Just about any American who was alive and aware in 1963 can tell you where he was when he heard the news of John F. Kennedy's assassination. For some Chattanoogans, it's an earliest memory from a toddler's perspective: The TV is on, Mom is crying. For scores of others, the shock came at school. Television sets were wheeled into classrooms. Students were sent home early with newspapers. Adults wept.
The president's death, 50 years ago Friday, touched different communities in different ways. The news came to Sequatchie County at a time when small farm communities were locking up their little schoolhouses so that kids could go to a modern, consolidated school there. Rick Layne, who lived outside Dunlap, realized that the world was not a safe place when he heard of Kennedy's death. In Chattanooga, Catholic school teacher Karen O'Neal recalls the sadness and confusion when she and her students got the news. And for those who called Dallas home, like Signal Mountain resident Jo Coke, the president's death brought on grief, and the heavy burden of guilt.
For Rick Layne, the news of the president's death came in a novel way -- through the school intercom. Layne was 10 years old and in his first year at Griffith Elementary, a newly opened school in Sequatchie County. The school opened in 1963 as a consolidated school for many of the small community schools across the county. For Layne, the differences between the old and new school were drastic: there was indoor plumbing instead of an outhouse, enough teachers for every grade, and an intercom system.
On Nov. 22, Layne remembers, the principal announced over the intercom that the president had been shot.
"I can remember the look on my teacher's face, and it was just a look of disbelief," said Layne, who lives in East Brainerd.
Now, he sees that moment as the beginning of his loss of innocence. His world had gotten so much bigger that year, going to a much larger school outside of his close-knit community. And with Kennedy's death, his world didn't seem so safe anymore.
"[I realized] that if somebody as important and as powerful and as rich as the president was vulnerable, that we all were vulnerable," Layne said.
Karen O'Neal was a 21-year-old math teacher and basketball coach at Notre Dame High School in 1963. And for a Catholic, she wasn't the typical JFK cheerleader.
"I probably would not have voted for him. I didn't consider him a dedicated Catholic," said O'Neal, from her home in Houston, Texas. Plus, she added, "I was not a Democrat."
But still, the news of his death was shocking and sad. She recalls that she was on a school bus with the girls basketball team headed out of town for a game. They were following the boys' bus, where the radio must have been on. Her memories are getting fuzzy, but she thinks she remembers that somebody in the bus in front of hers wrote on a piece of paper that the president had been shot.
"They showed it through ... the back window of the bus. That's what I remember, reading it off a handwritten sheet," said O'Neal.
She doesn't remember much of what happened next, but she remembers the feeling of confusion and sadness. It was a feeling that she recognized when it bubbled up again in a classroom, nearly 40 years later. She was an algebra teacher at a school in Houston when she got word that planes had crashed into the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2011.
"It was just a similar situation," O'Neal said. "Just like, oh my God. What in the world is going on?"
Jo Coke will always remember seeing Jackie's pink hat disappearing in the distance, as the presidential parade traveled down the road in Dallas, right before Kennedy was shot. Coke, a resident of Signal Mountain, was a 26-year-old paralegal living in Dallas at the time of the assassination. She was out to lunch with coworkers on Elm Street, up the street from where the president was shot. As they exited the restaurant, the parade was passing by. Everything seemed fine, but they were greeted at the office with horrifying news.
"One of the attorney's wives was there with a bundle of flowers she had brought to give him, and she was in tears," Coke said. "And she had heard the news, and that was the first time we heard of it."
In the days following the assassination, Coke said, Dallas went into "deep mourning." While the rest of the country was experiencing horror and outrage, Coke said that people in Dallas felt "horror and outrage and guilt."
"We felt a sense of guilt, as though we were personally responsible," Coke said.
Things were made worse when Lee Harvey Oswald was gunned down two days after he shot the president.
"That compounded our sense of frustration and guilt ... to follow it up with something that made us look even more stupid and unprofessional in the eyes of the whole world," Coke said.
It's been so long since that day, and Coke said some of her memories are starting to fade. But there's one thing that's still crystal clear.
"I will never forget that little pink hat. That pink pillbox hat. Yeah, I'll remember that forever," she said.
Contact Mary Helen Miller at 423-757-6324 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mary Helen Miller joined the staff at the Chattanooga Times Free Press as a multimedia reporter in 2013. She produces audio, video, and graphics for the Web, and occasionally writes stories. Before starting at the Times Free Press, Mary Helen worked as a radio reporter at WUTC, the NPR affiliate station in Chattanooga. She won an Edward R. Murrow award for a story she produced there about the anniversary of the 2011 tornadoes that hit ...
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