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JFK Assassination Looms Large in WC's Collective Memory

50th Anniversary Offers Time to Pause and Reflect upon Watershed Tragedy

November 21, 2013

Edward Agran, professor of history, shares memories of John F. Kennedy with WC sophomores Louis Williams (left) and Jesse Buhrman as they look through LIFE magazine's iconic memorial edition.

Edward Agran, professor of history, shares memories of John F. Kennedy with WC sophomores Louis Williams (left) and Jesse Buhrman as they look through LIFE magazine's iconic memorial edition.

A number of Wilmington College faculty and staff members shared memories of the tragedy that helped define the modern era of American history in recalling where they were and how they felt when they learned President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas Nov. 22, 1963.

Surprisingly, some even had close family and other ties that related directly to the characters in the shocking real-life drama.

Like many, Cathy Pitzer, assistant professor of social and political studies, was in school when she heard the news.

“I was at a pep rally,” she recalled. “Someone had a transistor radio and said the president had been shot. I walked home from school and found my mom crying while watching TV.”

Pitzer said the assassination seemed to “usher in more and more violence,” with the subsequent killings of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X, as well as urban rioting. “To this day, the country has never regained the sense of optimism and hope for the future that Kennedy brought to his presidency,” she added.

Donna McClughen, records specialist in Academic Records, was in Mr. Baird’s sixth grade reading class when the announcement came over the intercom. “It was followed by extreme silence and then one of my classmates burst into tears,” she said. “It was difficult for us to believe such a thing could really happen in our country.”

Steve Spirk, director of athletic development and women’s soccer coach, was five years old when he saw his mother crying as his family gathered to view the news on their black and white TV.
“I asked her why she was crying. She answered, ‘They have shot the president.’”

(LEFT) Official White House portrait

Edward Agran, professor of history, was brought up in what he described as “a liberal household — John Kennedy was pretty much a deity.” A teacher came into the 13-year-old’s English class and whispered the news to his teacher.

“She just collapsed and said, ‘I can’t. I can’t.’ Mr. Coughlin, a tough, dignified guy, told the class, ‘The president has been shot,’” Agran said. “Everyone was just hushed. And then it all spinned out over the next few days: non-stop news, shots (killing Lee Harvey Oswald), the funeral, the rider-less horse…”

Ron Rembert, professor of religion and philosophy, was an eighth grader in Houston on the day that “remains very vivid in my mind.”

“We were given early dismissal and I remember walking home with many confused thoughts going through my mind: ‘Why would anyone want to kill the president?’ ‘What would happen to the government after such an incident?’ ‘How could such a terrible event happen in Dallas, in my home state?’

“I felt a great sense of insecurity all of a sudden. It was such an empty feeling,” he said, adding that he, like millions of others, witnessed Oswald’s killing live on television. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It seemed more like a movie than a real life moment.”

(RIGHT) Official White House portrait of JFK's inauguration, January 1961

Steven A. Stovall, associate professor of management, is also a Texas native, and his father, Sgt. Billy Stovall, was a deputy sheriff in Dallas County from 1962 to 1980. One of his first duties was serving as a guard in the Dallas County Jail while (Oswald assailant) Jack Ruby was held there, he said.

“My dad played checkers and dominos with him during many late nights. He found Ruby to be loud and gregarious, and would rarely cease talking — ‘rattling’ is the word my dad used to describe Ruby’s incessant talking.”

Terry Miller, associate professor of education, is acquainted with a woman that had Lee and Marina Oswald boarding at her home in Dallas.

“She gave Lee Harvey driving lessons and unknowingly had the rifle with which he shot Kennedy hidden in her garage prior to the assassination,” he said. “She was pretty convinced he was the lone gunman.”

Miller is also. He calls Oliver Stone’s conspiracy film, JFK, a “travesty” and noted that he read Gerald Posner’s Case Closed last summer in anticipation of the 50th anniversary. “I found it to be a very convincing rebuttal to all of the crazy conspiracy theories out there.”

Mary Rose Zink, associate professor of psychology, said Kennedy was an “icon in my family’s eyes” because he was a Roman Catholic and openly spoke about his developmentally disabled sister, Rosemary. Two of Zink’s siblings have been afflicted with Down syndrome.

(LEFT) White House portrait of Kennedy speaking on civil rights in 1963.

“John Kennedy resonated on multiple levels,” she said. Then six years old, Zink recalls, “Standing at the kitchen counter — the cabinets were creamy yellow and the counter was Formica made up of white, tan and brown speckles — and my mother explained what had happened in Dallas.

“To this day, when I teach Flashbulb Memory, the highly detailed memory of an emotional event, I think of that time,” she added.

Unlike many that commented, Vinton Prince, professor of history, along with many of his college contemporaries attending school in North Carolina, were less than enamored with Kennedy. Yet, the event was shocking as Prince learned of the shooting while dressing for a collegiate soccer match.

He took a special interest in Oswald’s gun that he recalled initially was reported to have been a Mauser, which was the primary German rifle used in both World Wars, he said.

“We later heard Kennedy had been shot by an Italian 6.5mm Carcano carbine, the gun Oswald posed with,” he said. “At that point, I and several friends became quite skeptical because we didn’t have a lot of respect for the Carcano — today, I am inclined to think we were wrong.”

Sharon Lewis, the College’s institutional grant writer, remembers the poignant affect the assassination had upon her family.

                                      (RIGHT) White House portrait

“The next several days my entire family sat glued to the television watching news, morning ‘til night,” she said. “What I remember most is seeing my father cry for the first and only time in my life. I knew this was life-changing.”

Lewis said she felt like she needed to sacrifice something in the tragedy’s aftermath, so she gave up reading the “funny papers. As I became an adult, I often thought it was a strange thing to do, yet I made that sacrifice in 1963, so I had to keep it,” she added. “To this day, I’ve not read the comics since I was 15.”

Jim Boland, professor of education, was a first grader in Cincinnati on Nov. 22, 1963.

“My teacher was a Franciscan nun and another nun entered the room and they talked privately — it was clear they were both upset,” he said. “I remember watching the black-and-white TV footage. I remember the weekend was emotional and it left a strong impression on me.”

Boland went on to become a fan of JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy. “I followed his 1968 presidential campaign and watched the primary coverage in California and went to bed before he was shot,” he said. “My mother woke me up to tell me he was dead. I still think of RFK as my personal hero and one of the highlights of my professional career was meeting his son, RFK Jr., at the Peace Resource Center." Kennedy spoke at the 2003 Westheimer Peace Symposium.

Ken Lydy, associate vice president for student affairs, wasn’t alive in 1963 so he possesses a more pop cultural approach to the Kennedy assassination, something that’s part of history but not directly his history.

His high school senior class saw Stone’s JFK, which challenged the Warren Commission’s finding that Oswald was the lone shooter.

(LEFT) Kennedy speaks of landing a man on the moon and returning his safely to Earth in 1961.

“I remember asking my mom where she was when Kennedy was shot — I was intrigued that she could recall it exactly,” he said, noting that, years later, he was cast in WC Theatre’s production of the Stephen Sondheim musical, Assassins.

“I had the opportunity to play Samuel Byck, the man who wanted to kill Richard Nixon by stealing a plane and crashing it into the White House,” he said. “It was an interesting show with ‘real’ people who all felt as though they were justified in doing what they did. It was fun to get into the head of a real person and portray them on stage.”

Thomas Nelson, adjunct professor of English, was a college freshman in Illinois when he skipped his Friday morning classes to rehearse with a local blues band for which he played keyboards.

“On that day, we were tightening up John Lee Hooker’s “Boom, Boom” so that we could add it to our set list for Saturday,” he recalled. “Later that afternoon, through accident and random chance, the lyrics of the first verse would take on an eerie and poignant irony: ‘Boom, boom, boom, boom — gonna shoot you right down.’”

By the noon hour, Nelson was returning to campus in his bandmate’s “worn and sagging” ’55 Buick Roadmaster when KSTT radio announced a shooting on the president’s motorcade route in Dallas. “Ten seconds of dead air space — a seeming eon — followed while we awaited the promised ‘further details’ in shocked silence. The announcement resumes but brought no further details; only rumors: ‘Shots had been fired and the president’s limousine had diverted and sped away; the president had escaped but might have been hit; the president may have been injured; the president’s injuries may be serious.’”

Nelson walked into the college cafeteria, which was abuzz with those same rumors.

“We ate quietly, talking among ourselves, shocked, disbelieving, anxious and apprehensive all at once,” he said, noting he followed his normal “routine” and went to chemistry lab, where Dr. Bernsten suggested his students work on chemistry to give their minds some respite from the news. The professor placed a small transistor radio on the windowsill.

“Those of us who stayed worked halfheartedly, too absorbed by the radio to concentrate,” Nelson said, noting the announcement of the president’s death came toward the middle of the lab.

The next night his band played “insipidly to a scant, tepid crowd in a hole-in the-wall Mississippi bar,” he added. “I don't know why we bothered. Routine, I guess. Routine helps one survive and keep going.
“Needless to say, we scratched ‘Boom, Boom’ from the set list.

"To this day, it still ignites a flash of memories and, for a fleeting moment, I am an 18-year-old college freshman who has just learned that the President of the United States has been shot and killed.”