On November 22, 1963 at 1:30 p.m. EST, John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was shot while riding in an open limousine in Dallas. One-half hour later, doctors at a nearby hospital pronounced him dead.
At the time, it was an article of faith that no American would ever forget where he or she was or what they were doing at the exact moment they heard the word the president had been assassinated. Fifty year later, The Daily Sun interviewed 25 Lakes Region residents who are old enough to remembered that day to get an idea as to whether or not that was indeed the case.
For Rick Leahy of Laconia, the Kennedy assassination happened on his 13th birthday. "I've always thought of 13 as an unlucky number because of that" coincidence, he said.
Leahy was in eighth-grade French class at what was then Memorial Junior High School in Laconia. "The intercom came on and they were piping in the radio broadcast that the president had been shot," he recalled. Classes for the day ended soon afterward. Leahy and the other students learned the president had died when an announcement came over the intercom as they were preparing the leave the building. Leahy eventually went on to teach history at Laconia High School. He recalled that when the Challenger explosion happened in 1986 he told his students that that event would have the same lasting impact on them as the Kennedy assassination had for him. "It was something they would always remember," he said.
On every Nov. 22, Bess Hanson of Center Harbor thinks as much about her late husband as she thinks of John F. Kennedy. Lewis C. Hanson had risen to the rank of colonel in the U.S. Air Force and had the privilege of serving as the co-pilot on Air Force 1 for a couple of years in the early 1960s. His tenure in that position included flying the president and the first lady to Dallas, the last flight Kennedy would take in his life. Bess recalled walking up the stairway in their Center Harbor home when she heard the bulletin announced on the television. "It was such a shock, all I remember is that I had gone upstairs, and I heard it and I couldn't believe it." As shocked as she was, the news hit her husband even harder. "He was almost crazy about it. He couldn't believe it," she said. Lewis, who passed away about seven years ago, alternated between astonishment that someone would do such a thing, and anger that it had been done. He has such respect for the president, Bess explained, that Kennedy's death was nearly as traumatic for him as the murder of a family member. "It really did affect him a lot. He was going around here in a daze for a week."
Gordon King of Laconia was sitting in the apartment where he and his wife, Mary, were living in Meredith. "We heard the news (bulletin) on TV. It was Walter Cronkite announcing the president had been shot," he said. "We were stunned like everybody else. We said in front of the TV for the next four days" watching the coverage of the funeral cortege, the lying in state, the shooting of alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, and Kennedy's funeral and burial. King said today's anniversary of the assassination prompted him to pull out the issues he kept of Life, Look and Saturday Evening Post magazines which were published soon after the event.
Instead of thinking of Kennedy's assassination on every Nov. 22, Esther Peters of Laconia chooses to remember the young man that she had the pleasure of interviewing more than a half-century ago. Peters ran a well-known radio program in Laconia that interviewed people of note, whether they were interesting locals or people from out-of-town. It was in that capacity that Peters had the chance to meet and interview a young Senator John Kennedy who was on the verge of announcing his candidacy. She remembers him as an impressionable man who was ready to adopt any idea that he found appealing. Some of his positions, she said, didn't always agree with others that he espoused. Yet, he won her over. "His ideas were still flexible, but he was very personable, warm and cheerful, a great deal more cheerful than other politicians who came before him. He was looking forward to a great deal of life, and everybody took to him as soon as they met him... At that time, most people were doom and gloom, but not John F. Kennedy." She continued, "He was a wonderful, wonderful person. I miss him terribly. He was a rare kind of person."
Tom Tobey of Gilford was putting on siding on a house he and his work crew were building in Concord. "I was up on the staging and a woman who lived in house nearby came out and told us that the president had been shot," he said. "We all stopped, paused and said a little prayer. We didn't do much for the rest of the day," he remembered. "It was tough."
Judie Reever of Laconia remembers she was home baby-sitting the next-door neighbor's little girl, when like Gordon King, she heard Walter Cronkite read the news bulletin that Kennedy had been shot. "I felt like I had been punched in the stomach," she said. Reever carefully put the little girl in the baby carriage and went to the front door just at the mailman was coming up the steps to deliver the mail. "I told him, 'The president's been shot.' I just had to tell someone," she said. The assassination occurred just two days before the Reevers' wedding anniversary. They decided not to do anything special to mark the occasion. "I felt it wasn't right to celebrate," she said. Reever said the assassination had more of an impact on her and her husband, Jim, than it did on the two children they had at the time. "When you're younger you don't quite fully understand what death is. My father died when I was 9. I took it pretty well at the time. It took a long time to know that (death) is forever."
For James Barrie of Sandwich, the assassination of the U.S. president occurred less than a year after he had immigrated from Montreal. Up to that point, he had held little distinction between the two countries. Though he was raised in Canada, his mother was American and he was dating an American woman, and crossing the border was little more momentous than crossing a state or provincial line. Kennedy's assassination, though, brought into focus Barrie's sense of nationality. He was living in Greenwich, Conn. at the time and working at a department store, Alexander's, when the news spread across the sales floor like wildfire. With international tensions serving as a backdrop, Barrie feared that the killing of Kennedy was just the first phase of a larger military strategy. "People started running around the store. I stood there and watched the chaos and said, 'Uh-oh'." Many employees requested to take the rest of the day off, so Barrie did the same. He went back to his room at the local YMCA, packed a travel bag, fueled up his car, and perched himself at the White Diner, where he drank coffee and watched the television news, looking for signs that war was breaking. If he saw such a sign, he planned to make a run for Canada. "If this is World War III, I loved America but I'd rather die in a Canadian uniform," he said. By evening, he said, "I throttled back my panic mode," and he prepared to return to Alexander's the next day. However, he kept his travel bag in the trunk of his car, just in case. "It really was a scary time."
Harriet Morse of Laconia also heard the news on television. She decided to drive down to Pleasant Street School to pick up her 9-year-old son, Gary, and one of his classmates.
"I didn't want him to take the bus (home) because I thought that the children might be too upset," she said. "We were glued to the TV set for the next two days," she recalled. "I was beside myself."
Armand Maheux of Laconia was working as the manager of Oscar Lougee department store in downtown Laconia when a customer came in saying that Kennedy had been shot. "At first we weren't quite sure whether to believe it (the news). We thought someone was pulling our leg. But as more and more people came in and said the same thing we realized that it was true," he said.
Elliot Finn currently lives in Meredith but 50 years ago was in Maryland, working for the Social Security Administration. "It was a nice day in Baltimore, we were all at our desks. I was in data processing." The nice day was interrupted when the woman who operated the facility's switchboard came over the intercom to make an announcement. "There was a report that Kennedy had been shot in Texas," Finn recalled hearing. With that, all work stopped as everyone around him talked about Kennedy and tried to absorb the report. When the voice returned to the intercom, their shock turned to sadness. "You could tell she was crying. The report was confirmed and he had died." Finn was from Boston, where his father was a staunch Democrat who helped Kennedy's campaign for the U.S. Senate. Seeing Kennedy elected to the nation's highest office was a point of "local pride." He said he was "stunned" to hear of his death. "I couldn't believe someone would even try to kill the president. It was surreal."
"I was watching 'As the World Turns'," said City Councilor Brenda Baer. "Soap operas were very popular in those days. I remember the father and son were in a coffee shop when the program was interrupted with a news flash from Walter Cronkite that the president had been shot." she continued. "It was the most devastating day and it was like the earth stood still for days after. Everyone was wandering around like lost souls." Baer, then 37, described herself as "a big JFK fan," adding that while she remembered President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "this guy blew FDR out of the water. He was of our generation. He had young kids like we did. We could identify with him. It was just devastating."
In November of this year, as he has in Novembers of decades past, Merrill Fay is racing to put boats into winter storage at Fay's Boatyard in Gilford. In 1963, Fay was a 27 year-old who had just left the U.S. Army and was beginning his work at the boatyard. He was in the middle of a typical fall chore — preparing the chains to hoist a boat to its seasonal resting place — when a regular customer in a "big old Cadillac" came racing into the yard. "He jumped out of the car and spread the news," said Fay. Kennedy had only very recently been Fay's commander-in-chief, and he respected the president for "standing up to Khrushchev." "He was a young president who was trying to do well by us," Fay recalled.
Rep. Frank Tilton of Laconia was a first lieutenant in the United States Army, commanding an engineering company in the 8th Infantry Division stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany looking forward to dinner with his fiancee Liz when he heard the news over the radio. He said that Liz was staying at a hotel in Dexheim, a village north of Wiesbaden, and they planned to dine at the Von Steuben Hotel, what he called one of three "American hotels" in Wiesbaden. "Liz came on the train," Tilton recalled, "and she said that what struck her the most was how somber the German passengers were." Tilton said that units in Germany were always in a high state of readiness in 1963 and could not recall any special measures were taken in the wake of the assassination. Without television, he said that "we kept up with the news on the Armed Forces Radio Network and went about whatever else we were doing."
Candace Daigle, the Belmont Town Planner and a life-long Gilmanton resident, remembers being 10-years-old and being at the Gilmanton Elementary School, which at the time was the Gilmanton Academy – now the Gilmanton Town Hall. Daigle recalls all eight grades in Gilmanton being taught in four classrooms. "I only remember all of us being taken into one classroom and the TV was on. Today I wonder where they ever got a TV," said Daigle.
'I couldn't believe it. The wind went right out of me,'' says Dorothy Duffy of Laconia, who was changing the diapers of her second son, Tim, at her Huntington, Long Island, home when she heard the announcement on television that President Kennedy had been shot. ''I went out in the street and started talking to other people. It was all so very sad, It was like everyone felt the need to hug and comfort one another,'' says Duffy. She said that everyone stayed glued to the television set for the next four days as television networks provided unprecedented blanket coverage which left lasting impressions on everyone who experienced it.
Rep. David Huot of Laconia, who would serve as a judge on the bench for 32 years and as an umpire on the diamond for nearly as long, was preparing for his parallel careers by refereeing an intramural football game at St. Anselm's College. He remembered being told the president had been shot as he was leaving the field and went straight to his dormitory, where "we were glued to the television through the weekend." His father, J. Oliva Huot, was mayor of Laconia and together with Bernard Boutin, who managed Kennedy's presidential campaign in New Hampshire,Thomas McIntyre, who served three terms in the United States Senate, and Hugh Bownes, who served on the Democratic National Committee before his appointment to the federal bench — all from Laconia — represented the nucleus of the JFK camp in the state. Huot was so moved by the assassination that he and others thought of driving to Washington, but he said "we couldn't find a car."
Laconia attorney Bob Hemeon was working for a finance company housed at the time on Water Street. "I remember trying to make a phone call and all the lines were busy," he said. "For some reason I said, 'turn the radio on.'" Hemeon described that memory and "very distinctive and clear," made even more so by the fact he it was between campaigns he worked on for Congressman Oliver "Ollie" Huot who was elected to Congress in 1964. He said he had seen Kennedy speak at the University of New Hampshire during his 1960 campaign and a candidate named Robert Fisher tried to crash the speech. He remembers Kennedy graciously allowing Fisher to speak.
Mary Jane Hoey of Laconia was working at a New York City advertising agency when her roommate called from another firm to tell her that the president had been shot. ''I was completely shocked. Our boss told us to take the rest of the day off. I went over to St. Patrick's Cathedral and then came back to the apartment. I was the only one who had a television so eight or nine of us sat in the living room watching the TV coverage. At one point we talked about driving down to Washington, D.C. to meet the president's plane when it flew in but decided the only car we had wouldn't make it to Washington.'' Hoey said that JFK's long-time friend Lem Billings worked at the same agency and that Kennedy frequently stopped by to see Billings but that she never spoke directly to him. Hoey later worked in Robert F. Kennedy's campaign in 1968 and was in the ballroom of the Los Angeles hotel the night RFK was shot. ''I heard the shouts turn from joyous to panic and knew he had been shot when his brother-in-law Steve Smith came on the stage and asked if there was a doctor and a priest in the house.''
Gilford Public Works Director Sheldon Morgan was in the eighth grade at Memorial Middle School in Laconia. "We heard it over the intercom system," he said. Morgan didn't remember if the students were released early or not but said he remembers being with his family for the next four days and being glued to the television. He also remembers Ruby shooting Oswald.
On the eve of the 80th meeting between Harvard and Yale on the gridiron of the Yale Bowl, Nancy LeRoy of Laconia was secretary to a dean at Yale, where her husband Newbold was earning his master's degree in civil engineering. "When we learned what happened in Dallas, the game was cancelled," she said. She recalled that a friend, who worked at CBS in New York, planned to come to New Haven for the weekend. "I remember that afternoon she called to say she would be late," LeRoy said. "She told me everyone was trying to get Walter Cronkite together enough to go on air he was so distraught. "
Richard Heinz of Lakeport was working at the Bergen-Patterson plant in Laconia when his foreman told him that President Kennedy had just been shot. ''Everybody was talking about it. I wasn't that old but it left me a little on the numb side. It was just so hard to believe that something like this could happen.''
Kathy Preston of the Hampstead Players in Barnstead said she was at Macy's in New York City buying material for a dress. "I happened to be traveling to the 'states'," said the native of Great Britain. She said she was waiting in line to have the clerk cut the material she wished to purchase and when she looked up, the clerk had disappeared. "Suddenly she's not there. She has fainted," recalled Preston. She said her husband Gordon Preston was at a dinner dance in England. She said they have spoken of the moment many times but had not met in November of 1963. "I was shocked," she said. "Not in America."
A freshman at the College of the Holy Cross, that Friday Attorney Phil McLaughlin of Laconia was attending a class in modern European history. "Professor Powers was lecturing," he recalled, "when someone entered the classroom, walked over and spoke to him. Professor Powers took a gasp then looked up and said "the president has been killed" then started to lecture," McLaughlin continued. "Then he said 'this won't do. I'll dismiss you.'" McLaughlin remembered that students went to the dining hall where over lunch Father Charles Dunn, the dean, announced that the college would be closing and told us everyone should go home and be with their families. As the first Irish Catholic president, McLaughlin said that JFK commanded intense interest and loyalty at Holy Cross and Boston College, especially among those like himself who were "not part of the lace-curtain Irish set." Calling Kennedy " a natural leader who could move people," he said that "he gave dignity and status to people just achieving dignity and status."
Andre Paquette of Laconia was teaching at Plattsburgh State in upstate New York and had just come out of his classroom when he heard a student say that the president had been shot. ''My first reaction was 'why would anyone want to do that?' I thought they were talking about the president of the college. Then I realized that it was President of the United States they were talking about. I was in absolute, total shock after that,'' Paquette said. He remembers going home and watching the unfolding events on black and white television with his wife. ''Everyone was glued to the TV for the next four or five days.''
Nellie Grant of Tilton remembers just having put her children down for their naps. ''I sat down to relax and watch a soap opera when I heard that the president had been shot. I said to myself what kind of crazy program is this? But then my father called and said he had heard the same thing. We didn't know at that time that he was dead. A little while later Walter Cronkite made the announcement and wiped away his tears. I still feel bad to this day. It was so shell-shocking.''
(Mike Mortensen, Adam Drapcho, Gail Ober, Roger Amsden and Michael Kitch contributed to this article.)