When the small public address speaker beneath the crucifix rasped with the voice of Sister Margaret on Nov. 22, 1963, we looked up with alarm.
It was not just because the announcement came later than our usual morning list of activities at Catholic school, but also because of the odd tone in the usually matter-of-fact voice of the school principal.
She sounded as if she was crying, and for a few moments, she struggled to get the words out. When she did, a wail went up from some of the other kids: the president of the United States had just been shot in Dallas, Texas.
Sister Margaret, along with our classroom teacher, Sister Cecilia, urged us to pray, and pray we did.
A short time later, the PA rasped again, not with Sister Margaret’s voice, but with the voice of a radio announcer who told us President John F. Kennedy was dead. This was about 2:30 p.m.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was assassinated on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, in Dealey Plaza. He was shot by a sniper while traveling with his wife Jacqueline, Texas Governor John Connally, and Connally’s wife Nellie, in a presidential motorcade.
For Catholic school students, this was a very personal loss. JFK was our president, the first Catholic president, a fact in which we all took great pride.
But at that moment, I was struck by a memory from three years earlier, when JFK was still campaigning for president, and he came through the city of Paterson, traveling in a motorcade down Main Street through Clifton and Passaic to eventually arrive in Newark.
We were living in the Christopher Columbus Federal Housing projects in Paterson at the time. I was 9, but I had already been in dozens of fights, and my mother pushed me out in front of the crowd so I could see the man who would become our next president. It was as if he was a saint and she was looking for him to bless me, perhaps change our fortunes. I remember him riding in an open car similar to the one he was shot in, waving the way he waved then.
It was that memory I took home with me after school released us to view the grisly details on television.
Years later, the two mingle in my mind as one moment, the living president waving and the one later mourned by millions in the nation’s capital.
Kennedy became the inspiration for many later politicians, especially former Bayonne Mayor Dennis Collins, who became a standard bearer of the New Frontier Democrats. In speeches he frequently quoted John F. Kennedy. Hudson County named not one, but two of its longest streets after Kennedy.
Memories of a moment in time
Chris Garafolo has a similar memory. But she was in the seventh grade when the PA system announced the shooting in her Catholic school, St. Mary, Star of the Sea, in Bayonne.
“The nuns were the first visible sign that something was wrong,” she said. “The announcement said the president had been shot, and the nuns were shaking. They took out their rosaries and started to pray.”
Richard Dwyer, living in Jersey City at the time, said he remembered the moment well.
“I was outside playing catch with some young friends and the world seemed to stop,” he said. “The adults would not tell us the truth. The children were hearing that President Kennedy died, but the adults would only tell us that a `tree fell on him’ or that `he was struck by lightning.’ No one would tell us that he was shot and assassinated. It was because of this personal experience that when the tragedy of the World Trade Center occurred on 9/11, I took my 5-year-old son Eamonn to the Jersey City waterfront to help hand out water bottles to the rescue and recovery professionals and first responders departing from the ferries. I wanted my son to know the truth and to let him know that even though there is evil in the world, there are far more good people and it was important to me that he become a part of the solution and not hide from the challenge.”
On the beat in Union City
Tom Sullivan of Weehawken was a news reporter for the Hudson Dispatch at the time and covering Union City.
“That was the only time I ever heard the alert bell clanging on the AP teletype machines,” he said. “I walked the block to City Hall and went in to Mayor Billy Musto's office where other members of the City Commission and the police chief were gathered, watching TV in disbelief. I had covered Kennedy as a candidate in Hudson County and been at an investiture in the White House, and while I did not agree with much that he stood for, I was shocked to think that such a wanton act could occur in modern times.”
Along with visits to Paterson, Passaic, and Newark, Kennedy paid a campaign visit to Jersey City on Nov. 4, 1960, telling people in a speech that Hudson County determined how the state would vote, and indeed, Hudson County responded and Kennedy carried the state in one of the closest political elections in American history.
Jack Butchko, currently a political consultant in Hudson County, said he was in fifth grade when he heard the news when another teacher called his teacher into the hall.
“Miss Turtletaub, a wonderful teacher and a woman in her 60s, returned a few minutes later, upset and shaken, and told the class that the president had been shot and killed,” Butchko said.
“Everyone was stunned and wondered what would happen next. It was approximately 2:30 in the afternoon now, and we were waiting to be dismissed from school a few minutes early, rather than the usual 3:15. Miss Turtletaub turned on a small radio and related news flashes to her class. She repeated the radio reports verbatim for all to hear, including the fact that upon hearing shots being fired, the police in Dallas first ran up ‘the grassy knoll.’ Many in the class asked, ‘What's a grassy knoll?’ ”
He added, “Three weeks before, I had gone to the school Halloween Party dressed as President Kennedy, wearing a suit and a JFK mask that was sold in stores along Broadway. I was the only student at the event wearing a presidential costume. It went over very well. All the teachers and my fellow students commented favorably, and I won a prize.”
A scary moment
Carol Grasz of Bayonne was a teacher at the time.
“I was student teaching grade 1 at No. 12 School [Now Bailey School] when an upper grade student came into the classroom and told the teacher and me that President Kennedy, who was in Dallas, had been shot. Needless to say, we were devastated but didn't tell the young pupils, and kept on with the lessons. We anxiously awaited the 3 p.m. dismissal so that we could go home and find out details. Upon arriving home, we heard the horrific news. Everyone was glued to the television, watching the events unfold.”
Mary K. Miraglia, a professional nature photographer in Hudson County, was 16 and a junior at Jackson Central High School in Arcadia, Ind.
“It was a very small high school, only about 400 students. There were 85 kids in my class,” she said. “I remember it was after lunch, and I was in class. English class, I think. And the intercom came on with no warning, unexpectedly, in the middle of class. Our building was brand new, less than five years old, and our intercom system was state-of-the-art for the time.”
Then, “Just suddenly someone in the central office turned the intercom on, and it was the news. We listened to the words coming out of the speaker without understanding anything about what was going on. But it didn’t take long for the horrible news to become clear. The president was dead, and there was nothing any of us could do about it.”
She added, “I remember walking down the hallway to my locker, and my face was covered with tears. No one was talking, just getting their stuff to leave. I didn’t know whether to be sad or ashamed. I was a child of the ‘50s, and we didn’t show emotion. Then I saw a boy I knew, a year younger than I, and he was red faced and sobbing. `They got him, Mary’ he said. And indeed they had.”
Ray Robinson, son of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, said he was in junior high school in New York City at the time.
“I left the building. It was a very empty feeling. Kennedy knew my family and was considered a friend of the family,” he said. “A lot of sadness for a family friend who had died, one of my heroes, and I didn't have too many heroes at that time. I remember walking home from school in the shock of the moment. All of us were in the shock of the moment.”
Ray’s wife, Michele Dupey, of Bayonne, was in fifth grade in Bloomingdale.
“A radio news report was blaring over the public address system, and Mrs. Strickland was crying,” she said. “I had no idea why, and didn't understand why until we were all sent home. I was glued to the television, watching CBS News. I remember vividly Walter Cronkite taking off his glasses, and choking up at reporting the time of Kennedy's death. I watched the full TV coverage, including the caisson pilgrimage of JFK to Arlington Cemetery and saw, live, the Saturday morning assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby while Oswald was being transported from the Dallas jail.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.