For the nation and John F. Kennedy’s administration, the months leading up to Nov. 22, 1963, were riddled with fear and anxiety on a global scale.
In the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, when JFK narrowly avoided nuclear war with the Soviets, schoolchildren were learning “duck and cover” techniques that might help them survive an atomic bomb. U.S. involvement in Vietnam was intensifying and racial conflicts in the South were escalating.
For many people, the 46-year-old Irish Catholic Democrat from Massachusetts was a beacon of hope, famously challenging Americans in his 1961 inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
So Mainers were shocked that Friday afternoon, when JFK was shot to death while riding through Dallas in the back of a Lincoln convertible. They joined mourners across the country and beyond in an extended weekend of stunned sorrow.
“It was awful,” recalled Gov. Paul LePage, who was 15 years old and living in his native Lewiston at the time. “People were crying. People were just distraught.”
Fifty years later, LePage and five other Mainers shared their recollections of that period with the Maine Sunday Telegram. Click their portraits below to hear their stories.
Mary Jane Cummings
The civil rights leader says that Kennedy inspired her to get involved in politics.
It was early Friday afternoon. “As the World Turns” was on the television in the living room.
Mary Jane Cummings was in the kitchen of her Munjoy Hill apartment when she heard Walter Cronkite’s voice interrupt the popular soap opera.
“I remember it so vividly,” said Cummings, 76, of Portland. “He announced that Kennedy had been shot. It was a while before they confirmed he was dead. My husband, Leonard, was working out of state for the telephone company, so the first person I called was my mother. She really didn’t believe me at first.”
On Nov. 22, 1963, Cummings was 26 years old and had four children under age 6. She continued to watch the awful events unfold on TV. Lee Harvey Oswald’s arrest and subsequent assassination by Jack Ruby. JFK’s funeral and burial. Leonard Cummings came home for the weekend and joined her in mourning.
The sadness set in. She wept for the man who inspired her to get involved in politics and to believe she could make a difference.
“John Kennedy was the one who inspired me the way Obama has inspired young people today,” Cummings said. “I volunteered at his local office in Portland during his campaign. I fell in love with politics because of him. He planted the seed of community involvement in me. I joined the Democratic Women’s Club because of him.”
Cummings, who is African-American, also was active in the NAACP Portland Branch, but JFK’s stance on civil rights wasn’t a significant factor for her.
She remembers being impressed during the 1960 presidential campaign, when Kennedy called to console Coretta Scott King after her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was arrested during a civil rights protest in Atlanta. Robert Kennedy called the judge to help secure King’s release on bail. Their controversial intervention helped JFK win more than 70 percent of the black vote nationally.
While in office, JFK took some measured steps to promote racial equality, but he remained concerned about upsetting Southern Democrats as protests and violence escalated and an early civil rights bill made its way through Congress. Cummings, who experienced both housing and job discrimination as a young woman in Maine, was motivated by the leadership Kennedy offered all Americans.
“When I graduated from high school in 1955, the only job I could get was as an elevator operator in the Casco Bank building,” Cummings said. “But I was inspired by Kennedy because he was our president more than anything else. ‘Ask not what your country can do for you.’ Those words rang in my ears always. I really did love President Kennedy.”
The daughter in a politically active Irish Catholic family
saw her father cry for the first time that day.
It was the first time Ann Kerry saw her father and her uncles cry.
“To see tough, strong Irishmen cry like that was very disconcerting,” Kerry recalled. “JFK was so young and his words resounded in the hearts of so many. It was amazing as a young adult to see so many tears shed by men and women at that time.”
Kerry, 67, who lives in South Portland, was a senior at Thornton Academy in Saco on Nov. 22, 1963, when she learned the fate of the president who would inspire decades of political activism in her Irish Catholic family.
“The bell had just rung and I was leaving my gym class when it was announced over the intercom that the president had been shot,” Kerry said. “A short time later the teacher in my next class told us he had died. Teachers were crying. Students were crying. I certainly was because he was just so important to our family.”
Two of her classmates were so distraught, they hopped on a bus to Washington, D.C., but they ran out of money before they got there and returned home.
Kennedy’s death that Friday shortly after noon was a tragic blow for many Irish Catholic families, Kerry said.
“It hit home a little bit harder in some ways,” she said. “With his election it seemed that the Irish had finally made it in this country.”
Kerry’s parents, five siblings and extended family members riveted their attention to their black-and-white television throughout the weekend and for the funeral on Monday. Kerry’s father, Raymond, was Saco’s police chief, and her mother, Grace, was the children’s librarian at the local library.
“We watched the whole thing,” she said. “It was like watching history happen. We saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. When you see something like that live, it’s astounding.”
In the years that followed, Kerry and her siblings have remained connected to the Kennedys and active in politics and community affairs. They have worked on a variety of local, state and national campaigns, including Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential bid, holding a fundraiser and hosting the candidate when he was in Maine.
Among her brothers, John and David each served in the Maine Legislature, Paul served on the Saco City Council and John narrowly lost a congressional bid in 1982. Kerry’s sister, Ann, who died of cancer in 1997, was the inspiration for Mary’s Walk and the Kerrymen Pub 5K, a yearly event that attracts thousands of participants and has raised about $2 million for the Maine Cancer Foundation since 1999.
“John Kennedy was the impetus for all of us to be active in our communities,” Kerry said. “We were young and he had that leadership quality that made you want to get involved because he was so captivating. It was an amazing time to live in.”
Maine’s governor recalls hearing the news while working as a crossing guard as a junior high-schooler.
Paul LePage had a rough brush with greatness when John F. Kennedy was campaigning for president.
The candidate spoke in Lewiston, where LePage grew up, on Nov. 6, 1960, in the city park that would later be named in Kennedy’s memory. The future governor of Maine was 12 years old and eager to meet the politician who had captured his affection.
“I jumped over a Jersey barrier, ran up to the convertible and put my hand out and shook his hand,” recalled LePage, 65. “The next thing I saw was sky, buildings and pavement. The Secret Service didn’t know what I was up to, so they just grabbed me and flung me.”
When JFK was killed on Nov. 22, 1963, LePage saw his largely French Catholic, Democratic, working-class community convulse with grief at the loss of a hero.
“I was a crossing guard at (Jordan) Junior High School,” LePage said, recalling the white strap and badge that he wore. “I remember all the kids coming out crying. I did my work and I ran right down to Luiggi’s (Pizzeria). I sat there for about an hour, drinking a Pepsi and watching the events of the assassination (on television).”
LePage, now a Republican, said he was a “major Kennedy fan” and was deeply saddened that the president had been killed. He had read Kennedy’s book, “Profiles in Courage,” and was inspired by it.
“He was at that age where he was running for president and I was trying to find my way off the streets,” LePage said. “He had a big influence in that way.”
He admired that JFK had pushed to serve on the front lines of World War II despite severe health problems.
“He really was an amazing guy,” LePage said. “He was able to overcome and prove that he was worthy.”
It didn’t faze LePage that Kennedy shared his Roman Catholic faith. As a 15-year-old, LePage was more impressed that the president was a handsome ladies’ man.
“I never connected politics and the church,” LePage said. “For me, it was just he was a young, good-looking Irish man who liked women.”
LePage also admired the first lady, describing Jacqueline Kennedy as graceful, beautiful and articulate. He called her “the greatest first lady in the history of this country.” So, it bothers him, he said, that JFK was such a philanderer.
“As a president, I thought he was great for the country,” LePage said. “But he certainly wasn’t perfect.”
LePage still admires Kennedy’s efforts to reduce taxes, boost the military and support the National Rifle Association. He recalled President Ronald Reagan’s famous quote, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”
“I claim to be a Kennedy Republican,” LePage said. “I wish he was in the White House today. This country would be much better off.”
In a small Nebraska town at the time, ‘there weren’t many people who were disappointed.’
Detroit native Paul Lichter spent most of the 1960s “knocking around” the country, enjoying the laid-back, experimental, anti-establishment Beat scene wherever he found it.
When John F. Kennedy was killed on Nov. 22, 1963, Lichter had just arrived in Scottsbluff, Neb. His parents had moved to the small, conservative city after his father decided to open a factory that made camper furniture.
“I remember that day only because I had just gotten off the road,” said Lichter, 72, a jazz promoter who has lived in Portland since 1989.
“I arrived at my parents’ house late the night before and when I woke up that morning, it was all over the news,” Lichter said. “All I did for the next 72 hours was sit and stare at the television.”
At 22, Lichter wasn’t emotionally engaged in the tragic events scrolling across the screen. While his mother was distraught over Kennedy’s death, Lichter was no fan of the president.
“I hadn’t bought into that whole Camelot thing,” Lichter said, noting that he voted for anti-war candidates Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern in later presidential elections.
“I was way into the spectacle of the assassination coverage,” Lichter said. “It was a forerunner of the reality-show era. Now, that’s all we have.”
Lichter and his mother watched accounts of the assassination, the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, his murder by Jack Ruby, and JFK’s funeral, where little “John-John” bravely saluted his father’s casket.
“That was the end of it. What else could happen?” Lichter asked rhetorically. “There was a quality to the chain of events. It almost seemed like it was scripted. It was this kind of show.”
Lichter’s mother wasn’t so detached. He worried because she was new in town and didn’t have many friends to share her grief. Eventually, though, Lichter packed his belongings.
“When everything kind of chilled out, I took off,” he said.
The owner of renowned Gateway Mastering had his first recording job with an executive with close ties to JFK.
Bob Ludwig was waiting for a trumpet lesson when he heard the news. He was a freshman at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York, the state where he grew up.
“I was standing in the hallway and another student shouted that the president had been shot,” Ludwig said. “When my instructor came out of the practice room, I told him what I had heard and we just stood there, looking at each other for a while. We were stunned.”
John F. Kennedy would resurface repeatedly during Ludwig’s career as an award-winning mastering engineer. His Portland company, Gateway Mastering, is the go-to choice of many artists in the music industry, from the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen to Carrie Underwood and Daft Punk.
Like many people, after JFK was shot on Nov. 22, 1963, Ludwig watched television in his dormitory to keep track of the events that followed. Two days later, Jack Ruby shot and killed the president’s accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
“I saw that live on TV,” Ludwig said. “It was the first time something like that happened on a national broadcast. Someone was killed in front of our eyes. It was a transformative moment. There was a definite loss of innocence; a sense that things would never be the same.”
When Ludwig graduated in 1967 with a master’s degree in trumpet and music literature, he got his first job at A&R Recording Inc. in New York City. Phil Ramone, one of the studio’s founders, was a well-known sound engineer who had recorded several events for JFK and become good friends with the president, Ludwig said.
“Whenever he talked about JFK, he always referred to him as Jack,” Ludwig said. “He recorded Marilyn Monroe singing ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President,’ at Madison Square Garden and (famed cellist) Pablo Casals performing at the White House.” The latter was released as an album.
Ludwig worked at A&R for a few years and Ramone became a primary and lasting mentor. Even after Ludwig moved on to other jobs and began to rise in the recording industry, the two men frequently worked together. Ramone often reminisced about working for JFK, breathing life into bittersweet memories.
“I learned so much from Phil, and with his connection to JFK, it sort of became a thread in my life,” Ludwig said. “He was destroyed by the assassination, like a good friend had passed away. Every time the subject came up, you could see the sadness wash over his face.”
Author, ‘We Were the Kennedys’
Monica Wood stood in line outside St. Theresa’s, a Catholic elementary school in Mexico, waiting to go inside after recess.
It was Nov. 22, 1963. Wood was 10 years old and in fifth grade. Her sister Cathy was in line with the other third-graders.
“Children,” Wood’s teacher, Sister Bernadette, announced at the head of the line, “a terrible thing has happened.”
Wood froze in the moment. The last time she had heard terrible news was about seven months earlier, when her father had died unexpectedly of a heart attack on his way to work.
“I thought she was going to say that my mother had died, too,” Wood recalled. “So, when she said it was President Kennedy, I was relieved, and when I looked at my sister, I saw that she had the same reaction.”
Wood, 60, is a writer who lives in Portland and chronicled her family’s emotional connection to the Kennedys following the assassination in her best-selling 2012 memoir, “When We Were the Kennedys.”
Like many Americans, the Woods gathered around the television that weekend. Her mother provided running commentary for each event, from Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as the new president to Jacqueline stepping off the plane from Dallas in Washington, D.C.
“My mother derived a great deal of solace that the most glamorous woman in the world had suffered a similar loss,” Wood said. “It was clear to me even then that my mother felt they shared a bond.”
As much as her mother had been ashamed to be a widow, Wood was “absolutely mortified” to be fatherless.
“I lived in mortal terror that someone would ask me and I would have to explain that he had died,” Wood said.
After JFK’s assassination, Wood felt a special kinship with Caroline, the Kennedys’ oldest child. She found comfort in their common experience.
“It occurred to me after I wrote the book,” Wood said, “that many children who lost a father that year and women who lost a husband might have felt the same way.”