Image for post
Image for post
President Robert Gibson addresses the audience at a memorial service for President Kennedy held in the Auditorium on the Monday following his assassination. (Photo by Lee Schaeffer ’65)

Before the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the universal date on which everyone alive at the time remembered exactly what they were doing was 11/22/1963 — the assassination of President Kennedy. As the passing of another November causes that once-vivid memory to fade a little farther into the mists of time, I thought it would be worthwhile to record the recollections of a few witnesses who happened to be on or near the Monmouth College campus that fateful day.

Only 11 known faculty and staff members from 1963 are still living, and the youngest former students are now 75 years old. The student newspaper had been put to bed earlier that day, prior to news of the assassination, and the following week was Thanksgiving, so there was little written about the events on campus surrounding the assassination.

The only college-wide observance was a memorial service on Monday, Nov. 25, in the Auditorium, led by Professor Charles Speel. It was hastily arranged after President Johnson declared a national day of mourning.

An email query directed toward a random group of former faculty, staff and students yielded a number of interesting recollections, each of which confirmed that memories of the tragic event remain deeply embedded in the minds of those now Golden Scots. Below are some of their accounts:

in the SAE house. The Sigma Alpha Epsilon house (pre-fraternity complex) was located in the 700 block of East Archer, wiped out a year or two later by Gibson Hall and now about the location of the back door to the Science and Business building. We had finished lunch and someone turned on the TV. It was Walter Cronkite, I believe, who had come on live and announced that they believed President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. No details at first. My fraternity brothers gathered around the TV.

Rather than hang with that crowd, I decided to go downtown to the Review Atlas, then still on the north side of the Square (where Kellogg Printing now is). I had worked at the RA the previous summer, so was known to the newsroom staff. The newsroom was on the second floor in the front.

When I got there, the Associated Press machine was going crazy. I stood behind it some of the time, but cleared out when the wire editor would get up from his desk to get more copy. They were holding the day’s press start to get the story in the paper. Of course, the story progressed from the AP believing Kennedy shot to Kennedy definitely shot to Kennedy going to Parkland Hospital to Kennedy dead. And then to Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as president.

I don’t remember much about the mood on campus, other than somber and sort of shocked.

I was editor of the Oracle, the name of the student newspaper back then, that year, but I don’t remember doing anything on the assassination in that publication.

I do remember going to choir practice either that afternoon or the following day and having a conversation with some fellow choristers. MC was a pretty Republican place back in the early ’60s, for whatever that is worth.

I ended up a few years later with the Houston Chronicle as a reporter. Eventually, that got me to the Austin bureau, whose bureau chief, Bo Byers, had covered the assassination that day. But Bo was on the press bus, so didn’t see much of the actual event, other than everyone realizing that the motorcade had speeded up dramatically and wasn’t going where it was supposed to in Dallas but rather to Parkland Hospital.

ON NOV. 22, Kennedy Reed, the first male African American student at Monmouth in my tenure there, was going into town to have his hair cut. This was a major event, because at that time, the Black population in Monmouth had their own barber on the other side of town and did not visit the other barbers. Chaplain Weeks had made arrangements to accompany Kennedy to his own barber in the downtown area because he was not sure what the response might be in town if Kennedy went by himself.

After lunch that day, a group of us were in Grier Hall, getting ready to go to a chemistry lab when someone came running down the hall screaming “Kennedy has been shot. Kennedy has been shot.” We were all shocked, and assumed it was Kennedy Reed, not President Kennedy. It took a while before we heard the rest of the story that afternoon.

I WAS A FRESHMAN living in Graham Hall. I was taking chemistry, calculus, and English (we were on the 3 classes and 3 terms plan then) and pretty well adjusted to the college routine. I was just returning to my room when my neighbor in the next room told me the President had been shot. I don’t remember if he said “the President” or “Kennedy.”

It seems funny now but at that instant I didn’t associate his getting shot with being killed. Not everyone who gets shot dies (e.g., Ronald Reagan later). I likely was in a hurry to get back to a chemistry lab by one o’clock.

That evening, there were clusters around the TVs. (There weren’t as many TVs then as now.) Probably only one in Graham.

It was a somber time, but my concerns were about my life at MC, not what political effect this might have. Remember, life was a lot simpler then. There wasn’t Facebook, or cell phones, or emails, or 24-hour news channels.

The government intrusion into our lives was much less than today. I don’t remember any fear that the normal succession to a new President would not be orderly. There were concerns as to whether some of our Cold War enemies might have somehow been involved and there are probably still some today who believe that might have been the case.

It was a dramatic event for all of us as young people just starting the next era of our lives.

I DO WELCOME THE CHANCE to relate again the story of how and where my wife and I experienced the traumatic experience of John F. Kennedy’s death because it was indelibly connected to our lives, the college and its students. At my faculty retirement sendoff party in the late spring of 2002, my short talk included the observation that unfortunately my career at Monmouth College was bookended by tragedy. 9–11 occurred just after the start of my final year of teaching and John Kennedy was assassinated in the fall of 1963 just as I embarked on my first year.

Tom Fernandez and I were hired to teach in what was then called the Speech Department by Jean Liedman (yes the one the dorm is named after) beginning in September of 1963. Tom was an experienced Ph.D. and took over as head of the department so Jean (Miss Liedman) could devote more time to her duties as Dean of Women. I was a greenhorn instructor and slotted to teach some speech and direct the college theatre program. Dr. Fernandez was an avid promoter of competitive speech activities such as Debate, Extemporaneous Speaking, Oratory, and Oral Interpretation and immediately started to prepare some of our new students to compete at the Bradley Speech Tournament in November. My wife’s parents lived in Peoria (thus a free bed and meals that the college didn’t have to pay for) and we were quickly recruited to drive some of the competitors over to the Tournament.

That fateful Friday morning we loaded three MC students into our back seat and headed out on old Highway 150 (no I-74 freeway then) for Peoria. As we drove into Brimfield (again yes you had to drive though towns not around them in those days), I noticed that I could use some gas and pulled into the town’s little Standard station. While the attendant filled the tank (self service was not even a gleam in anyone’s eye back then), I went into the station to pay. A tiny screened black-and-white TV high on the wall in back of the counter was on and I looked up and heard a serious looking announcer say that they had just had a report that the president had been shot in Dallas. I returned to the car and told my wife and the students. We immediately turned the car radio on to hear bulletins as we proceeded on to Peoria. When we arrived on the Bradley campus, I parked outside of the Student Union. We rushed in and quickly found a large room packed with students and professors mostly sitting on the floor and watching a single TV set in stunned silence.

The speech tournament actually went on that weekend as students had come from several states to compete, but there was a weird pall about the whole affair. The competitors filtered out to do their events and then returned to that TV room to silently watch events unfold. We drove back to Monmouth on Sunday in tomb-like silence. I have no recollection of how any of them did in their events. And that is my “Where were you when you heard that Kennedy was assassinated story?”

I will add this coda. Three or four years ago at a Golden Scots weekend on campus an alum came up to me and said, “ I remember you. I was in your car when you came back and told us that Kennedy had been shot.” We did talk a bit about our experiences that weekend, but I am ashamed now to say that neither my wife or I can recall his name. Maybe if this is published he will come forward again.

THE NEWS OF THE SHOOTING of President Kennedy reached me in a crowded lounge room, occupied by scores of campus personnel, at about 12:40 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22.

I was on the University of Chicago campus, and not at Monmouth, because of a trip organized by our Latin Professor, Miss Bernice Fox. She had scheduled a early morning train trip from Galesburg to Chicago for a visit to an English class, with the idea that I might apply for graduate school. The afternoon involved a meeting with Latin teachers. For the noon class, Miss Fox and I joined about 20 students who were sitting in a semicircle in a mahogany-paneled room with the leaded glass windows that characterize the campus. The woman professor was standing at a small lectern. The topic was an explication of Katherine Anne Porter’s short story, The Flowering Judas. I felt comfortable in class because the small seminar experience was standard fare at Monmouth College.

Midway through, the class was cut short by a knock on the door.

The class dispersed, and Miss Fox and I walked quickly down a long sidewalk, following a gathering crowd. She and I stood in the back of a large room, with a black-and-white television in the forefront. We strained to see and hear. Walter Cronkite, the familiar anchor of the evening CBS News, was reporting live from Dallas, where President and Mrs. Kennedy were campaigning. Cronkite reported that at about 12:30 p.m., Kennedy and the governor of Texas, John Connally, had been shot in a motorcade. A flood of information was being quickly provided by the staff coming to Cronkite’s desk, including a picture mounted on a posterboard of the shooting. Then came the unthinkable. Cronkite said: “The President has died.” Only a few minutes had elapsed.

I felt that the blood had been drained from my system, as if a parent, sibling, or close friend had died. Disbelief was the tenor of the room. Like me, people were stunned and weeping. It has been said many times that we all remember where we were when we received the assassination news. The details of the day and what followed are fresh in my mind. Such is the effect of a defining event. Miss Fox and I returned immediately to Monmouth, with silence the tenor of the crowded train.

Televisions were not widely available on our campus in 1963. Our housemother’s room at our dorms did not have one; neither did any common spaces. But a set was placed in the basement of McMichael Hall, where our meals were served for all women and men who did not live in a fraternity house. I think the television came from a private home. It was through this new medium that the campus had the opportunity to come together.

During Sunday’s lunch, we witnessed the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald, the president’s accused killer, by a Dallas night club owner, Jack Ruby, as the killing was happening. We sat in disbelief.

Monday, Nov. 25, scores of us students gathered again in front of the same television, as the funeral unfolded. The First Lady, a mere 12 years older than we, was featured in scenes like no others, organized and executed with her ever sense of grace and dignity — the riderless horse, John Jr. saluting his father’s casket, world leaders gathered, ending with the burial and Eternal Flame at Arlington. I joined the silence, crying, mesmerized by the beautiful places in Washington I had seen just a few months before, as a student on the Washington Semester, sponsored by Monmouth College. These were now part of the funeral procession.

TO SET THE STAGE, students today would have to forget everything they think they know about life in the USA and dial back to try to understand what the country was like at the time President Kennedy was campaigning for re-election. It was the “best of times, it was the worst of times…” with apologies to Dickens. Most people would agree it was a simpler time. The Summer of Love had not yet occurred. Neither had student revolts against the Vietnam War.

Life on campus was simpler, too. All freshmen lived in dorms. Upperclassmen lived in fraternity houses or apartments in town. All upperclass women lived in dorms. Very few students had cars, maybe 50 out of the entire student body. We walked everywhere. No one had a TV, much less a fridge or microwave in their room. A few students had stereos, a real luxury compared to a radio, which nearly everyone had. Neither PC’s nor Laptops had been invented. Each dorm had a TV in the lounge, and most fraternity houses had a TV in their main living room. TV was our window to the world.

The day President Kennedy was shot was a bright, crisp fall day in Monmouth. I was a freshman living in Fulton Hall, and I didn’t have any afternoon classes or labs that day so I decided to go over to the Austin Hall to practice some of the music that the orchestra and choir would be performing together at a concert before the Thanksgiving break. As I entered the building I noticed several faculty and students watching the TV in the reception area. They seemed really focused on the TV, but I didn’t think much about it. Just said hello as I hurried by to get upstairs to a practice room. After a good practice session, I bounded down the stairs to head back to the dorm, and the same group was still there. One of them was the choir director so I started to say I’d been practicing the pieces he had asked us to work on, and someone said in a solemn voice, “the President has been shot.” It was like a gut punch.

For the rest of the day, everyone on campus watched TV wherever or whenever they could. The mood on campus was one of disbelief, and the mood turned darker and darker with the realization that the President had died. Most of us realized that political assassinations occur, but it was the first one that had taken place in our lifetimes. Most of us believed that in our modern world, civilized people would not carry out such banal acts. It was the end of innocence.

Much has been written about the events that followed so I won’t go into that. I will say that some professors took time to talk with students about their feelings and give perspective on what it meant to the country. MC was a good place to be in the aftermath.

LUNCH AT THE SIG EP HOUSE got cut short on November, 22, 1963. So was the life of 46-year-old John Fitzgerald Kennedy, my political hero. I decided to mourn his loss in Washington, where I had just spent several months on Monmouth’s Washington Semester Program. A Greyhound bus ticket pointed me toward D.C., providing a rather disillusioning journey along the back side of America. I had to go, however, albeit alone. After all, I was President of the Young Democrats of Monmouth College, a group of some five or ten of us. Additionally, I wrote a column for the student newspaper my senior year, and this trip would provide lots of material, I thought, for another column. Here it is again, some 57 years later:

What is it that binds each of us as citizens of this great country? In view of the events surrounding our recent national tragedy I am convinced that one factor is not respect for the office of the Presidency.

Just two weeks ago today I asked myself where I should pay my final respects to John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It was my decision that this could be best done in our nation’s capital. Little did I anticipate the mood of the country that I was to find on my trip to the eastern coast.

At no time in the following four days did I find myself in a totally “mournful” atmosphere, as was the nation’s mood according to reports by the mass media. I was unable to detect this reverent atmosphere in either rural or urban American.

Business operations seem to have continued on schedule for the most part. Weekend entertainment throughout the country also appeared to proceed in its usual manner. It was apparently only after executive request for a national day of mourning that the general public cast aside its daily routine.

During my trip to Washington I was disturbed by my own inability to become involved in intelligent conversation pertinent to the topic of the day. In Chicago, for example, I encountered a sober individual who confided to me that at four o’clock in the morning the city “ain’t like it used to be.” Later I realized the applicability of this statement to my observations and conclusions.

I told myself that things would be different in Washington, however. But once again I was disillusioned. True, a great number of people gathered in the city, but for the life of me I know not why.

Those who mourned were few. They were the exception rather than the rule.

Standing in front of Saint Matthew’s Cathedral the morning of the funeral, I was shocked by both the conduct of individuals in the crowd and the general atmosphere that prevailed there. Regretfully, I fear that this impression will be the one that shall remain in my mind.

It was primarily due to the above mentioned observations that I closed my travelogue in the following manner:

Today I was sad for John Fitzgerald Kennedy; tonight I am sad for the nation. Neither during this two thousand-mile journey two and from Washington, nor in contact with massive crowds there assembled, did I once sense that feeling of national mourning which was projected by our various mass media. If this was the case in some places, then I know of many others where it was not. Not only did I observe an apathetic attitude existent in most areas, but I must sadly report pathetic attitudes in others.

These are the words of one who considers himself to be an optimist; but they are also the words of one who has been compelled to be realistic, and perhaps pessimistic, about the moral state of this nation.

Am I blind to the events surrounding this tragedy, and wrong in my evaluation of our society’s reaction? For the former I hopefully stand to be corrected; for the latter I pray that I have misjudged in my observation.

I WAS WORKING as a morning newscaster at WRAM radio when the news arrived on our UPI wire service. I was doing bulletins about it. By 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I left to go to an MC choir rehearsal in the basement of the chapel. When I walked in, it was as if I had arrived at a funeral. Later, I learned that the WRAM general manager was not happy that I had left. He went out onto the street below the WRAM cupola and was doing live interviews with passing citizens of Monmouth. All this was a week before the MC Thanksgiving break.

Written by

Editor and historian for Monmouth College. Avid researcher of western Illinois history for 40 years. FB and Twitter.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store