JFK had an affinity with Wisconsin; our readers remember the day he was assassinated 50 years ago this Friday
Gary King | Editor
NORTHWEST WISCONSIN - Nearly a generation of us were in a classroom when the announcement came. A Friday afternoon, Nov. 22, 1963, with a handful of hours before the final bell rang and the weekend would begin.
Whether you were in first grade or a high school senior - or anywhere else - the news that the president had been shot in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, evoked immediate sadness and shock - and the beginning, some say, of a national loss of innocence.
For those too young to remember or who were not alive in 1963, the event is something interpreted through history books, mournful stories and speculation by parents and a mountain of media focused on assassination theories, tabloid journalism about the Kennedy family in general ... and, of course, Hollywood.
This Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and through a maze of new books and media productions on the topic, we invited readers to share their memories of that day and how they felt.
Wisconsin natives, even those in rural counties like Burnett, Washburn and Polk, had come to know John Kennedy personally in the spring primary election.
Kennedy is the last presidential candidate in the past half century to campaign intensely in Northwest Wisconsin, knowing every vote in the state counted in winning his party’s nomination for the presidency. He was up against Democratic rival and Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey, someone well-known and admired in western Wisconsin and a neighbor and “friend to rural America.”
A press advisory from Kennedy’s campaign shows how visible Kennedy was in this area in March of 1960.
It was a Friday - March 18 - when Kennedy flew in to Clear Lake to begin a trail of stops on his way to a banquet speech in Superior that evening. After a brief appearance in Cumberland, the campaign rolled into Shell Lake where Kennedy shook hands and spoke to local citizens on Main Street. The next stop was Spooner, where he climbed atop a car to make a speech on Main Street and pretended to nurse a beer at the Buckhorn Tavern before using the rest room there (both the beer and bathroom are enshrined at the still active establishment) before hitting the road for Hayward.
As Kennedy swept through Washburn and Douglas counties, his brother, Robert, was taking on Polk County, making speeches at schools and meeting with newspaper editors.
Legendary stories have JFK and his wife, Jackie, often reminiscing fondly of their time - and, perhaps, survival ,in Wisconsin - the tours of dairy farms and sausage factories, smiling through a never-ending rendition of “Beer Barrel Polka” at one rally and enduring the bitterly cold weather. Sometimes Jackie held down the campaign by herself while her husband, then a senator, returned to Washington, D.C., to cast a vote.
“Getting out of the car into the snow and wind, Jackie would shake hands and talk with people on one sidewalk on the main street of a small town while her husband worked his way along the opposite side of the street. He kept his eyes on her, and often muttered to one of us, ‘Jackie’s drawing more people than I am, as usual,’” wrote Dave Powers, JFK’s longtime friend and adviser, in his book, “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye.”
Powers also related another Wisconsin primary yarn about the time a wife of a local Lutheran minister was waiting to meet JFK, with her 13 children at her side.
“Jack shook hands with the beaming mother and each of her children, posed for pictures with them, and then said to me, ‘Get Jackie and bring her over here.’ I escorted Jackie across the street from the opposite sidewalk where she had been charming a crowd of her own admirers. Jack introduced her to the mother of 13 children and said to her, ‘Shake hands with this lady, Jackie. Maybe it will rub off on you.’”
Nine months later, Powers noted, John F. Kennedy Jr. was born.
Rural Wisconsin liked Kennedy enough to keep the vote close between him and Humphrey in most cases but in Burnett and Polk counties he was clobbered by a two-to-one margin. Only Balsam Lake - out of 35 precincts in Polk - voted for Kennedy (67 to 57) and only the Town of Scott in Burnett County, out of 25 precincts, gave Kennedy the edge (30 to 26).
It was the big city vote - and some say Catholic voters - in Wisconsin that helped him win in the April primary vote by a margin statewide of 407,217 to 327,830.
Wisconsin residents likely felt they knew JFK personally and may have felt responsible for his meteoric rise to the presidency. They certainly mourned just as deeply as the rest of the world in the wake of his death, perhaps with a certain affinity.
The Leader and its sister paper, the Washburn County Register, invited readers to share their memories of Nov. 22, 1963. Where they were, what they felt about the loss of their young president.
Following is a sampling of those memories:
Wally Nelson, Siren
After serving nine years as postmaster at Siren, Wis., I was promoted to the position of postal inspector. I was to report to Washington, D.C., along with 18 others from around the country, for inspector training. I arrived in Washington on Nov. 21, 1963, and began classes on Nov. 22. We received the news while in class. We were all shocked and kept our ears close to radio and TV. Washington was in complete lockdown with military personnel on every street corner. No one knew at the time if there would be a follow-up.
Our classes continued until his funeral on Nov. 25 at which time we were given a few hours off to watch the funeral activities. Together, with a couple of friends, we positioned ourselves near the entrance to the cathedral where his funeral was held. We were close enough so we could see the Kennedy family, new President Johnson and dignitaries from around the world.
It was a sad time but very historical, from my point of view.
Barb Parsons, Webster
Nov. 22, 1963, was a clear day and a good day for cleaning. I had just started on the back of the house when I heard someone coming down the hall.
As a young mother with two children and a and a husband that just left on a business trip, I was not expecting anyone.
Upon checking, it was my husband. I was alarmed and asked why he was here. “The president just got shot.” Nothing else was said and I walked back to the bedroom and cried. I was not in support of President Kennedy, but the emotion was overwhelming.
Living in Arlington, Va., at the time made the following days more real. I stood at the Lincoln Memorial after the ceremonies and saw the everlasting flicker of the light placed at his gravesite. No matter who you were, it affected the whole community.
Norma Welling, Balsam Lake
I have this vivid recollection. I was responsible for 50 third- and fourth-grade students when over the intercom of the classroom came the voice of our administrator.
“President Kennedy has been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas.”
A shock went through my body; I nearly fell to my knees.
The students wailed and cried, not understanding the magnitude of what had happened.
Our school was closed for three days. While at home we watched history unfold on the television. Our 3-year-old son wondered why I was crying.
We will never know what might have been, how different our country may have been and how different the world situation may have been.
His death is very relevant!
William Johnson, Frederic
I was in fifth grade at the old three-level Frederic Elementary building on the lot where Dollar General is today. Gray, late fall day. Just after lunch. Thoughts of Thanksgiving and a few days off from school. In the lower-level classroom, the door bursts open and seventh-grader Steve Glockzin, barges into the middle of some long-forgotten lesson and blurts out, “Shut off the lights, the president has been shot.” The absurdity of that statement is explained by the fact that the lower-level classroom was the only room in the building to have been retrofitted with fluorescent lights, and when they were on, it interfered with the reception of the AM radio they were listening to upstairs in another classroom. As the news spread around the school and the country, a sense of shock and disbelief went home with everyone and, for the next day or two, everyone was glued to their TV set to hear the latest news. This was something that happened in far-off, foreign countries, not America, where we had unbridled hope for the future. We were going to the moon and cars had tailfins. As it played out - Jack Ruby, the Zapruder film, the grassy knoll, hundreds of books and conspiracy theories - 50 years later, only one thing stands out. The harsh reality of the world settled quietly over rural America, brought to every living room by the flickering light of television. World War II, the Korean War, early Vietnam, the Cuban missile crisis all took place somewhere else, but this time, it came right into our homes. It was new, and a different course had been set ...
Konnie Didlo, Frederic
I was a second-grade student of Mrs. Arleen Olson at the Indian Creek School in November 1963. Known as the “little room” in this three-room schoolhouse, my desk was in the center of the room. I remember a knock on the door at the back of the room and our beloved custodian, Oscar Amundson, came into the room. Mrs. Olson went to the back of the room to speak with him and soon they were both crying. Mrs. Olson told us the president had been shot. For a 7-year-old in 1963, this was hard to comprehend. Our world seemed so much smaller then. I just knew that something really bad had happened.
Darrel Mathieu, Luck
On Oct. 6, 1962, I took my date to the Hippodrome on the Minnesota State Fairgrounds to see President John Kennedy. We arrived too late to get a seat inside, so we went around to the back of the building and waited for President Kennedy to come out. Shortly thereafter he emerged from the rear of the building. He was escorted by the Secret Service to his awaiting limo. Everyone cheered when he walked out. He waved to us and stepped into the limo. I remember the lights in the limo shined up on his face, so it was very easy to see him inside. I was about 10 feet from him when he walked by. The limo drove away to more cheers and applause. Just over a year later he was dead. I was on the St. Cloud State College campus attending class when we learned he was assassinated. We all rushed to the nearest TV set to watch the news as it was unfolding. Later that afternoon, the U.S. flag which flew in front of Stuart Hall was brought down to half-mast, while a trumpeter sounded taps. It was a very sad and eventful day on that campus.
Cheryl Anderson Parkins, Danbury
In November of 1963, I was a senior at the old Frederic High School, which was where the elementary school is now located. I was in the gym during phy ed class, where we were square dancing.
The news that President Kennedy had been shot was broadcast over the intercom, and we were all in shock. We did not know that he died until later in the day.
There was no school the day of his funeral, and I remember my whole family being glued to the television set to watch the events in Washington. That was a very somber time that I will never forget.
Sharon Pilsner, Frederic
I was home with my little boy and had just started watching “As The World Turns,” when the show was cut into at 12:25 with the news that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. I will never forget that day. I remember everything, it’s all etched in my mind. The show resumed and was cut into again at 1:00 with Walter Cronkite announcing that President Kennedy has died. And if I remember right, he took off his glasses and cried on camera. Everything changed that day, everything. We lost our innocence and our trust. I was glued to the TV till it was all over a few days later. I remember John-John saluting the procession, Mrs. Kennedy walking behind the casket with Bobby at her side, and the shot of her kneeling with Carolyn kissing the flag. And as they say, you remember where you were the day the president died.
William Backlin, Frederic
I was 7 years old, attending Hyatt Elementary, San Jacinto, Calif. The principal told us on the intercom the president has been killed, and we were to board the buses and go home. I remember the teachers crying and hugging each other. I remember our bus driver’s face, staring straight ahead, tears swelling up in his eyes. His name was Harold and he never had a problem giving the boys a rap on the head with his knuckles if you broke the rules. When we got home, our parents were staring into the TV with a shocked look, not crying, but looking very upset. My feelings at the time seemed to be a sense of confusion. I knew something terrible happened because all the adults were freaking out but could not realize, at 7 years old, I was watching a world-changing event unfold in front of me!
Brian G. Rogers, Frederic
I returned to this dynamic community after my career brought me great opportunities. I am 66 years old and graduated from Frederic High School in 1966. I view the John F. Kennedy assassination as the most dramatic crime or world-changing event of my life. I remember the event as if it happened yesterday.
Phillip Schneider, my social studies teacher, entered the study hall shortly after 12:40 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. He moved to the south wall of the study hall and stated, “I think you students should be aware that President Kennedy has been shot in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.” At the time, he did not know the condition of the president.
Everyone was stunned. We went to our next scheduled class with English teacher Edwin Pederson. He put his foot on his desk and stated, the president was assassinated and was dead from gunshot wound to his head.
We knew life had changed for everyone.
The assassination has been an intensive interest of mine since the event. I read everything, including the Warren Report, which I believe was written to minimize civil unrest and not having the military strike the Soviet Union. I have about 90 books on the event and now get every new addition or theory from the Frederic Public Library.
In conclusion, I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. People or governments cannot keep secrets. But I do believe Oswald was employed by one of our intelligence agencies. He was evaluated as a nut by United States and Russian authorities. But his wife, Marina, had family contacts in high-ranking positions in the Soviet military. He was also employed for a short time by a firm contracted by the United States government to a classified project to develop film taken by our U2 spy planes over Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. A unique place of employment if he was evaluated as a misfit. I have been to the 6th Floor Museum in Dallas and stood by the shooters net. I do not think it was a difficult or long shot for a former Marine marksman. But for those of us who are students of the assassination, it is very interesting that the players in Dallas were also involved in the Watergate national crisis in the early ‘70s.
I believe if Kennedy was not assassinated, Kennedy would have gotten out of Vietnam before his 1964 re-election campaign. The war cost us much national treasure, over 58,500 lives and gave the military industrial complex open range.
I think Kennedy would have been re-elected in 1964. I think he would have designed and developed better domestic policy and rebuilt America. Camelot would still shine.
Carlotta Romsos, Sarona
In 1963, I was a teacher at the Barron High School. In the middle of teaching one of my home economics classes an announcement came over the school’s PA system, “President John F. Kennedy has been shot.” The whole class was shocked and tearful. It was certainly an event my class will never forget! For me it was an especially emotional day because it was my mother’s birthday and that morning I had just found out that we were expecting our first child. It truly is a date I will always remember.
Gene Romsos, Sarona
In 1963, I was a full-time student at River Falls, while Carlotta was teaching in Barron. It was around noon and I had just walked into a small restaurant on the north end of Main Street when I learned about the Kennedy shooting. They had a radio turned on and everyone was talking about it. The people were all in shock and, frankly, I don’t remember if I ate lunch there or simply went back to the house to try to see something more on TV. Needless to say, our phone call that evening was emotional.
Connie Quam, Shell Lake
I’ll never forget the day that President John F. Kennedy was killed. I was in freshman band at Frederic High School and it came on over the PA system that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. We all just kind of sat there stunned for a moment and then all wept openly. Such a sad, tragic day, especially for such a young man in the prime of his life.
Diane K. Rickard, Cumberland
On that fateful day of Nov. 22, 1963, I was stationed at the Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Fla., and just finishing up photographer’s mate school. We were doing field day, (cleaning up) and preparing for graduation when one of our fellow classmates came rushing down the hall, announcing, “President Kennedy’s been shot!” We had nicknamed him Old Salty as he had spent some years at sea as a Boswain’s mate and as he neared retirement, decided to change his rate to photographer’s mate. He was always telling jokes and this time we thought he had another one up his sleeve. Another classmate asked, “So what’s the punch line?”
“This ain’t no joke,” yelled Old Salty. “The president’s been shot!” As the morning progressed, we got more news on the president’s assassination. A few of us entered one of our instructor’s offices to get some more information. Sgt. Yelvington was one of our favorites, a deeply respected Marine who had served in both World War II and the Korean War. He was seated at his desk with a grim expression on his face.
“What’s going to happen now?” we asked. With an even more grim face, he leaned forward with his elbows on his desk, clasped his hands tightly together and exclaimed, “This could mean war!” With that answer, we too left with grim faces, and silence permeated the rest of the field day.
The day of the funeral, we were given the day off and sat glued to an old black and white TV in the barracks lounge; tears flowed freely as we said farewell to our revered commander in chief.
Robert Rickard, Cumberland
In November 1963, I was in the Navy stationed aboard a ship out of Terminal Island, San Francisco. During the month of November, I was assigned temporary duty to the ship’s squadron office on base. This was considered light duty as there was very little to do and no watches to stand. I can recall very clearly the morning of the 22nd. There was nothing going on and I had just asked the CO if I could have the rest of the day off. Before he gave me an answer, the word came that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. The entire base was locked down instantly with no one entering or leaving, due to the fact that if this was the beginning of an attack by another country, we needed to be prepared for war. As the news of what actually happened started to materialize, we stayed locked down until word came to the base of an all clear. Some very tense moments during those few, very long hours shall forever be etched in my memory.
Marguerite Kevan, Spooner
I wouldn’t consider myself a person of political knowledge, yet married a man who was. We were excited to have a president especially of Irish-Catholic background. My day began Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, caring for my children. On this day, I wasn’t feeling very well, as I was seven months pregnant with my daughter Elizabeth. My two children, Cathy and Tim, and I laid down for a nap. We were awakened by my husband rushing in the door and yelling, “The president has been shot!” I was devastated. We listened to Walter Cronkite telling us the horrible news. All the hopes and dreams we believed in were gone in seconds. I still remember it as if it were yesterday! It has been the most horrible historical event that has happened in all of my 78 years!
Mary B. Olsen, Shell Lake
Last year, on a bus tour, our little group of retired people visited Texas. Texas is big, and is desert and forest and orange groves and oil wells, and lots more. The contrast between it and our north-woods Wisconsin is great. Yet there are similarities, as well. We went first to Fort Worth. We stayed at a fine hotel in the center of the downtown, took in a couple of rodeos and shopped around. The stores had more cowboy hats on display than anywhere else in the world. The smell of cows and dust and leather in the air felt like I was back on the farm. We tourists watched the rodeo stock driven by real cowboys on horseback to the arenas each afternoon. It was touching, like a dreamy memory of the Old West, in real time. Traffic stopped for this parade. I could have been happy to stay in Fort Worth always.
Then there was Dallas. We found it a bustling city deep in the heart of Texas. We chomped down on beefsteaks. With or without barbecue. We kept time to the music and watched the line dancing. Just watched. People in Texas are some of the friendliest folks, with that Southern style of politeness and an added hearty down-home quality. There may have been a seedier side, but we saw gracious homes and thriving businesses. Dallas is definitely a city of beautiful parks with statues and waterfalls. Then we visited Dealey Plaza.
It has been 50 years since the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas. It is the kind of historical event that makes people ask, “Where were you when you learned of this tragedy?” I remember it clearly. We were living in one of those three-bedroom suburban development homes where the homes are not different from their neighbors. My husband worked the night shift. Three of our kids were in school and the others were home with us. Our family had a new television console complete with record player and AM and FM radio. I was in the laundry area of the kitchen but when the news bulletin came I heard it and stepped into the living room. It was brief. From Dallas, Texas. Shots were fired at the president’s motorcade. He has been rushed to Parkland Hospital. No word as to his condition. Stunned, we listened for further news. My prayers joined those offered by millions of Americans waiting and hoping for good news.
We were nearly overwhelmed with questions. Didn’t the president have Secret Service protection? How could a thing like this happen? In this century? What happens if he dies? We could not leave the television set. A half hour later the news came that he had died. It seemed like everyone in the nation had been assaulted. Not everyone approved of the leadership in Washington. Critics abounded. The media focused on the “climate of opposition” in Dallas as a cause of this murder of a president.
People crowded into churches. For the next few days the television showed us the events as they unfolded. We saw the swearing in of the new President Johnson aboard Air Force One. At that time we didn’t have continuous news on the networks like we have these days. But during those days we had it. We saw people lining up to pass by the flag-draped casket. We saw the funeral procession. The whole country mourned. Business in Washington went on. The conspiracy theories had started.
Fast forward to Dallas nearly 50 years later. Our tour group stood on the grass of Dealey Plaza. There were school groups and couples standing together and several single people with heads bowed. It was neatly trimmed green grass. To our right we could see the back of the old courthouse towering over the other buildings. We could see the overpass where the motorcade passed that morning. We saw what they called the grassy knoll. We were facing the tall brick building where the motorcade turned directly under this Texas Book Depository. There are white marks in the pavement, a cross to indicate where the president was shot.
The building is now a museum. Visitors can go up to the sixth floor and see the window where Lee Harvey Oswald stood and fired at the motorcade. The window has a protective frame but one can see the street below. There are historical artifacts on the sixth floor. These are all about the activities of the Dallas Police Force at the time. The guides at the museum told us attendance was low. There were usually thousands of people a day touring the museum.
The police performed well. They learned very quickly the name and address and recent history of Lee Harvey Oswald. They found out he worked in the building and had just walked away. Not more than an hour later, a police officer in his squad car saw Oswald walking on the street and pulled over to question him. Oswald took out a handgun and shot the officer and went to his body and shot again. There were two eyewitnesses. Another man heard the shots and came to the squad car. He got another person to call the dispatcher on the police radio. The suspect continued on and walked into a movie theater without buying a ticket. The police arrested him in the theater without incident. He was taken to the police station. Seldom does a police force apprehend a suspect in such a short time after the crime.
The news media had already descended on the police station. The federal agents took charge of the investigation. Security was impossible there. They decided to transfer Oswald and three days later they escorted him with officers on each side of him. A man came out of the crowd of reporters and shot Oswald. His name was Jack Ruby. Oswald died. The answers to many questions died with him.
The residents of Dallas know that some people hold them responsible in some way for the assassination of President Kennedy. They are Texans. Their history tells them that they lost the Alamo. But they won the war at San Jacinto. They became a nation. Then they became a state in the United States of America. They love Dallas. For me, I prefer Fort Worth.
Americans saw their new president buried at Arlington National Cemetery. They saw Mrs. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy walking behind the flag-draped casket followed by leaders of nations. An officer led a saddled, rider-less black horse. A flame burns at his gravesite.
Judy Pieper, Barronett
I was working for the Wisconsin Board of Vocational and Adult Education, Rehabilitation Division. I had just come back from a coffee break when the news came over the radio that President Kennedy had been shot. It’s a day that, like Pearl Harbor Day, will live forever in infamy. I’m sure most of you are too young to remember President Kennedy when he was alive, but we old-timers will never forget him. He was so charismatic, had a beautiful wife and two adorable children. They were the first couple who made the White House glamorous. I know that those are not the things that presidents are normally remembered for, but we were young and this was the first time most of us had even been interested in politics. After the assassination, the entire nation was glued to television sets, watching the news and hoping that Lee Harvey Oswald would get everything coming to him. We were watching when Jack Ruby shot Oswald as he was being transferred to a different location. We all watched President Kennedy’s funeral, and we all watched his poor little children as they said goodbye to their father. The one thing that can probably still bring tears to the eyes of most of us is the memory of little John, who was probably 3 years old at the time, saluting his father’s casket. President Kennedy’s assassination ended an era of innocence where we all believed that the leader of our great nation was safe from harm.
On the front page of the March 24, 1960, Washburn County Register was this photo of Kennedy campaigning for president. Here’s the original caption: “Yes sir, that’s Nick Masterjohn’s Drug Store in the background and the scene is Shell Lake. Senator John F. Kennedy (Democrat Mass.) now campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president, visited Shell Lake last Friday afternoon, March 18. Senator Kennedy is shown here on the right shaking hands with Ralph Smith, Hertel, Wis., the chairman of the Democratic party in Burnett County. The senator stopped along the main street of Shell Lake, shaking hands and talking to local citizens.” - File photo
President John F. Kennedy presents the 1961 Teacher of the Year Award (a project of the Council of Chief State School Officers) to Helen Adams of Cumberland. Superintendent of Public Instruction, Madison, George E. Watson, stands in front at far left. Back row (L to R): Publisher of LOOK Magazine, Vernon C. Myers; Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Abraham Ribicoff; unidentified man; managing editor of LOOK Magazine, William B. Arthur. Also included in the president’s schedule for this event is Deputy Commissioner of Education Wayne O. Reed. Rose Garden, White House, Washington, D.C. - Photo from jfklibrary.org