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November 20, 2003

Remembering Nov. 22, 1963: Members of Pitt community recall that fateful day

JOHN  F. KENNEDYOn the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, Pitt junior Ralph J. Cappy was attending a history class in the Cathedral of Learning when someone abruptly entered the classroom, walked over to the professor and whispered in his ear. The professor went pale.

After a brief but ominous silence, the professor announced that President Kennedy had been shot.

“We were stunned,” Cappy recalls. “Class was dismissed, and most of us walked across Bigelow Boulevard to the student union,” since renamed the William Pitt Union. It’s the same building where, 40 years later, the Pitt Board of Trustees meets.

Today, Cappy chairs Pitt’s board and is chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. But on that fateful Friday in November 1963, he was just another undergrad huddled around a black-and-white television set in Pitt’s student union, watching and listening, transfixed, as news reports poured in.

The president had been shot and seriously wounded while riding in a motorcade through the streets of Dallas. Texas Gov. Connally also had been hit, but Mrs. Kennedy and Vice President Johnson were unhurt. The president had been rushed to Dallas’s Parkland Memorial Hospital.

Then came news that a priest had been summoned. According to reliable sources, the priest had given the president last rites. Finally, CBS-TV’s Walter Cronkite, slowly removing his eyeglasses and blinking back tears, confirmed what the nation had been dreading to hear: John Fitzgerald Kennedy, just 46 years old, was dead.

“As things unfolded over the next few days, it seemed more incredible as it went along,” says Cappy. “The atmosphere on campus? At first, there was confusion and, in the first few hours, some concern about whether this was part of some grander plot against the country. Once that question appeared to be resolved — with the government taking the public position that the assassination had been a singular act, and there was no imminent threat to national security — well then, of course, came great sorrow. I remember a lot of students crying. It was a highly emotional time, and people weren’t holding back their tears.”

Downtown at the William Penn Hotel, 31-year-old attorney Dick Thornburgh was attending a continuing legal education program when it was announced that shots had been fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas.

“You could feel a wave of concern ripple through the meeting room.

Gradually, people began to drift away. Soon after, of course, we learned that the president was dead,” remembers Thornburgh, a Pitt alumnus who would go on to serve as governor of Pennsylvania and as a U.S. attorney general. He currently is a member of the University’s Board of Trustees.

Like many Americans, Thornburgh gravitated on Nov. 22, 1963, to a house of worship — in his case, Trinity Episcopal Church, next door to his Downtown law office — to pray for the nation.

“In 1963, the idea that the president could be assassinated was just unthinkable,” he points out. “In 1968, we would have the tragic assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. In later years, there would be attempts against the lives of other American presidents. So, the idea of political assassination today doesn’t seem quite as remote as it did 40 years ago, although I don’t think you ever become inured to these events.”

Baby boomers such as Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg were in elementary or secondary school when they learned of JFK’s assassination. “I was a freshman in high school in Duluth, Minn., sitting in math class with 30 or 40 other kids in these old-fashioned desks, when the news came over the school’s public address system,” Nordenberg remembers.

At Squirrel Hill’s Taylor Allderdice High School, Betsy A. Porter was in swimming class. “It came over the loudspeaker that the president had been shot in Dallas,” says Porter, who today is Pitt’s director of Admissions and Financial Aid. “By the time the news was announced that the president had passed away, it was late afternoon. I remember my mother picking me up after school that day, and it was a teary ride home. What I don’t remember was having any sort of conversation about what it all meant. It was just a pretty silent ride.”

Porter’s father owned and ran a small neighborhood grocery store that was open six days a week, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Every day off from work meant lost income for his family. “But I remember that my father stayed home for the president’s funeral and the other TV coverage” following the assassination, Porter says.

Sherry Miller Brown, director of the Pitt College of General Studies McCarl Center for Nontraditional Student Success, recalls: “I was in the 11th grade at St. Basil’s in Carrick. To Catholics, the president was like Saint John F. Kennedy. I remember that, after Kennedy was elected, there was a picture of him next to the crucifix in every classroom.

“On the day he died, I remember the principal coming on the intercom and saying, ‘Please rise for prayer. President John F. Kennedy has been assassinated.’ Everyone was dumbstruck. And I remember the nun in our class ran across the room and fell on her knees in front of the president’s picture and said, ‘Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.’ It was very dramatic.”

Like Porter, Brown vividly remembers her father’s reaction to the assassination.

“Later in the day, I was watching TV with my dad, who was a World War II vet who never talked about the war and who was very patriotic,” Brown says. “I looked over and he was crying. I had never seen him cry before. I said, ‘Daddy, what’s wrong?’ And he said, ‘I can’t believe I live in a country where someone would kill the president.’ I never forgot that, because that’s when it really hit me. I was 16 at the time and wasn’t really into politics, but I knew then that this was really important if my dad was crying about it.”

Donna Mihalik, office manager for Pitt’s Student Government Board, likewise was attending a Catholic high school, in Johnstown, when she learned that the president had been shot. But it was a lay teacher who broke the news.

“He got called out into the hall by one of the nuns, and remained out there for what seemed like a really long time,” she says. “Finally, he came back into the classroom with this look of terror on his face, totally white. He told us, ‘There are reports that the president has been shot.’ We just sat there, stunned.”

Class was dismissed for the rest of the day and Mihalik went home to watch TV with her mother. Hours later, her father came home from work and joined them. “We were in disbelief, that something like that could happen,” Mihalik recalls. “It was like a nightmare.”

Nov. 22, 1963, promised to be an important day in the life of 17-year-old William A. Savage of Chicago. As president of his high school’s student council, Savage — who dreamed of a career in politics, and whose heroes included President Kennedy — would have the honor of introducing a visiting Malaysian diplomat to an assembly of about 800 of his classmates.

Savage was in the principal’s office, being introduced to the diplomat prior to accompanying him to the school auditorium, when an assistant principal rushed into the room and blurted out, “The president has been shot in Dallas. He’s dead.”

Too staggered to feel sorrow at first, Savage just felt numb. And then, ashamed. “Here I was, in the company of this visitor from another country, learning that the president of my own country had been killed in the streets,” recalls Savage, who today is assistant to Chancellor Nordenberg and director of Affirmative Action.

Savage’s classmates, assembled in the high school’s auditorium, still hadn’t heard the terrible news. It fell upon Savage to tell them.

Right until the instant he opened his mouth to speak, Savage remembers, he’d kept cool. “But as soon as I started to make the announcement, I had to fight to hold back the tears, trying to be strong,” he says. “It was like, all of a sudden, I realized what a tragedy it was. For me, it felt like a personal loss.”

Savage still recalls the stunned silence that immediately followed his announcement. The student body at his school was highly diverse, including many African Americans like Savage as well as students descended from Ukrainians, Italians and literally 30 other nationalities and ethnic groups, he says. “President Kennedy had been very popular among most of us.”

“At first, I’m not sure if everyone believed what I’d told them,” says Savage. “Remember, they hadn’t heard the news officially on the radio or on TV yet.” But gradually, as it sank in that Savage was serious and wasn’t playing some bizarre prank, he heard muffled gasps and sniffling from the audience. One after another, his fellow students had begun sobbing.

In Seattle, Nicholas G. Bircher’s 3rd grade teacher was assigned the duty of telling Bircher and his classmates that the president was dead. “Given the time difference, we learned about the assassination before lunch,” says Bircher, who today is a Pitt associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine, and president of the University Senate.

“None of us was particularly hungry that day,” Bircher remembers.

Half a world away, in India, economics student Vijai Singh was attending class at Lucknow University when one of his professors suddenly announced, “A great tragedy has happened. We still do not know exactly what is going on, but President Kennedy apparently has been killed.” The professor did not yet know the circumstances of Kennedy’s death.

“We were in shock because everybody in India knew who President Kennedy was, and he was really idolized,” says Singh, who today is Pitt’s associate chancellor.

“Everybody admired him, in some cases without knowing exactly what his policies were, because he represented ideals of democracy and decency, as well as equality for the Third World. Even poor people in India had pictures of President Kennedy on the walls of their homes.”

Among Indians, no American president since has inspired anything like the admiration they felt for JFK, according to Singh.

“It was incredible, emotionally, in class when we heard the news he had been killed,” Singh says. “We students were dismissed. The class could not have continued that day.”

Marilyn Alberter, who today is the registrar at Pitt’s Johnstown campus, was a 6th grader at Westside Elementary School in the Johnstown area on Nov. 22, 1963.

“I remember seeing some teachers whispering in the hall, and then our teacher told us the president had been shot. Then we were sent home from school.

“I think we were old enough to understand it, but still too young to know the impact it had on adults. I remember my whole family watching black-and-white TV constantly for the next few days, including Oswald getting shot. And today, when I think of the funeral, I think of John-John and how he’s dead now, too.

“Gosh, it’s been 40 years, and I still think of that funeral and John-John.”

Norman Scanlon, vice president for academic affairs at the Greensburg campus, says: “I remember a weird thing, actually. I was an undergrad at St. Vincent’s College, and I was bumming a ride home to Pittsburgh with a history professor of mine. As we were leaving campus, we were flagged down and told about the assassination. Except, we were told that both Kennedy and Johnson were dead.”

Scanlon remembers his history professor exclaiming: “Oh, my God! Then Mike McCormack” — who was Speaker of the House at that time, and next in the line of succession — “is president!”

“I remember we rode on in silence the whole trip, just trying to get any information we could on the radio,” Scanlon says. “And I remember being glued to the television for days after that.”

Greensburg campus English professor Don Reilly remembers: “I was teaching at Bethany College then. A student came into my office, white and shaken, and said ‘Have you heard?’ I said, ‘Have I heard what?’ ‘That Kennedy was killed.’ And I remember quite clearly telling him, ‘That’s nothing to joke about.’

“Bethany’s administration had to decide whether to cancel classes, and they decided not to. So, I met my Friday class that afternoon. I went into class and said, ‘You all know what’s happened. I don’t have anything to say about it, myself. But I’m going to read you something.’”

Reilly read from Walt Whitman’s “On the Assassination of President Lincoln,” which includes the lines: “He leaves for America’s history and biography, so far, not only its most dramatic reminiscence — he leaves, in my opinion, the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality.”

Reilly says: “I knew Whitman was trying to heal the country with that piece, and it was the best I could come up with under the circumstances.”


Filed under: Feature,Volume 36 Issue 7

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