PLATTSBURGH — Nov. 22, 1963.
The news of the gunshot that killed President John F. Kennedy stopped time for Sandra Condon, then in the midst of making a sale at a Plattsburgh department store; and for then-9-year-old Donald Jaquish, home sick from school; and for Gary Cook, who was cleaning out an old horse barn in Port Henry.
Shock and grief over the brutal and very public assassination of the charismatic, hope-carrying 35th president etched in memory the routine tasks interrupted by the tragedy around the country.
North Country remembers it with clarity a half century later.
Nell Irvin Painter: Now a historian and author who lives in New Russia, she was an anthropology major at the University of California, Berkeley, and on that date was at the American Anthropology Society’s annual meeting.
“We were in a big meeting room with anthropology professors giving learned papers,” the Princeton University professor emerita said. “I don’t remember what any of the papers were about, (but) at one point, the new2s had filtered through that the president had been shot. I don’t think the word came immediately that he died.
“So, everybody poured out of the hall into the street. We wrung our hands. Up to this point, assassinations were not routine. The idea that the president could be shot was absolutely devastating.”
Painter couldn’t vote yet when Kennedy was elected president, “but I was so excited about that election. It seemed so promising after the rivers of blood coming out of the American South. Even though you could say it was just gestures toward Martin Luther King and civil rights that (President) Kennedy made, it was so different from what was before.
“It was like a revolution. I thought, maybe something will change.”
Civil-rights news in the 1950s and early 1960s had been depressing.
“The massive resistance, (the brutal killing of black teen) Emmett Till and just murder upon murder upon murder, so this breakthrough (Kennedy’s strong stand on racial equality) was like hope, then dashed.
“The assassination seemed to immediately slam us back into the past, into this gory, racist past. I watched the first speech that Lyndon Johnson made. I had no inkling that he would carry through.
“As it turned out, Johnson was the best president ever, with the exception of the Vietnam War. I had no sense of that in 1963.”
Patsy Myers, 85, Elizabethtown: “I was a school social worker in Champaign, Ill., and had a home visit. I couldn’t understand why the woman would not turn off the TV so she could pay attention to me. She then told me something terrible had happened and informed me about Kennedy. It was so shocking.
“Though I am not very political, I was very much in favor of Kennedy. I think it left a painful wound for those of us who were around at the time that we will never forget.”
Jay Kohen, 75, Elizabethtown: “I was a first-year English teacher in Clifton Springs and was monitoring a high-school study hall when the loudspeaker came on and the principal announced that JFK had been shot, and that was all he knew at the moment.
“We were all in shock, of course. About 15 minutes later, the principal came on again and announced Kennedy was dead. They brought the school buses and took the students home.
“The rest of the weekend, Candy (his wife) and I sat in front of the TV and watched the events unfold. It was unbelievable. We were in a daze the whole weekend. We couldn’t fathom something like this happening.”
Kohen had a personal tie with Kennedy. “The previous year, when I was an Army MP, I was sent under Kennedy’s orders to the University of Mississippi, as my unit had orders to escort James Meredith to classes. I know this has been said before, but Kennedy’s death was the end of the age of innocence, the end of an era.”
Clinton County Legislator Robert Heins, 75: Heins was a freshman dental student at the University of Buffalo that fateful day, and he was sitting in a pathology lecture when he heard the news.
“I remember the instructor said that the president and the governor of Texas had been shot, and I remember thinking, ‘Who is the president of Texas?’ Then it hit me, and it all sunk in.”
Classes canceled, he went home and sat glued to the television.
“I remember Walter Cronkite tearing up and saying the president was dead. That was really something.”
Veteran newsman Jack LaDuke, 79: He was in Plattsburgh working for Denton Publications on an otherwise beautiful day when he heard the tragic news on WEAV radio.
“I went inside their offices, and they had a teletype machine, and it was busy typing out news as fast as it could. The AP (Associated Press) had a bell that would go off whenever there was a big story, and that bell was ringing like crazy.”
LaDuke said his news-gathering instincts kicked in immediately, and he grabbed a camera and hit the streets.
“I knew we were going to need a lot of interviews and pictures, so out I went, and people just could not believe what was happening. That afternoon, if you walked down any street, you could see in just about every living room the television was on.
“(Then) to see Lee Harvey Oswald get shot on live television was incredible. It was just one shocking thing after another.”
Jean Goddard, Westville: “I came over here (from England) in 1946, and I was working for Dr. (Warren) Crowner as a receptionist. I was deeply shocked (by Kennedy’s assassination) and very, very sad, especially for his wife. I remember the doctor coming out of his office, saying he just couldn’t believe it. And the patients coming in were just shocked.
“And for my relatives in England, it was the same. Such a tragedy. It was such a disaster.”
Earl Lavoie, Malone: “I was working, and I think I was just coming back from lunch when I found out about it. That was a very sad time.
“(JFK) was just getting on a roll, and he was doing well. But what an impact it had on the (Democratic) Party and on the nation and on the world. It was a sad day.”
Sandra Condon, 68, a court receptionist for Clinton County Court: She was employed then at Herman’s on Margaret Street in downtown Plattsburgh and was selling a pair of leather gloves to a customer when she learned the president had been shot.
“A lady came rushing in (with the news.) We were all stunned. Someone hollered to turn the radio on. As the day progressed, “nobody could actually keep their mind on anything (but the assassination). It was the most tragic thing in my life that we heard about.”
Essex County Emergency Services Director Donald Jaquish: He was about 9 years old and had stayed home from school that day because he was sick.
“My mother had the TV on in the kitchen, and I saw it on CBS news (with) Walter Cronkite. It was very upsetting. I remember watching the news, people crying. It was unsettling because when there’s things like that that happens, you wonder, ‘Is the world coming to an end?’”
After hearing the initial report, Jaquish said he was engrossed in the news.
“You waited. You waited to see if he actually was dead. Finally, when Walter Cronkite came out ... and said that the president was dead. I remember him taking his glasses off (as tears came to his eyes).”
Essex County RSVP Director Barbara Brassard: She was in 10th grade at Moriah Central School when it happened.
“We were coming out of science class and going up the stairs, and the class coming in told us the news — that the president had been shot. So we heard it from other students, not from teachers.
“I was home later watching TV coverage, and I saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV. I said, ‘Oh, my God!’ I couldn’t believe what was happening.”
Port Henry veterinarian Dr. Gary Cooke: He had recently been discharged from the U.S. Army when the president went to Dallas.
“I was working on my father’s farm in Bridport, Vt. I had been through the Cold War stationed at the Berlin Wall, and we’d had the Cuban Missile Crisis while I was in the service. I was coming down from being on the front lines.
“We were working in a old horse barn, cleaning it out to store machinery for the winter. My mother came out and said, ‘You’ll never believe what happened — they’ve just shot President Kennedy. He’s dead.’ My father said, ‘My God, they’ve shot the president.’ I was so stressed I couldn’t speak. I spent the rest of the day trying to pick my jaw off the ground.”
Plattsburgh Town Historian Jerry Bates: He was working in the education department at a state prison in Jackson, Mich., when Kennedy was assassinated. Bates was involved in a initiative to provide televised programming to educate and train inmates to help them break out of their old habits.
They had named the program “Breakout,” which caused the prison warden to cancel it just as the inmate directors and cameramen were set to broadcast. They were still in position when the news flash came that the president had been killed, so they switched over and watched the news as it came across the air.
“Everybody was terribly shocked, even the inmates. They saw him as someone they cared about,” Bates said.
Deborah Patnode, secretary to Plattsburgh Town Supervisor Bernie Bassett: A first-grader in the Beekmantown School system in November 1963, she remembers hearing it over the loudspeaker and her teacher crying.
Classes were dismissed early, and she returned home and watched with her family as more details were broadcast. She said her parents and grandparents followed the events for what seemed like an extremely long time.
“As a child, I didn’t really understand the magnitude of the event.”
Bill Rowe of Plattsburgh: Fifty years ago today, Bill was just days away from marriage to his 21-year-old fianceé, Bunny.
It was a Friday, and while Bunny was at her parents’ home in Fallsburg, getting ready for their Nov. 30 wedding, Bill found himself in the shop of his father’s Buick dealership on Bridge Street in Plattsburgh. As always, the shop radio was on at Rowe Buick, playing tunes for the workers.
“And all of a sudden, there was a silence on the radio,” Bill recalled. “And then came the news, and it’s: ‘The president has just been shot.’
“Everybody in the shop just froze ... boom — dead silence.”
The young lovers were in contact almost immediately, Bunny remembered, “and then we said, ‘What are we going to do?’”
Friends and family from all over the East Coast, including the couple’s ski buddies and sailing chums, had made plans to travel to Ellenville for what was supposed to be a joyous occasion.
“And then the tragedy occurred, and we weren’t really sure how it was going to work out, but it was too late to postpone the wedding,” Bunny said.
Being the older of the two, Bill took it upon himself to make the final decision: the wedding would go on.
“And everybody came,” he said. “We didn’t have anybody say, ‘Well, I think it’s a terrible time to have a wedding.’”
“I think everybody that came felt that it was wonderful to have something joyous to celebrate in a time of such an American tragedy,” Bunny added.
It was a festive occasion, Bill recalled, complete with guests tossing the groom in the swimming pool.
Still, he noted, “there was an undercurrent all during the wedding.”
Every year since then, the Plattsburgh couple has taken joy in celebrating the anniversary of their marriage, though, never without John Fitzgerald Kennedy on their minds.
“Boy, when you see (his death) relived, it could bring tears to your eyes,” he said. “It really could.”
“It always will be a tragedy that happened,” Bunny added, “but now we’re celebrating our 50 years of being married.”
— This report was written by Staff Writers Dan Heath, Joe LoTemplio, Felicia Krieg, Denise Raymo, Lohr McKinstry, Robin Caudell and Ashleigh Livingston and Contributing Writer Alvin Reiner.
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