As the nation approaches the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination this Friday, the sadness and sense of shock have stirred again like an old wound.
“I cry every time I think about it,” said Margaret Caddell of Dayton, 65, who was in high school. “I worshipped him.”
The death of the charismatic president remains a touchstone event for the Baby Boomer generation. All of them can answer the question, “What were you doing on Nov. 22, 1963?”
For a handful of Daytonians, the anniversary brings back memories of a more personal connection with Kennedy.
Park Studebaker was a third-grader at John Hole Elementary School in Centerville when his tear-stricken teachers broke the news. “Everything came to a stop,” he recalled. “We all just stood there.”
The young boy knew that he would never add Kennedy’s signature to the collection of presidential signatures that already included Truman, Eisenhower and Hoover. He had sent a letter to the president, requesting an autograph, only weeks earlier.
Studebaker, now an Oakwood optometrist, couldn’t believe it when a signed photograph of Kennedy arrived a few days later. It was postmarked Nov. 22. “We were dumbfounded,” Studebaker recalled. “It was one of the last things he must have signed.”
They all noticed a water stain on the envelope. “We wondered if it could have been a teardrop,” Studebaker said.
A lucky chat with JFK
As a six-year-old girl, Shannon McFarlin had an extended conversation with then-presidential candidate Kennedy after an Oct. 17, 1960, campaign rally on Courthouse Square. Her father, the late WHIO-TV anchor Mac McFarlin, served as emcee.
“There was a huge, enthusiastic crowd waiting for him,” McFarlin recalled. “JFK was running late, so it was Dad’s job to keep the audience’s attention while everyone was waiting. There was a telephone hook-up backstage and every few minutes someone would call telling where JFK was. Dad would take the message and then announce to the crowd, ‘He’s arrived at the airport!’ or ‘He’s on 1-75 near the downtown exit.’ Every time he would make a new announcement, the crowd would go wild. Mom and I were standing off to the side, and when the crowd applauded, I said to Mom, ‘Boy, these people really love my Dad, don’t they?’”
Backstage, Kennedy talked to the girl and expressed delight at her Irish name. “JFK crouched down to my level, and we engaged in a rather lengthy conversation, even though I was the only person in the backstage area who couldn’t vote,” McFarlin recalled. “We talked about my long hair, and he told me he wished his daughter Caroline could wear her hair long but that his wife didn’t like long hair on girls.”
When Kennedy was elected president, less than three weeks later, she saw him on television and exclaimed, “Hey look, there’s that man I talked to!”
McFarlin hadn’t even realized her new friend was a presidential candidate. “They explained that he was now president,” she said. “I never missed a television appearance by him after that. I had my parents buy me a little rocking chair like his and would pull it up as close to the TV to watch all of his press conferences and any other time he was on television. I was in love.”
Women swooned ‘as if he were Elvis Presley’
Michael McClain of Middletown attended a rally at Miami University’s football field in the fall of 1959 and watched as Kennedy made his grand entrance in a black Mercedes. “He was as dignified as possible, but some of the women in the audience swooned as if he were Elvis Presley,” McClain recalled.
When McClain moved in for a closer look, “Kennedy patted me on shoulder and extended his hand,” he said. “He signed my program which I still have locked up in a bank vault.”
On Nov, 22, 1963, McClain was doing bayonet practice in Army basic training in Ft. Jackson, S.C. His captain canceled training, telling the men, “I can’t order you to go to church, but I suggest that you do.” McClain will never forget that emotional Mass: “He was first Irish Catholic president, so that made it especially hard. We were all soldiers, so no one displayed public emotions, but you could see tears in the corners of the eyes.”
Schools closed all over Dayton
Many area residents remember hearing the news over their school’s loudspeaker system. “I was sitting in my second grade classroom at Ascension School, and I didn’t even know what a president was,” recalled Barb Brown of Kettering. “Even at that age I didn’t like not knowing the significance of a major event. From that day forward, I realized the importance of staying current on world events and watch the news daily.”
Wayne Carter, then a fourth-grader, was standing in lunch line at Mark Twain Elementary School in Miamisburg, when a group of girls came out of the library across the hall, crying. School was canceled through the following Monday and, like most families, Carter’s family kept vigil before their television set. “We freaked out when they brought Lee Harvey Oswald out on live TV and saw Jack Ruby shoot him,” Carter said. “Many years later, I also got to walk through JFK’s Air Force One at Air Force Museum. As I walked through, it felt as though he was still on the plane.”
Local television personality Jim Bucher’s first memories revolve around Kennedy’s funeral. “We were one of the first on the block to have color TV, an RCA console with a pretty large screen,” he said. “We’d lie on the floor as kids and sit as close as we could.”
Bucher, then 4, remembers his grandmother sobbing and parents standing, not sitting, during the televised funeral: “While laying on the floor head first, I remember vividly watching the horse-drawn caisson. What burned into my young mind was the riderless horse with the boots reversed backward in the stirrups.From that point on whether the circus came to town or a horse show at the fairgrounds, I’d check the horses out, looking for those elusive boots, backward without the rider.”
‘We all struggled to make sense of it’
Nov. 22, 1963, was Jack Davis’ of Sidney’s first birthday. The tragedy has cast a pall on every subsequent birthday. “I think about it every year,” Davis said, “but for the younger generation, it’s just another birthday.”
The assassination happened the day before Bertha Buttner’s 11th birthday. “I do remember I got a small black-and-white TV that year on my birthday and saw Oswald get shot and killed as my dad was setting up the antennae,” recalled the Beavercreek Twp. woman. “While I was happy to get a TV for my birthday, my birthday wasn’t so great that year. As a young girl, I struggled to make sense of it all. But then again, we all struggled to make sense of it, and of course we couldn’t.”
Fifty years later, many are still trying to find answers, and many are skeptical of the official report from the Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone. As a firearms expert, McClain doesn’t find the Warren Commission conclusions plausible. He’s haunted by the questions, “Who else and why?”
McClain added, “Maybe it was not as much a coverup as a rush to judgment. They already had conclusions fixed in their minds and and they were not objective.”
Frances McMillan was at home in Dayton, sewing, when she heard the news. Then a young mother of four, she said the tragedy “changed my way of looking at people. I never trusted government after that.”
She added, “The whole truth about Kennedy’s death will never be known.”
Caddell also doesn’t believe the official version, but believes the truth is unknowable. “Let the poor man rest in peace,” she said.
For many Baby Boomers, Kennedy’s killing was the dawning of adult awareness. In the third grade, Studebaker wasn’t remotely political, but, he said, “It was like someone had shot down the American dream. It was like a death in the family. It makes you somber. It makes you realize that life is fleeting.”
Today, his signed photograph of Kennedy hangs in his exam room, serving as both a focal point and a conversation piece. He’s surprised by the number of young kids who ask, “Is that JFK?”
McFarlin, who now lives in Paris, Tenn., was in fourth grade at the old Dorothy Lane School in Kettering when Kennedy died. Her anchorman father, who died in 1991, came home late after working a long day at WHIO. Despite his exhaustion he suggested, “Let’s go for a drive.”
Recalled McFarlin, “We drove to the Courthouse and Dad said, ‘This is where we saw him. Let’s just sit here and be quiet and think about him.’ We sat in silence and cried.”
While she cherishes her memories of meeting Kennedy, the anniversaries are difficult — and this one especially so. “It makes me sad all over again every year,” she said.
Complete coverage: Watch videos of Dayton-area people remembering JFK, see copies of the Dayton Daily News from the tragedy, view historic photos and more at MyDaytonDailyNews.com/jfk50