Serving as a flagbearer for the funeral of President John F. Kennedy left an “indelible imprint” on the mind and heart of John Polites.
Wearing his Navy dress blues, Polites stood sentinel outside the White House, standard bearer for the flag of Montana — the only one available to him that day — as the funeral procession went by. “The solemnity of it, and all those world leaders marching in front of me, is something I will never forget,” said Waynesville’s Polites, 72, who was chosen for the somber duty because he was an honor student at the U.S. Navy School of Music.
What happened 50 years ago today in Dallas is something the world, the nation and the community will never forget.
Vanessa Cook was seven years old, home sick from school in her little village of Pitchin in Clark County. “I was sitting on the living room floor in front of our black and white TV when a news flash came on that the President had been shot,” she recalled. “As young as I was, I knew this was very important. Feeling unwell, and wrapped in a blanket, I ran to the kitchen to tell my mom something bad had just happened to the President. She came back to the living room with me and we watched together. I will always remember the incredible look of sadness on her face.”
Several years ago, when her mother died, “We found a very well-read, much-handled copy of the coffee table book sold not long after the assassination, called ‘The Torch Is Passed,’” said Cook, who now lives in Greenville. “It is especially moving because it was created during those days and reflects the emotions of the country at that point in time.”
Nov. 22, 1963, was Loure Hayes’ 40th birthday, and the busy Dayton mother of five was taking a much-needed soap-opera break to watch “As The World Turns.”
The assassination has cast a pall on her birthday ever since. “I couldn’t get over it,” she said.
Before Kennedy, Hayes, an African-American, had never felt that a president had fought for her rights. “He believed that the black folks could eat in restaurants and not have to go sit in the back in the bus,” she said. “He just seemed like he cared about people.”
When asked about Kennedy’s enduring hold on the American imagination, she uttered a common refrain: “He had so much charisma.”
Every year on her birthday, Hayes said, “I think about him, and I remember. It really doesn’t seem like it has been 50 years.”
Gloria Sears Summey of Huber Heights
remembers that she was home sick from high school that day with the flu. “I witnessed it on TV,” she said. “It was something I wish had never happened, and something I wish I hadn’t seen. He was groomed all his life for politics. It’s ironic that the one president actually groomed for politics ends up being assassinated.”
Bill White of Dayton had become involved with the Kennedy campaign as a young boy when his mother served as chairwoman of the Darke County Kennedy for President campaign. “I remember handing out buttons and bumper stickers,” White recalled. “It was a tough county for a Democrat and it went Republican, but mom did a good job.”
Kennedy’s presidency and the space race instilled in White a lifelong love of history. That’s evident in his Dayton home today, with its presidential decorating theme, including Kennedy and Lincoln bedrooms. His collection includes original 1960 campaign buttons and an original Ohio delegate hat worn at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. White owns part of the original “grassy knoll” fencing that was close to the Kennedy motorcade in Dallas when the president was shot. It was given to him when he visited the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, on the site of the old Texas school book depository.
The assassination’s impact may have been particularly profound for Catholic families who had taken pride in the election of the nation’s first — and only — Catholic president. In fact, Kennedy’s death, and the month of mourning that followed in the Catholic Church, nearly resulting in the postponement of Donna and David Naseman’s Nov. 30 wedding at Transfiguration Catholic Church in West Milton. “We were not allowed to have a High Mass, and they asked us to tone it down, to be respectful to the memory of the president,” Donna said. “We had no music in church and limited flowers.”
Donna still has her Jackie Kennedy-inspired pillbox hat from the era. “Our generation was in awe of JFK,” she said. ‘We had been looking forward to having this wonderful, charismatic man for our president.”
For some locals, it is the small, mundane details of that day that stand out. Rosalyn Mosrow, 91, was enjoying a celebratory lunch with her late husband, Paul, who worked for Simons Cadillac. Paul had been picked as WING 1410 radio station’s “Name of the Day,” a popular promotion at the time. “We were having lunch and talking about it when the news broke,” Mosrow said.
A recent Gallup poll revealed that a mere 30 percent of Americans believe the conclusion of the Warren Commission — the official government investigation into the assassination — that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman.
Many people in the Miami Valley share that skepticism. “I would love to know exactly what went on,” Summey said. “There’s more out there than they’re releasing. Maybe some day we will know.”
Hayes said she has doubted the lone-gunman theory ever since Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby, long suspected to have Mafia ties, shot and killed Oswald on Nov. 24, 1963, while he was being transferred from police headquarters to the county jail. “I really don’t think we have all the answers, and I never thought he acted alone,” Hayes said.
When Ron Kuczak of Sugarcreek Twp. read a copy of the Warren Commission report, he said he was so incredulous “I was jumping up and down and scratching my head.”
Kuczak was a student at the University of Dayton in 1963 and, by eerie coincidence, he had delivered a presentation in his political science class that very morning about the line of succession in the event of the president’s death. His professor, Brother Richard Liebler, pulled him aside and observed, “That was one great job, but it kind of bothered me that three or four times you used the hypothetical, ‘If the president were to die this afternoon….’”
Devastated by the loss of America’s first Catholic president, UD sophomore Janet Weiss Reeds began collecting signatures to have the new student union renamed the John F. Kennedy Memorial Union. The board of trustees met on Wednesday before Thanksgiving, five days after the assassination, and approved the students’ request.
“There was a wellspring of support for the petition drive,” recalled Reeds, now a college professor in Michigan.
Polites still feels a great deal of satisfaction in playing a part in President Kennedy’s funeral. But, he said, “there is some sadness, too, because I wonder what the world would be like if he had lived.”
A month after the funeral, Polites’ parents received a letter from the commanding officer of the U.S. Navy, commending them for their son’s service. Capt. H. F. Rommel noted that it was Jackie Kennedy’s wish, given her husband’s wartime service, that the Navy occupy the position of honor in all ceremonies.
Polites, Rommel wrote, “is literally carrying out the expressed wishes of his departed Commander-in-Chief when he stated in his historic inaugural address, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’”