By PETER H. MILLIKEN
Most Americans older than 55 clearly remember where they were and what they were doing when news of President John F. Kennedy’s Nov. 22, 1963, assassination shocked the nation.
Those vivid memories flowed freely in discussions with Mahoning Valley residents just before the 50th anniversary of the event that put the country through four days of mourning.
AROUND THE VALLEY
Jackie Casey of Boardman, a retired nurse, was a student at Cardinal Mooney High School when she heard the news over the school’s public address system on that Friday, first that the president had been shot and later that he was dead.
“Everybody was crying and then silent. The halls were silent. There was nobody talking,” Casey said. “Everybody was just so stunned.”
“That whole weekend, we watched television. We were just glued to the TV set. I think we had TV dinners the whole weekend. My mom didn’t even make supper,” she recalled.
Jackie Casey’s husband, Robert, a retired lawyer and former director of the Mahoning County Child Support Enforcement Agency, then operated an officers’ club while he was a first lieutenant in an Army quartermaster unit at Fort Clayton, a U.S. base in the Panama Canal Zone.
“I immediately closed the club because our commander in chief had died,” he recalled. That was long before his boss called and suggested he should close it, he said. “I told him: ‘Captain, I did that hours ago,’” he said. Like others on the base, he was then riveted to television for news of the assassination and its aftermath.
In downtown Youngs-town, pre-Christmas shopping and Mahoning County Courthouse business ground to a halt. Mahoning Valley church bells tolled in mourning as the churches planned memorial services.
Schools and government offices announced they’d be closed Monday, Nov. 25, the day of the president’s funeral, which had been declared a national day of mourning.
At Youngstown University, faculty and students went to the nearest radios to hear the news; “a sudden calm came over the cafeteria” as students looked at one another in disbelief; and instructors canceled classes, according to the Nov. 26, 1963, issue of the student newspaper, The Jambar.
“Backstage in the University Theater, Drama Guild members stood stunned with their heads partly bowed. Some sobbed, while other sighed in bewilderment,” The Jambar said in its “in memoriam” extra edition.
Mary Rita Carney of Boardman heard the news on a car radio as she traveled the Pennsylvania Turnpike with her husband, Thomas, and their children, en route to the wedding of her brother, Jack McNicholas, which was the following day in Wilmington, Del.
“We were just so shocked, and so saddened and so upset,” recalled Mary Rita Carney, a retired instructional aide at West Boulevard Elementary School in Boardman.
“The wedding went on as planned, but it was very difficult for us, who were great fans of JFK,” said Thomas Carney, a former state representative and former Mahoning County commissioner.
Claranne Lyden McCloud of Boardman, a receptionist at the Inn at Ironwood assisted living center in Canfield and a former Mahoning County Child Support Enforcement Agency case manager, heard the news while she was in her Indianola Avenue home in Youngstown with her newborn and 3-year-old daughters, while her two sons attended St. Dominic School.
“I was listening to Dorothy Fuldheim. It was a news program from Cleveland,” when that TV program was interrupted by the bulletin, she recalled.
“I was very upset because we were all thrilled with our wonderful young president, and I just could not believe something so tragic could happen,” she said.
“My brother-in-law had died at an early age of 46 the previous June, and so, we were in the throes of grieving for him, and it just seemed so overwhelming to have this other young person taken from us,” she recalled.
After her husband came home from work and the family ate supper, she went to St. Dominic Church to pray and found the church filled with prayerful mourners, even though no memorial Mass had been scheduled for that evening.
“It was packed. I was truly amazed. As I got to St. Dominic’s, you could see the traffic, and I pulled into the parking lot. The parking lot was full,” she said. “It made me feel that I did the right thing,” she said of the crowded church.
Fred Owens, professor of communication at Youngstown State University, heard the news over the public-address system while he was conjugating verbs in a Latin class as a ninth-grader at Volney Rogers Junior High School.
Owens said his first reaction to the news that JFK had been shot was the same disbelief he initially experienced when he learned of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: “This can’t be. It’s not possible.”
“I remember watching a lot of television,” said Owens, who lived directly across the street from the Schenley Avenue junior high school.
“I remember seeing the plane land in D.C.,” carrying the president’s casket during the TV coverage.
He also remembers watching the Monday funeral procession. “It was all carried live, and very much like 9/11; it was just constant coverage,” he observed.
“We were all in shock,” said Adel Moritz of Boardman, who learned of the assassination over the public-address system at St. Dominic School while she was in eighth grade.
“It shook the very core of our security. We had never lived through anything like that before,” she observed. “We had happy lives. We were blessed, and we had no sadness, and this was sadness.”
AT THE VINDICATOR
“Havoc,” was the word Ron Pentz of Canfield used to describe the atmosphere in The Vindicator’s composing room, where he was a makeup man, who assembled lead type into pages on Nov. 22, 1963.
“Everybody was running around like chickens. The engraving department would make the plates for the pictures, and they were changing them at different times of the day as new photos would come in,” Pentz recalled.
The paper’s presses were stopped twice for revisions during the city edition’s run on that Friday.
“The next day and the next day was havoc, too. The newsroom was trying to keep up with everything,” he said. “They did a good job,” said Pentz, who retired as composing room foreman in 1992.
‘‘Everybody in there was sad,” Pentz said of the 130 people who then worked in the newspaper’s composing room.
‘‘It was just a sad day all the way around,” he added.
Dick Coughlin of Boardman, owner of the House of Erin Irish gift shop and a retired mail carrier, remembers learning the news from Brookwood Road residents in Boardman as he delivered their mail.
“I was devastated. I was almost in shock,” Coughlin said, recalling seeing stunned residents standing in their front yards after the news broke.
Coughlin said his first reaction was disbelief and that he then hoped in vain that someone would tell him the news reports were mistaken.
“I went home after I got done carrying mail. My wife and I did not leave the house for three days. We were just mesmerized by what we saw on TV. We just could not turn the TV off,” Coughlin said.
Atty. David Betras, Mahoning County Democratic Party chairman, was only 3 years old when President Kennedy was assassinated, but said he vividly remembers that day as he was growing up in Boardman.
“That’s my first memory as a child, and so, that’s why I think it’s had such a lasting imprint on me,” Betras said.
“My mother was out shopping. We had a baby sitter. Her name was Mary, and she started crying uncontrollably, and I couldn’t understand why she was crying,” he recalled. “I remember her saying, ‘They shot and killed the president.’”
The waiting room walls in Betras’ Canfield law office are adorned with Kennedy administration memorabilia, including framed quotes from his inaugural address, photos from his presidency, a rare commemorative dish bearing the faces of the president and first lady, and a painting, titled “The Peace Sowers,” which depicts President Kennedy and the pope sowing seeds in a field.
Harry Meshel, who was chairman of the Mahoning County chapter of Citizens for Kennedy in 1960, recalled hearing someone shouting the news that JFK had been shot across the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where Meshel had gone as an adviser to the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity.
“We suffered a real loss at that time,” Meshel recalled, his voice straining with emotion as he stood amid his extensive collection of original 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign posters and memorabilia.
Meshel, who immediately went to hear the news on his car radio, said he was troubled by the indifference of many on that campus to the news. “They were students who really didn’t get too excited about anything. That irritated me terribly,” Meshel said.
“The real people, who worked for a living and who had businesses to worry about and things of that sort, saw this as being catastrophic.
“You become very emotional about it when you think about it because there was so much promise,” in the Kennedy administration, Meshel observed. “You saw the way he stood up to the Cubans and the Russians, and that was rare. And those of us who were in World War II really respected that,” said Meshel, who was a World War II Navy Seabee.
“You keep hoping for a renewal of that kind of spirit in our country,” he added.
Meshel, of Youngstown, would later become Ohio Senate president and minority leader and state Democratic chairman. He is now a Youngstown State University trustee.