November 22, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Others' anguish engulfed innocent kid when JFK was killed 50 years ago today

By Bill Nemitz

So here it is. The 50th anniversary of the day burned into the memory of every American who was old enough to turn on a television.

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The eternal flame burns this week atop the grave site of President John F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press

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I was in fourth grade, the new kid in Sister Jean’s class at St. Joseph’s School in O’Hara Township, just outside of Pittsburgh.

It was a Friday and we’d just settled in after lunch recess when the principal’s voice came over the loudspeaker: “Attention, please. We have just received word that President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, Texas. Sisters, please set aside your lessons and direct your students to pray for the president’s recovery while we await more information.”

And so it began.

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee ...” we recited in unison, hands clasped, eyes closed, young minds reeling. “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus ...”

The words tumbled from my lips, but my thoughts were on a separate track: “President Kennedy? Shot? How bad? Is he OK? Who did it? Is this really happening?”

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. Hail Mary, full of grace ...”

Minutes passed as we droned on. Suddenly I heard a faint knock on the classroom door and looked up to see another nun quietly poke her head inside the classroom.

“Sister Jean,” she whispered from the doorway. “Have you heard?”

Sister Jean, lost in prayer, looked up expectantly from her rosary.

“He’s gone,” said the other nun, gently closing the door behind her.

Seconds later, another announcement: “Attention school, the president has expired. All classes should now proceed to the chapel, where we will pray for the repose of President Kennedy’s soul.”

Repose of his soul? Walking down the hallway, I spotted my older sister with her fifth-grade class. We traded question marks with our eyes.

Shoulder to shoulder in the long, wooden pews, the entire school recited the full rosary. I heard the buses rolling up outside as we finished and, in somber silence, the nuns ushered us out to the parking lot for early dismissal.

Minutes later, I bounded from the bus and ran as fast as I could up the hill to our house.

It was already an unsettling time for my family of nine. My father, who worked for Westinghouse, had been transferred from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania the previous year. Now, much to his seven kids’ delight, he was being transferred back.

I hated Pennsylvania. I was a Massachusetts kid to the core, same as President Kennedy, and I’d already been counting the days to the upcoming Christmas break, when at long last we would pile into the Volkswagen bug and the old Plymouth station wagon and move back home. Where we belonged.

My mother had traveled east that week to go house hunting in our old hometown of Needham while my father took a few days off to watch us kids.

“Dad! Dad!” I hollered, bursting through the door. “Have you heard?”

“Heard what?” he asked, coming up from his basement workshop. “And what are you doing home so early?”

“President Kennedy!” I said, trying to catch my breath. “He got shot. He’s dead!”

At the tender age of 9, I hadn’t a clue what it all truly meant. But the stunned look on my father’s face, as he turned without a word and bolted for the television, was like nothing I’d ever seen.

“Oh no,” he said under his breath as Walter Cronkite, struggling to contain his own emotions, delivered the bulletins hot off the news wires.

(Continued on page 2)

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