For the Capital Journal
Published Friday, November 22, 2013
Nov. 22 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy
Some remember very few details – the time, the place, the people they were with, the meal they were eating. But they all remember the stillness.
Eileen Fischer was 22 at the time, a teller at BankWest in Pierre. Someone had heard it on the radio in the other room. What followed was a deafening silence and fear.
“You know when you want to do something to help, but there’s nothing you can do?” she says. “That’s what it was. So we watched.”
The world halted, she says, and the people did the only thing they could do – watch as their president was shot, declared dead and buried.
“There are just some things I’ll never forget, and this is one of them.”
President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, had been traveling in Texas with the intent of uniting the Democrats. Party leaders had been at odds, and Kennedy knew if they didn’t reconcile, he’d have little luck carrying the state in the next election, according to reports from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. The couple had spent the night of Thursday, Nov. 21, 1963, in Fort Worth, Texas.
They arrived in Dallas on Friday, Nov. 22, after a 13-minute flight. They greeted and shook hands with people in the crowd that had gathered to welcome the president and first lady. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife, Nellie, were among those present to welcome the Kennedys to Dallas.
They joined the Connallys in an open-top convertible limousine and set off on a drive that was supposed to end 10 miles away at the Trade Mart. Someone gave Jackie Kennedy a bouquet of red roses, which she took with her.
As the motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza around 12:30 p.m., gunfire rang out. The president was struck in the head and neck, and the governor was hit in the chest. They were rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital. President Kennedy was declared dead at 1 p.m.
Pat Adam was working from home that day – a little house on Yankton Street. She was 27 at the time – a speech pathologist – and her client hadn’t shown up yet. As she waited, she sat on her couch, watching television with her daughter on her lap.
She saw the report, and then the phone calls started. First she called her husband, and then her other family members.
“Some of them already knew, but I had to break the news to some of them. It was just awful.”
Marv Paulson heard the news when he was at his office, a Farmer’s Union Insurance co-op on Sioux and Highland avenues.
“Everybody just got quiet,” he said. “It was a catastrophe. Just like if someone were to shoot Obama or Bush or anyone like that. It’d be a catastrophe.”
It was doubly shocking because of Kennedy’s popularity, he says in retrospect.
“I liked Kennedy. He was a good man.”
Gordon Koch was a seventh-grader in November 1963, and he knows he was in study hall when he heard.
“I couldn’t tell you what happened the hour before or the hour after, but I remember that moment in time,” he said.
A teacher told the class the president had been shot. Not 10 minutes later she told them he was dead.
“You could hear a pin drop,” he said. “People were getting ready to go on family holidays for Thanksgiving break. We never expected this to happen.”
Vern Miller was teaching history in middle school in Fort Pierre when a colleague told the teachers, though today he can’t remember who broke the news. What he can remember is how he felt, and his sadness when he told his students.
“I was dumbfounded. It was hard to believe a president in the United States was shot, especially one as popular as Kennedy was. Jacqueline and John Kennedy – they were almost like Hollywood stars they were so well liked.”
The day then became about the details, he said. No one knew who had shot the president, so the world sat in wait for that information.
“It was on everyone’s mind … what had taken place,” he said. “Everyone was trying to figure it out.”
The news sat somewhat differently for several people in Pierre and Fort Pierre. Just a year before, Kennedy had visited the area to dedicate the Oahe Dam.
“I’d gone to see him at the Oahe Dam,” Koch said. “So this was different. This was a president we’d seen.”
Jamie Damon, the sixth-grader who had invited Kennedy to Pierre a year earlier, was returning to school after lunch at home when the news reached her.
“I remember I started crying,” she said, and the principal called her into his office. He called her mother, and she came to take her home.
What transpired next was like living a somber history lesson, she said. Though school was canceled the day of the funeral, no one played outside. They all watched the funeral on the two TV channels Pierre received.
“Everybody I know of watched TV that day to get their news,” she said. Walter Cronkite narrated the funeral on CBS, and there were people who compared the assassination and subsequent funeral with President Abraham Lincoln’s. It was the first televised funeral she’d ever seen.
Marshall Miller, a photographer in Pierre who’d held a press pass when the president dedicated the dam, had stood fairly close to Kennedy when he came to Pierre.
“When he was here that was quite a thing; everyone was excited,” he said. “People from all over were trying to get a look at him.”
On Nov. 22, 1963, the news shook him because of the man Kennedy was and the fact that this happened at home.
“He was not our party, but that didn’t make any difference,” he said. “He was our president.”
When he heard the news, he was in his studio with his brother, Richard. They were taking Marshall’s sister-in-law’s portrait. They always listened to the radio while they worked, but they weren’t paying much attention to it that day, he said. The news didn’t hit them until Marshall’s wife, Merrie, called from home.
“I was vacuuming, and those days I always had the TV on,” Merrie Miller said. “I looked over and I couldn’t believe it. In those days we couldn’t imagine anything like that happening.”
She remembers her children coming home from school and the puzzled, hurt looks on their faces. No one did anything else that day, she said.
“It was a very bad thing, and then things got worse,” she said.
Roger Pries, who taught at the high school in Pierre at the time, remembers how the news shook his classroom. He doesn’t remember if he heard it on the TV or radio while he was at home for lunch, but he remembers returning to school that afternoon, the shock weighing on his mind.
“Everyone was just kind of sitting there, not knowing what to say or do,” he said. “It was pretty hard to teach after that.”
The students and teachers could think only of what happened and when they would know more.
“Nobody had any idea who had done it, if it was a foreign nation,” Pries said. “There were questions on everybody’s mind: ‘What does this mean? Where do we go from here?’”
Dennis Eisnach, former member of the South Dakota Highway Patrol, had not only seen Kennedy at the Oahe Dam. He’d been his protection.
He’d stood with other patrolmen on a platform close to the president, and they knew how the end of Kennedy’s speech should go. The Secret Service agents had said Kennedy would finish his speech and walk off the stage at the back – a protected route that was a good distance from the crowd.
But the president didn’t do things as planned.
He finished his speech, hopped down from the platform, walked straight to the crowd and started shaking hands. He didn’t shake Eisnach’s hand, but there wasn’t more than 10 feet between them during that encounter, Eisnach said.
“Having a personal experience like that made me follow what he was doing afterward,” he said. “It had quite an impact on me.”
On Nov. 22, 1963, the most prominent detail in Eisnach’s mind is the cold. He was teaching a class on headlight adjustment in Huron, and it was well below freezing outside.
He’d dismissed the class early for lunch that day, and he heard the news on the radio during that break. By the time he got back to teach, almost everyone in the class knew.
“We could’ve just canceled the class,” he said. “I don’t think anyone learned much else that day. All anyone wanted to do was listen to the radio.”
But he didn’t. They kept going, trying to learn with this weight in their hearts.
“It was one of those days I remember very well, and always will – right down to the cold,” he said.