Friday, February 28, 2014

Fifty Years ago - November 22, 1963

Few historical events have the impact that generates the comment, “I remember where I was when I heard that.”

Those of us growing up in the ‘50’s remember people recalling where they were and what they were doing when the heard about the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor on the Sunday morning of December 7th, 1941. The assassination of President Kennedy on Friday, November 22, 1963, fifty years ago had such an impact, that and maybe 9/11, little else.


White House portrait of the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy
I was in an English literature class at the University that day in 1963 as hallway buzz began to ramp up over the tinny sound of transistor radios. The young prof declared that he’d always wanted to be known as the one who kept lecturing as the bombs dropped.

The Clay County News was a Thursday paper in 1963 so mention of the assassination had to wait nearly a full week, well after other news sources had examined thousands of details. The local slant in the November 28th issue was the first person account of H. C. King, the elder partner in the paper’s publishing family.

The “Old Man” and his wife had been visiting their daughter and her husband at their home in the north Dallas suburb of Richardson and had chosen not to join the crowds along the motorcade route. They learned the news just like the rest of us. Television news coverage was a tiny fraction of what we have today and it took the three networks some time to go from “News Bulletin” to the continuous coverage of that weekend. Images of Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley are burned into millions of memories.

King’s son-in-law worked at Texas Instruments where employees were released for the afternoon, as were people across the country. H. C. described the near hysterical reaction of his daughter’s neighbor who kept repeating, “Dallas people will never be able to lift their heads again. We are to blame.”

Mr. King proceeded with his plans to return to Sutton on a midnight bus leaving his wife in Dallas for an extended visit. That Sunday morning back in Sutton, H. C. and his son Roy, publisher of the local paper joined the rest of the country to watch a Dallas nightclub owner murder JFK’s assassin live on TV. Dallas authorities were transferring Lee Harvey Oswald from the basement of the city jail to the county court house through a crowd of reporters and, as it turns out, anyone else who happened to wander down the auto ramp to the basement. I may remember that, “What the #%!@ is going on” feeling even more than the impact of the assassination.

Jack Kennedy was the 35th president of the United States elected in 1960 at the age of 43. He struck a note with, and for younger citizens represented by the line, “…the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…” Kennedy’s predecessor President Eisenhower graduated from West Point in 1915 two years before Jack Kennedy was born.

Kennedy’s 1960 campaign tapped into the energy of high school and college students most of whom were not old enough to vote – the 26th amendment lowering the minimum voting age from 21 to 18 was not effective until 1971.

Shortly after taking office Kennedy found an old executive order by Theodore Roosevelt challenging Marine officers to walk 50 miles in 20 hours. He repeated that challenge to the White House staff. They took it up including his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy who completed the walk in his dress shoes.

Somehow, the public thought the challenge extended to them and 50-mile hikes broke out all over the country including the popular Lincoln to Nebraska City route on Highway 2.

Presidential assassins had struck three times before 1963. Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D. C. on Good Friday in 1865 by the Confederate sympathizer and actor John Wilkes Booth. James Garfield was shot just four months after taking office in 1881 by Charles Guiteau who was probably deranged and was upset about being passed over for appointment as ambassador to France. Garfield survived for 11 weeks.

William McKinley was shot at close range by Leon Czolgosz, a self-proclaimed anarchist and one-time Scrabble champion (sorry, I made that part up) while attending Buffalo’s 1901 Pan-American Exposition.

There is a long list of failed presidential assassination attempts from the house painter who tried to shoot Andrew Jackson when both of his pistols misfired and Jackson beat him severely with his cane to at least six threats on President Obama including two ricin poisoning threats.

JFK’s assassination takes the prize for generating conspiracy theories. People find it hard, if not impossible to believe that one person operating alone could have such a massive impact on the nation and the world, especially a squirrely little reprobate like Lee Harvey Oswald, or as someone in the Warren Commission said, a “pip squeak.”

It seemed like a bad movie from the 1930's. Nightclub owner
Jack Ruby shoots assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement
of the Dallas Police Station on live TV, Sunday, November
24, 1963.
A major cottage industry is still alive 50 years later contesting every official explanation of the assassination. My invitation to doubters that Oswald pulled this off as the record describes is to offer them my copy of Vincent Bugliosi’s 1500 page, small-font tome, “Reclaiming History.” That’s 1500 pages of text; the Endnotes and Source Notes come on an enclosed CD. Bugliosi and his staff worked until 2007 tracking down every far-fetched idea they could find on this topic before going to press.

News of the assassination disrupted activities throughout the nation. Businesses closed, public events were cancelled as the country essentially shut down. Pete Rozelle was the young commissioner of the National Football League. He consulted with several team owners, most of whom thought it would be appropriate to cancel the weekend games. Rozelle called Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary who felt JFK would have wanted the games played. They were. Rozelle often lamented that decision. The infant competing American Football League called off the weekend.

Nebraska was scheduled to play Oklahoma on Saturday the 23rd. There was strong sentiment to postpone that game but Oklahoma Coach Bud Wilkinson lobbied for the game to be played. Wilkinson was the Director of Kennedy’s Physical Fitness Program and carried the day. Nebraska won that game 29-20 earning the right to represent the Big 8 in the Orange Bowl where they defeated Auburn.

University officials recognized that they had lost control and on Saturday declared that the Thanksgiving break had started; classes were cancelled for the whole week.

We can find two Sutton stories related to Kennedy’s death. The first concerns Neil Cronin, a Sutton native who died in Minnesota on October 15th. John Kennedy signed a proclamation recognizing Cronin’s military service and his legal career in Minneapolis. His widow received the proclamation the week of the assassination.

Sutton native Theodore Wenzlaff was one of the last cavalry officers in the army and during his service at Fort Reno, Oklahoma, Col. Wenzlaff filled a request from Arlington Cemetery for horses to be used in military funerals. Four of those horses were part of the cortege which carried President Kennedy’s body to Arlington. Both stories can be found at

Kennedy's funeral caisson, November 25, 1963. Three of the six horses pulling the caisson plus the escort rider's horse were acquired for Arlington Cemetery by Sutton native Col. Ted Wenzlaff. 
Two full generations of Americans have come along since President Kennedy’s death. For those who have never taken an interest in history, the Kennedy story might be a good place to discover just how interesting history can be. Jack Kennedy’s father had a controversial career in business and in public service. He had great ambitions for his children including grooming one to someday become president, but that was not supposed to be Jack. Oldest son Joseph Kennedy Jr. was the chosen one but Navy Lieutenant Joe Jr. was killed in July, 1944 during Operation Aphrodite, a Hollywood-worthy operation well worth checking out on Wikipedia.

After Joe Jr. was killed, second son Jack became Joe Sr.’s presidential son and after him it was Bobby’s turn. More Kennedy’s followed in public service. Joe Kennedy III, Robert’s grandson represents Massachusetts 4th District in Congress; Jack’s daughter Caroline was just named ambassador to Japan. The Kennedy family story continues.

This article deviated from our usual practice of telling Sutton related stories but no excuses, it is the 50th anniversary of that tragic day and it is on the minds of many of us. The search for the “truth” about Kennedy’s assassination has generated almost 1400 books and this kind of story does not go away quickly. After all, we still aren’t sure Richard III killed his nephews in the Tower of London in 1483.

This article first appeared in the November, 2013 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. Contact Jarod Griess for more information about the publication - 402-984-4203 or


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