It rained in Tacoma on the day President John F. Kennedy was shot. There had been snow a few days before.
That week began with news of normal rhythm and little consequence.
The pledges at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Puget Sound handcuffed one of the older brothers and sent him to San Diego in a series of relays with other SAE chapters in Oregon and California.
The lights went out on a meeting of the Steilacoom Town Council, which had gathered to discuss an electricity ordinance. The Tacoma City Council approved funding of new streetlights. A new set of block leaders was appointed to the Hilltop Neighborhood Improvement Council.
Students at Lincoln High School held their final rehearsals for a series of one-act plays, scheduled for Friday.
Victor Borge played at the UPS Fieldhouse on Wednesday night. A “completely remodeled” Hi-Hat Cabaret opened in Lakewood. “Irma La Douce” played at the Temple Theater, and “The Miracle of Santa’s Reindeer” hit the Roxy. The Bobby Page Troupe played at the Sabre Room inside the Winthrop Hotel.
The Elephant Car Wash at South 25th Street and Pacific Avenue celebrated its grand opening. On Thursday night, Caddigan Marina burned along Ruston Way.
Then came Friday, and the world changed.
At 10:30 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, Kennedy was shot. An hour later, the news came that he had died.
Gov. Albert Rosellini canceled a noon speech at the Tacoma Young Men’s Business Club. He called for prayer.
Tacoma Mayor Harold Tollefson told a reporter, “I felt physically sick.”
Washington State Patrol Chief Roy Betlach called all officers back to duty.
“We don’t know what we might expect,” he said. “You never know whether subversive groups may decide to take some action.”
Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base, as well as the State Civil Defense Department in Olympia, were placed on emergency alert.
Churches opened their doors. Church bells rang.
At the Top of the Ocean, officials attending a safety colloquium decided to continue the meeting after lunch.
“President Kennedy would have wanted us to go on,” one said.
Flags on foreign ships docked at the Port of Tacoma were lowered to half-mast. After first deciding to go on with the event, the Fircrest Fire Department postponed the Firemen’s Ball. At a meeting of the Tacoma Coin Club on Friday night, one member had hastily assembled a display of coins and medals featuring assassinated leaders.
The Apple Cup was postponed. Radio and television stations canceled commercial broadcasting and switched to news or sad music.
By Monday, the day of the funeral, all government offices were closed, so too all schools and most retail stores.
All weekend, families gathered.
“I remember this deep, deep sadness,” wrote Paula Peluso Fiorino, who in 1963 was a 12-year-old seventh-grader at Visitation Catholic School in South Tacoma. “It seemed that there was global mourning going on as everyone in the world seemed to be touched by his death.
“It was the first time in my life that I saw my dad cry. And on the day of JFK’s funeral, when John John saluted the casket, my mother put her head in her hands and was sobbing out loud.
“It is bringing tears to my eyes as I recall that memory.”
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535
Vivid memories, anguish, questions
The News Tribune recently asked readers for their memories of the day President John F. Kennedy was shot.
Some of those who responded were in kindergarten in 1963. Others were in the U.S. military. They were mothers alone with small children or schoolchildren bewildered by the tears of trusted adults.
They remember in precise detail what they were wearing, who brought the news, what was being served for lunch and what the weather was. They remember that television was black-and-white and the future had grown suddenly gray. They remember their tears and their fear as their innocence grew suddenly thin.
These memories are excerpted from a large response of letters and emails.
- The winding road of tragedy
- Timeline: Tracking Kennedy's final hours
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I was a young sixth-grade teacher at Narrows View School in University Place. The principal appeared at the door of my portable classroom. He was ashen-faced and visibly shaken. The next hour was possibly the most difficult time in my 37-year teaching career. Somehow, I found the means to present the news to the youngsters in a fashion I hope did not traumatize them for the rest of their lives.
I was living in an unfinished house in Sumner on that chilly November day. Living with four little boys under 7 was not an easy task, but that was our hope for the future. I was just saying goodbye to my neighbor at the front door. The television set was on. I remember my oldest son asking me why people shoot each other. Now it is his son who asks me the same question. I have no good answer.
My husband and I were riding in a borrowed Jeep on a mountain trail in Montana. When we arrived back at the ranch, the owner met us at the gate and told us the president had been shot and killed. We still had 65 miles to drive home. It was a somber drive while we listened to the radio all the way. I am 91 years old now, and it is still a vivid memory.
I was 11 years old. I remember crying silently, and then we were sent home to our parents. It was frightening to see our mother weeping and unable to express to us, my brother, sister and me, what was going on and what had happened. She finally explained to us that our president was dead and just held her head in her hands and sobbed. Our father came home from work early and they cried together.
I remember loving listening to the soundtrack from “Camelot” because my parents loved it and now it was something that made them very sad. To this day my heart cries a little when I hear the line in the song, “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”
Being able to watch the funeral procession on TV will always be a memory. Jackie was impressive. My heart ached for her, for me and for our country. Still the killing continues with guns. So very sad.
Grace C. Beebe
I was in our rented home on Fox Island with my two girls, ages 3 and 5. I was stunned, shocked and unbelieving of what I was watching on television. On a lighter note, I received a call from our local feed store. I was told I had won a Shetland pony. I knew nothing about my husband purchasing a 50-cent ticket from the car club raffle at school. We named the pony JFK, and called him Jack for short. He lived for 30 years.
I was working for The Tacoma News Tribune in the pressroom. We were just getting ready to print the first edition of that day’s paper. The first run on the press was for the newsstands in and around Tacoma, about 5,000 papers.
We received word that JFK had been shot in Dallas and that we should wait for a re-plate of Page One. We received the re-plate and ran about 3,000 papers, when we were told to shut down for another re-plate. That page stated that JFK was shot in the head and it was very serious.
The main edition of that day’s paper had many, many re-plates as the news from Dallas kept coming. We ran an extra edition for the newsstands at the end of the day, one of the only extra editions I remember in the 40 years I worked for the paper. It was a profound moment when I realized that we, at The News Tribune, were a large part of informing so many people about the events of that day and week.
My family and I were living on Terceira Island, at Lajes Field in the Azores. My father, an Air Force pilot, had been transferred from McChord Air Force Base. I was 16, my sister was 14 and my brother was 10.
All of the American families and many Portuguese pulled together as we tried talking about the president, but we couldn’t grasp the reality of what had happened. Being so isolated, we had no clue what the people in our country were going through. We felt devastated, helpless and scared.
As the weekend went on, we learned words such as “sniper,” “caisson” and “catafalque.” We grieved and seemed to come together as a nation as a result of this tragic event. In my experience, Sept. 11, 2001, might have been the event which came closest to the feelings of those days.
We had relocated to Philadelphia. When the announcement was made that President Kennedy’s body would be given a public viewing in Washington, D.C., my father made the decision to drive that evening to view the president’s flag-draped coffin. It was a long ride, and I slept most of the way.
When we finally found a place to park, we had to walk up and down numerous stairs with my baby sister’s stroller. It was dark, bitterly cold.
When we finally reached the rotunda, we saw the soldiers standing around the casket. My father went under the velvet rope and approached a soldier explaining he was the president of the Young Democrats, and needed a picture for the newspaper. (He stood) my brother and I in front of the casket and he took our picture.
I was head of the Bon Marche display department in downtown Tacoma. I was working in a large window display on Broadway when one of my staff came in and said, “Our president was just shot in Dallas.” I ran out of the display window and headed for the basement where the TV/large appliance/hardware department was. I remember standing there watching with the manager of the TV department and the head of the store until Walter Cronkite came on with tears running down his face, saying that our president was dead.
Patsy (Patricia Bernadette O’Leary) Glaser
It just didn’t occur to me that he might die. No one would dare kill Kennedy. I was working for Weyerhaeuser in Tacoma. My fiancé called me. I immediately told those in the office and someone turned on a radio. Work virtually stopped while we all began to listen.
Bonita M. Henderson
The death of JFK is one of my earliest childhood memories. I was 5 years old and had just walked into our family living room to find my mother crying. This was the first time I had seen an adult cry. She got down on her knees and hugged me. I could see the TV over her shoulder. I didn’t quite realize the significance of the event, but knew that if it was tragic enough to make my mother cry, it had to be a pretty big deal.
It was fitting that later in life I became a Special Forces Green Beret, the “green beret” being the official head gear authorized for Special Forces by JFK.
John Henterly (chief warrant officer, retired)
I was 13 years old and an eighth-grader at Shuksan Junior High School in Bellingham. I was waiting in line at the school cafeteria — macaroni and cheese was served that day — when the public address was activated with news reports that President Kennedy had been shot. We were told to report back to our homeroom, and I vividly remember Mr. Bruce openly crying in front of the classroom.
We were all simply numb with disbelief. All those feelings and memories come back as though they happened yesterday.
I was in the Marine Corps in 1963, stationed in Iwakuni, Japan. I had duty all night at the 1st Marine Air Wing Headquarters. Nice quiet night, so I was listening to a radio station from the States when news came over of Kennedy’s death. I had to call the commanding general of the wing and wake him with the news. Then all hell broke loose. They put everyone on alert, ready to ship out if this was an attack on the United States. Scary time for a young Marine.
In May 1963 I joined the Marine Corps. On that fatal day I was in India Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines. We were up in the mountains on Camp Pendleton. Our company commander had us in a formation and told us that we were ending our training early. They sent a convoy of trucks to pick us up and we boarded them and headed for our barracks.
The downhill grade was very steep and one of the trucks in the convoy lost its brakes and went over a cliff and took the lives of 13 great Marines.
Once we got back to the barracks they called us out into formation and told us that President Kennedy had been shot and killed. We all stood there and couldn’t believe it. They declared it a day of rest, but the funny thing was, no one moved, not even a step. I still remember that day 50 years later. A lot of great people died that day.
As a junior in high school, I was still on a cloud after seeing JFK at Cheney Stadium. I recall hearing over the PA that the president had been shot. As students at a Catholic high school, we were then directed to pray for Mr. Kennedy. As was the custom at our school in both times of joy and sorrow, we trooped up the hill to St. Patrick’s Church. I remember the silence of the girls as we made our way to church, 400 teenage girls, none speaking.
When I got home, my mother was just getting home from a dentist’s appointment. She was shaken. She told me a passenger on the bus made the announcement about the shooting and the riders were stunned except for one man who stood up as the bus drove on and shouted, “Good! We finally got rid of that (racial slur).” The bus driver stopped immediately, faced the man and ordered him off the bus. The remaining riders applauded.
I was in fourth grade at Wainwright Elementary School in Fircrest. The principal, Mrs. Pflugmacher, called our teacher, Mrs. Lindbergh, over to the door. Mrs. P. spoke in hushed tones, and both their faces grew increasingly grave as she talked.
Mrs. Lindbergh then came to the front of the class and said words to the effect: “Children, sometimes very bad things happen but we find a way to overcome them.” Then she told us (what had happened).
I was actually relieved. Given the grave look on her face, I thought she was going to tell us we had been nuked. This was not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis and we routinely had “duck and cover” drills. One night I dreamed that Russian ships had come into Commencement Bay in an invasion.
Working as a lineman for a small telephone company in Eastern Washington, I had just repaired a wheat farmer’s phone in rural Adams County. “Key is under the doormat, so let yourself in as we are not home” were the standard instructions in rural America in the 1960s. Inside the farmer’s home, I made a call to a lady in town to test the line and was devastated by her response. She was crying uncontrollably and managed somehow to tell me that the president had been shot. I sat down in the farmer’s living room, turned on his TV and learned of the horrible events of this day.
I was in the fourth grade at Southgate Elementary School. I remember it was a typical day at school until a student messenger brought in a note from the office. Our teacher, Gerald Cashen, a World War II veteran, read the note and said to us, “Children, a terrible thing has happened to our country. President Kennedy has been assassinated.”
We were a little unsure about the word, but seeing how upset he was, we knew it wasn’t a good thing. During recess an hour later, our principal, Martin North, walked around visiting us. I remember everyone wanted to hold hands with him. Two months before, we had seen the president’s helicopter from the same playfield, as he flew to Cheney Stadium to make a speech.
I was only 8 years old but I knew something was terribly wrong. Recess was over. Mrs. Walton was leaning on a desk, her body bent and tears streaming down her cheeks. The lights were off in the classroom and a TV was set up at the front of the room. We surrounded her and begged to know what was wrong.
“President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, Texas.” I remember Mrs. Walton telling us that although it is scary when bad things happen, we were safe and the United States was the strongest country in the world and we would be OK.
It was the memory of Mrs. Walton’s strength and calm that I recalled on Jan. 28, 1986. My fifth-grade class had been studying about outer space and knew I had been considered in the early rounds of NASA’s “Teacher in Space” program. I promised them there would be a television in the classroom when they arrived that morning so we could watch the liftoff of the Space Shuttle Challenger. At 8:30 the rocket disappeared in a cloud of fire and smoke. I realized I had to somehow help my students understand, I had to calm them, even though I was in shock.
And then, I thought of Mrs. Walton. She had taught me well.
I was a young registered nurse working for a surgeon in the Medical Arts Building. I still know the feeling of complete disbelief we all felt. We closed the office early. Going home it felt as if everyone had evacuated Tacoma. There were no cars or people anywhere. It was a surreal time and the news kept coming.
I am 74 years old now and still remember that day like it was yesterday. It began a profound change in this country that is still felt today. It still brings tears to my eyes when all those feelings start washing over me. No matter what our political leanings were, we were young and he was our president. It was like losing a member of the family.
Compiled by staff writer C.R. Roberts.