Milwaukee remembers JFK assassination

I was not quite 4 years old when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas.

I don’t remember the assassination, per se, but I vividly remember the funeral procession that followed and his son standing and saluting his father as the horse made its way down Pennsylvania Avenue.

I remember how disturbing it all was because every adult in my extended family was gathered around the black and white console television, crying, at my grandparents’ house in Wausau.

It’s the earliest memory I can put a time stamp on. It was one of the few times in which I saw my father, a former Marine and a self-avowed Kennedy Democrat, cry. On this, the 50th anniversary of the assassination, what’s your story? What do you recall?

BizTimes reached out to readers old enough to remember. It was one of those rare communal historical moments. The only thing that I think is comparable in our lifetime was the 9-11 attacks, in terms of, “I remember where I was when….”

Here are some of our readers’ responses. Readers are invited to share their own memories in the comments section at the end of this Milwaukee Biz Blog.

“I was 9. In grade school. I had to go to my cubbie outside the classroom to get something for class. I saw a teacher weeping in the hallway. I asked what was wrong. She said, ‘The president has been shot.’ I started shaking. I can’t remember what was going through my mind. I entered my classroom. My teacher asked me what was wrong. I blurted out what the other teacher had just told me. The room went silent. We turned on the industrial television that had just been put in classrooms. It was riveting. And it is to this day.”
– Kathy Mykleby, WISN-Channel 12

“I first heard this news at the age of 8 – and a third grader at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Elementary School in Kimberly, Wis. There was a lot of pride in the Catholic community that President Kennedy was a Catholic. When he died – these were the days before cable. In fact, most of us still had black and white TV’s – the school chose to carry the live radio broadcast over the P.A. system. It was coming into our classroom but as young children we were not immediately clear as to what was unfolding. Our teacher explained in the best way she could that our president had been shot and died. While I am sure she was as shocked and saddened as her students, I remember her being a very calm and reassuring presence -just what a group of horrified third graders really needed on a very dark day.”
– Lynn Sprangers, Mount Mary University

“I was in my late twenties in a restaurant in Beloit with a customer. The waiter shared the information Kennedy was dead-shot. We were aghast, stunned, it was so out of context to the world we thought we lived in. How was it possible? How could it happen? Who or what could manage this? What was security doing? This was the president of the United States. We had been in some Third World counties with pictures of the presidential couple pasted everywhere. They saw them as king and queen. Loved them, admired maybe even worshiped them. In any case they were a bit unreal about their feelings. I wandered around that day with a portion of my person numbed. How was it possible? We are all vulnerable. The question is how well do we use what has been given to us? Do we really think we are in control, that we earned all that we have?
– Richard Pieper Sr., PPC Partners Inc.

“I was a high school freshman in red and white gym clothes standing on a red wrestling mat wondering how I’d survive an encounter with a much larger, stronger senior. Then everything stopped. The principal interrupted our lives then and forever with the announcement over the P.A. I remember his voice was altered by the emotion he was fighting to suppress and there were frequent, long pauses in his delivery. That part of the experience is a snapshot. I can’t remember anything before or after, because I was looking down the whole time, the colors of my uniform and surroundings more vivid than anything else because I wouldn’t look up out of fear the other boys might see me crying. Ironically, all the rest of it is remembered in black and white – the endless coverage, the cortege, the casket, the family, LBJ, Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby – because that was how we saw the world on our television set. A spot in our living room where my family sat for the next two days straight. Yet I can’t remember one other detail or color in that room.”
– Steve Laughlin, Laughlin Constable, Milwaukee

“Great idea to accumulate these memories. I was a sophomore in high school at this time. I was in World History when the announcement came over the speaker. Our teacher, Mr. Kunz, ask us to carry on the class while he went down to the office to find out what he could. This was especially important at Tomah High School because President Kennedy had made a campaign stop at the High School when he was running for the office. I think that we all knew the world had just changed.”
– Reed Hall, Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

“I was in the classroom in seventh grade and the announcement came over the speakers to the entire school. I remember being shocked, as we all were…not knowing what to think. My parents were worried about any president being assassinated. Even though they disagreed with his politics, our family was saddened by our country’s loss. I visited the eternal flame in the mid-1960’s with my Boy Scout troop, as we honored and remembered his legacy then…five decades ago…wow. Today I look back and see a good president with a good family who was taken from us in his prime. I disagree with his politics, but I liked how he delivered in his speeches and the fact that he was a true leader who had vision and a way of getting things done with Congress. Most of all, as a huge supporter of the space program, I remember when we landed on the moon, and paid attention to the many space missions over the years, all because of him pushing and leading it forward and making NASA a force for humanity’s future off of planet Earth. I respect his legacy for many things, but especially for that. He was also a respected WWII hero on the front lines and understood the importance of a strong military, while working for peace through things like the Peace Corps. His tough leadership in international affairs was amazing in the face of one of the world’s most difficult times in the Cuban Missile crisis. Thank you for the honor of a reply to this good blog you are doing. Thank you for honoring a president!”
– David Kliber, S.F. Analytical Laboratories Inc., New Berlin

“Like many 6-year-olds, I was in my first grade classroom at St. Margaret Mary at 92nd & Capitol Drive in Milwaukee. Suddenly, there was a rare announcement over the P.A. system, with one speaker in every classroom. Sister Lucille, our principal, sounded more nervous than normal, ‘All teachers and students are asked to proceed to the multi-purpose room. This is NOT an emergency!’ A hush took over the room as the A.V. guy brings in the cart with a huge television. I remember it being black and white with rabbit ear antennas. Sister Lucille simply said, ‘I’m sorry to say President Kennedy has been shot and he has died.’ She broke down crying. Eight hundred kids started crying. She gathered herself and reassured all of us, that, ‘Vice President Johnson is now the president…and everything is going to be fine.’ But 800 kids realize everything is NOT GOING TO BE FINE! But like every American and most of the world, we all prayed for and thought about J.F.K., Jackie, the kids and the Kennedy family. Sister Lucille said, ‘The Kennedys need a lot of our prayers, so we are going to ‘say a rosary’ for the Kennedys.’ Then they closed school. We huddled around our TV only taking a break for supper.”
– Jim Haertel, Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery, Milwaukee

“We must be the same age. I was 3 and remember the same as you. All of the family huddled around the TV crying.”
– Karen Haertel, Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery, Milwaukee

“I had just gotten home from morning Kindergarten and was waiting for my mother to make lunch. She was talking to my grandmother on the phone. Suddenly the radio went dead briefly, then they announced that the president had been shot. I told mom and she hung up the phone and turned on TV. I don’t remember if I got lunch that day. I do remember Ruby shooting Oswald on TV. I thought it was part of a TV show — man shoots president, man shoots him in revenge. All very confusing to a five-year-old. Still confusing, really.”
– Bill Zaferos, public information manager, Milwaukee County Board

“I do remember. I was a senior at the University of Wisconsin, or Madison as we understood it. The other sites were teacher’s colleges and I was walking to class when someone yelled that Kennedy had been shot. I and the guy I was walking with thought it was a joke. Soon we discovered it was not. Girls were crying; older men were sobbing. Several of us went to a bar, which closed after we entered, and we drank and talked for several hours. Many people were shell-shocked. My group were made up of guys who projected objectivity and didn’t want to show emotion. But they were stunned as well.”
– Bob Chernow, RBC Wealth Management, Milwaukee

“Love this idea. I was in the fifth grade and remember it like it was yesterday. We were engaged in geography class and the principal came on the loud speaker. He was usually a very gregarious guy, and I remember his voice was quiet and we could all tell something was wrong. In those days we had regular civil defense drills because the Cold War was ever-present. He started talking slow and deliberate, and the classroom went silent. We were all scared before he even made the announcement, ‘President Kennedy was shot today.’ We all just sat there. I don’t know that any of us really understood the impact of that statement, but it was shocking. Many of the teachers ran into the hallway crying and hugging each other. Some of the kids cried too. They let everyone go home early. My father came home early also and he, along with my five brothers and sisters watched the tv in silence. We had many questions and my father did an admirable job trying to help us understand not only the action but the implications. That day and that event started my interest in politics, that is with me today.”
– Dianne Chamness, Chamness Group, Milwaukee

“At the age of 15, I learned about the John Kennedy Assassination in Brother Hugh Carlson’s sixth period sophomore religion class at Don Bosco High School, a south side Catholic high school for young men. The Marianist teaching priests and brothers were the original Men in Black. Like in the movie by the same name, they dressed in black suit, white shirts and black ties. Many of them were tough guys. Often older when they professed religious life. One brother had been a nightclub singer, another a Marine and a another a boxer in his past life. Brother Hugh was called out of class, and when he returned, he came back in tears. He announced: ‘Men, the president’s been shot. Let us pray for the president.’ And we did. Subsequently we learned he had died. I really believe that our lives as young men were forever changed with this sad news.”
– Bob DeVita, Commonground Healthcare Cooperative, Milwaukee

“I was working at Middlebury College in Vermont that day. We were all devastated. And SAC bombers, fully armed with nukes, were flying north, leaving many contrails. Mercifully, they got to the border and circled back. I had met Kennedy when he was running in the Wisconsin primary. We literally bumped into each other at a political gathering in Racine and chatted for a minute. Later, in thefFall, since I had parade experience, a girl I dated whose father was head of the United Auto Workers locally asked me to physically organize his fall motorcade/parade in Milwaukee. Many years later, I got to know Chet’s Sports Bar (now T.J.’s) in Kenosha where the whole clan hung out during the primary.”
– Wayne Youngquist, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

“I was a 5-year-old, less than three months into kindergarten when J.F.K. was shot. I remember that we were all sitting down listening to Mrs. Aslesen teach the alphabet, when the principal’s voice boomed from the little brown wooden speaker box, hanging above the letters above the front chalkboard, saying that the president has been shot in Dallas. Our teacher sat down and started crying quietly. She turned to look at our stunned faces and said only something like, ‘This is terrible. He’s so young.’ I then remember watching the funeral on TV in solemn silence with my mom. I believe it was the first moment in my life that I had a sense of country, military, leaders and any other cities, and of grief.”
– Paul Grangaard, Allen Edmonds Shoe Corp., Port Washington

“First grade, Sheridan Elementary in Sheboygan. Home for lunch with mom watching ‘As The World Turns’ on the black and white TV, dad on the couch napping for his third shift job later that day. The idle soap opera chat is interrupted by a black CBS News slate that read ‘BULLETIN’and Walter Cronkite talking about the president, shots and motorcades. As I put on my yellow rain coat and red rubber boots for the short walk back to class in the November rain, Cronkite was reading on as he waited for a camera to warm up in his New York studio. At one point he mentioned Kennedy being shot in the head at which point my dad rose up on his elbows and said, ‘That’s it – he’s dead. Mrs. Spring already had the map down when I got to class showing us where Dallas was. We then found out we unexpectedly were headed to the basement to play with clay. Was it a ruse to keep us busy as teachers watched the coverage? Was it because the basement also doubled as our bomb shelter and no one was sure what was coming next? Going home and seeing my parents upset, unable to answer a 6-year-old’s questions – that’s what’s seared in the mind today. That, and the headline that night in the Sheboygan Press: ‘KENNEDY DEAD!’ in letters large enough this first grader could read. Why? He didn’t know, nor did anyone around him. That’s still true a half-century later.”
– Gene Mueller, AM 620-WTMJ, Milwaukee


Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes.

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