Area residents reflect on Kennedy’s death

This week marks 50th anniversary of the assassination

— Fifty years ago next Friday, a shot rang out during a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, and hit President John F. Kennedy.

For people alive at the time and old enough to remember, they’ll always remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the president had been shot and later died.

“I vividly remember the shooting like it was yesterday,” Omak resident and Police Clerk Tommye Robbins said.

She was an eighth-grader in Omak and the social studies teacher, Mr. Elsenson, came into the classroom and announced the president had been shot. He left the room, but soon returned to announce Kennedy had died.

“We gasped,” Robbins said. “I couldn’t get beyond the president dying. I was worried. What next? We were in social studies, trying to listen, but who could? I was scared.”

Later in the day, students went outside the building during lunch and huddled in groups, talking about the news and trying to understand what was happening.

“We tried to make sense out of the shooting,” Robbins said. “And who was now in charge? Johnson. What if he were shot? Who would be in charge? Too many questions. And we only had our own answers.”

The president’s death cut across political lines, with families on both sides of the aisle impacted deeply.

Inchelium resident and former Colville Business Council member Lou Stone said he was 14 and in his freshman biology classroom at Colville High School when he heard the news.

“This was an emotionally charged time,” and he doesn’t recall anyone expressing any joy about the death, he said.

“While the grief in our household was heavy, it was confusing and frustrating as well,” since nine months earlier, Stone’s father had died and he was still in grief and trauma from that.

“My dad was a big fan of President Kennedy and my dad’s absence denied me conversation and discussion – his intelligence – on the lead-up to and aftermath of this horrible conclusion of a persona and natural capacity as held by President Kennedy,” Stone said.

Tonasket resident and Larkhaven Farmstead Cheeses co-owner Clare Paris’ family was on the other side of the political spectrum, with her parents being avid young Republicans.

“My sister is the same age as Caroline, so we had the president’s daughter’s photo on the bulletin board by the breakfast table and we talked about the first family,” she said.

Her father often set up backyard football skirmishes, as the Kennedy family did, “so they seemed like a family like us, although at a distance.”

On the day Kennedy was shot, Paris was in her fourth-grade classroom in Bothell. Someone came into the room with the news, which the teacher “solemnly reported to us.”

Paris said she remembers not really knowing how to feel.

“The president and his family were so fairy tale-like, and the idea of someone being shot dead, so surreal,” she said.

A TV was rolled into the classroom and the students watched news coverage as it unfolded. Paris said when she got home, she found her mother watching the news on TV.

“I remember that I was momentarily surprised, in that life-is-black-and-white kind of way, to find that she was quietly crying as she watched the coverage, since we didn’t vote for Kennedy in the election,” she said. “It took me a few more years to understand the nature of that national tragedy, but in the meanwhile, I began to feel the sadness of the terrible events as we watched, over time, the now-iconic scenes of the shooting, of Jackie in her black veil, of the children, and especially John-John, at the gravesite.”

Oroville resident Ann Marie Ricevuto also remembers compassion for Kennedy’s family. She also was a fourth-grader, at James Sales Elementary School in Parkland, when the president died.

“The announcement came over the intercom system, ‘Our president has been shot and has died.’ We sat in stunned silence, all 15 to 20 10-year-olds,” she said. The teacher “gave each of us a pink mint from her desk drawer and said we should think about his family, wife and children. The rest of the day was spent drawing pictures to be mailed to the family. Doing our best work.”

When she got home, Ricevuto remembers the house being very quiet “as we waited for my dad, who was in the Army, to come home. We had the TV on the entire weekend.”

She said Kennedy was the first president she remembers, so his death had a big impact on her.

And, like Paris, she remembers pictures of him and his children in magazines “appearing as a regular family just like ours. The fact that a terrible thing happened to the president made it seem like it could happen to anyone,” Ricevuto said.

Okanogan School District Superintendent Richard Johnson was a 12-year-old sixth-grader when the principal came into the room, whispered something to the teacher and left.

“The teacher said, ‘A terrible thing has happened. Our president has been shot. The buses are coming to take you home,’” Johnson said.

“I was sad that a person died,” he said. “I went home on the bus and told my parents. We lived in Northern Idaho at the time and we did not have TV or telephone. My dad became angry when he heard the news and my mom cried a lot.”

Johnson said that made him cry. His mother told him and his three brothers not to talk about it any more since it would make their dad mad again. They spent the rest of the day working in the woods.

“When logging was done for the day, we milked cows and had supper. For dessert, Mom made fudge, which was Dad’s favorite dessert. No more was said about President Kennedy’s death until I went back to school.”

Those who were college students have a different perspective, with the news coming while they were away from home.

“I was in my freshman year at the U of W,” former Okanogan County Health District Director Paul Waterstrat said. “I was coming back to the dorm after class. The TV in the student lounge was on with the news and the lounge was crowded with people.”

Former Okanogan National Forest information officer Allen Gibbs, who now lives in Mill Creek, said he was getting ready for his first class of the day at Western Washington State College in Bellingham.

“I had my portable radio on and heard that the president had been shot,” he said. “I took my radio with me to campus and to the political science department. Word had been received and was spreading fast.”

He said he doesn’t remember when the news changed from “Kennedy has been shot” to “Kennedy is dead,” but he does remember students and faculty in a conference room listing to his radio.

Reactions included tears, disbelief, anger, swearing and speculation about who the killer or killers were and concerns over “whether this was just the start of something much larger to come,” Gibbs said.

Many of the students in his rooming house lived in Seattle and went home for the weekend. He, being from Wenatchee, was left to absorb the news with the house’s owners, who thought it was sad but were not political people.

“I do remember that CBS was the TV network of choice because of Walter Cronkite as anchor. There was no 24-hour news and no PBS network in those days,” he said. “But the networks ran through most of the weekend and were on the air much of the time through to the national funeral.”

The focus then switched to Kennedy’s killer, then why and then word of Lee Harvey Oswald’s capture and subsequent murder.

“A lot to absorb in a brief period,” Gibbs said.

Republic resident Bobbi Weller was 20 and working in the Ferry County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office when Kennedy was shot. She remembers Auditor Adeline (Joey) Schreiber running down the stairs, yelling that the president had been shot.

A radio was turned on in the county road office and workers huddled around, listening to the news.

“The impact was great upon all of us,” Weller said. “It’s all we could talk about and I know we watched it on the television as much as we could, when we weren’t working.”

Omak School Board member Wendell George, an engineer, was in Huntsville, Ala., working for Boeing on the Apollo program on Nov. 22, 1963.

After the shooting, “I watched the news on TV constantly and on Sunday I saw, in real time, Jack Ruby shoot Oswald. The country was in deep shock and couldn’t believe it happened.”

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