As everyone knows, President Kennedy was shot and killed 50 years ago — on Nov. 22, 1963. Everyone who was 4 years or older on that Friday afternoon knows exactly where he was when he heard the news.
I was a fourth-grader at old Washington School, a handsome, monumental building at Gilbert and Madison streets. My dad had gone there for all eight grades.
Our teacher was a kind, older woman named Mrs. Beatrice Rhodus. She lived in an apartment in the 200 block of West North Street. I was in love with a dark-eyed beauty named Carla Barnes, but she didn’t know it.
As I recall, it was a cold, gray afternoon. We lived across the street, at 316 W. Madison St., so I ate lunch at home. At about 1:45 p.m., another teacher called Mrs. Rhodus into the hall and gave her the news.
Our teacher stepped back into our room, obviously shaken, and said something like this: “Children, President Kennedy has been killed. Let’s all bow our heads.”
We were all absolutely dumbstruck, which is unusual for a bunch of 10-year-olds. The silence was so uncharacteristic that one of my classmates started laughing.
I was born in 1954, and I can’t remember a thing about the Eisenhower administration. When Kennedy was elected in November 1960, my father — a Nixon man — formally predicted that the end of our great Republic was near.
Although you’d never know it now, Nixon lost to Kennedy by the slimmest of margins. In Vermilion County, he got 26,571 votes to Kennedy’s 19,520.
Dad and many other Republicans thought that Kennedy stole/bought the election, but I sort of liked him.
First of all, he was born on May 29. I also was born on May 29, so we had something important in common.
Second of all, I enjoyed the movie “PT 109,” which starred Cliff Robertson as Lt. John F. Kennedy. It told the story of the president’s adventures as a Navy skipper during World War II. A Japanese destroyer cut his flimsy little patrol boat (PT 109) in half. Kennedy swam his men to safety, then carved a rescue message on a coconut. How cool was that?
Kennedy’s time as president was stressful. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, was scary, belligerent and obnoxious. When he said, “We will bury you!” he meant it.
The threat of a nuclear war was real. I remember the public-service announcements on how to detect radioactive fallout on your window sill. One of my friends had a fully-stocked fallout shelter in his basement. My mother was near tears as she told us, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, that we might be nuked.
My grandmother picked me up at Washington School on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963. I still have a copy of The Commercial-News that was waiting on her porch.
The headline read, “KENNEDY KILLED.” I had never seen a headline so big, black and awful. I hope I never see another.
Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.