board meeting at Mark’s Macongan restaurant downtown from Third Street and Colorado Avenue, where he worked at Ed Eisenhauer Motor Co. with his father.
When he got to the restaurant, he was greeted at the door with the news: The president had been shot, there would be no Chamber of Commerce board meeting that day.
He immediately walked back to the Dodge dealership, where employees were gathered around a TV. “We gave them the option to stay or to go home and be with their families, and some left,” Eisenhauer said. He was 25, yet to be married, so he stayed at work and watched the news unfold on TV.
“It was just hard for me to believe that anybody would assassinate a president of the United States of America,” he said. “I just didn’t think it was possible.”
— Jim Eisenhauer, 75, Grand Junction
Somewhere in the South China Sea, Pfc. Johnny Garner was an 18-year-old Marine trying to fall asleep on the deck of the troop ship to which he was assigned. He and his cousin Bob had fled the windowless, airless dorms below decks for the night sea breezes above decks and were hunkered beneath a lifeboat.
Then, over the ship’s PA: “Attention. Attention. Your commander-in-chief, John F. Kennedy, has been assassinated.” Garner, disbelieving, nudged his cousin awake and the message was repeated.
“And then all hell broke loose,” he said. “That old boat just started going as fast as it ever did, rattling, just shaking, heading for the coast of China.”
Though he wasn’t privy to the military strategy, he said he thought it was protocol to head for land “because we could have been targets out there,” Garner said. “Nothing happened, but at the time we didn’t know what was going on.”
There was particular poignancy, he said, in being active- duty military when he heard the news “because that was my commander-in-chief.” Fifty years later, he said, he still feels sad when he thinks about it.
— Johnny Garner, 68,
Doug Lichty, 69, was working his shift in the stockroom at the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, Neb., when he started hearing snippets of unusual conversation from hotel guests passing through the halls: Dallas. Kennedy. Shot.
Pausing what he was doing, he stepped out of the stockroom and heard the news that Kennedy had been shot. At the time, he said, that was all anybody knew, and it was shocking enough. He returned to work, because it seemed like there was nothing else to do, but with a vague sense of purposelessness. It wasn’t until an hour or two later that he heard Kennedy had died.
“It was a shock,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do. It seemed like everything kind of stopped.”
Lichty had been too young to vote in the 1960 election, but he liked Kennedy, he said, and would have voted for him if he’d been able.
— Doug Lichty, 69,
After getting off of the night shift at a factory that made turbine blades, Ed Crilly just wanted to relax and watch a little TV at home. He was lying on the couch at his parents home in Tiffin, Ohio, when the first news flash announced what had happened in Dallas.
His mother was outside, so he ran out to tell her the president had been shot.
“She didn’t believe it,” he remembered. “None of us did. At that point we didn’t know he was dead, but it was bad enough that he’d been shot. You just didn’t think that stuff like that would happen here.”
— Ed Crilly, 69,
“The thing I remember is the silence,” said Ronald Ward, 66.
When he heard over the intercom at Central High School that President Kennedy had been shot, Ward, a junior at the time, was in the hallway between classes. And after the news, the normally cacophonous hallway, filled with students, fell silent.
“Nobody knew what to do,” he said. “Nobody knew what to say. It was just quiet.”
— Ronald Ward, 66,