Remembering Nov. 22, 1963

Where were you when... Newfoundlanders recall the news: J.F.K. assassination

Published on November 21, 2009
U.S. president John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline ride through Dallas with Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife during a motorcade on Nov. 22, 1963. Photo by The Associated Press

Many of you won't remember because you were either too young or not yet born. But I, like millions of others, remember hearing the news of U.S. president John F. Kennedy's assassination like it was yesterday.

With news of the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy in August, the anniversary of the death of his older brother, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, takes on special significance.

Many of you won't remember because you were either too young or not yet born. But I, like millions of others, remember hearing the news of U.S. president John F. Kennedy's assassination like it was yesterday.

With news of the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy in August, the anniversary of the death of his older brother, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, takes on special significance.

J.F.K. was the main figure of Washington's so-called Camelot era that also saw his brothers Robert and Edward rise to prominence. All three represented hope for a brighter future for the poor, the dispossessed and disenfranchised.

Each of them won the respect and admiration of people around the world, but fear and despair gripped us on the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963 with news of the slaying of the young American president in Dallas, Texas. Social anthropologist Elliott Leyton recently described the event to me this way, "America, the beast we had always admired and envied, turned and began the unthinkable process of devouring itself."

I thought I would ask some prominent Newfoundlanders to relate their stories about hearing the news of this horrible event. My goal was to figuratively paint a canvas revealing the moment they heard the awful news and its effect.

Some were attending school; others were at work, here, on the mainland or elsewhere. Some memories are vivid, some slightly vague. Each person's emotional reaction ran the gamut, from an acknowledgment of the event's high significance to devastating grief.

My story

On the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, I was inside Holloway School on Long's Hill sitting at my desk in the middle of Miss Davis's Grade 5 classroom. The room was on the third floor and situated at the southwest corner of the brick building.

Miss Davis, a tall thin woman with dark hair, was reading to about 35 students, including me. You could have heard a pin drop as she related the story of David Copperfield. The silence was broken by a knock at the door, an unusual occurrence.

Miss Davis answered the door by opening it partially and then whispering to someone outside in the hallway.

Next she opened the door wide to reveal Holloway's head mistress, Miss Edgecombe. They both stepped forward and stood in front of us. Their facial expressions foreshadowed terrible news.

In a quiet, serious voice, Miss Edgecombe said, "Boys and girls, we have just heard that president Kennedy of the United States has been shot and killed. We have decided to close school for the rest of the day and your parents have been called to come for you."

I went outside and my father was parked in our Ford Comet station wagon facing down Long's Hill. I got into the vehicle hoping he'd be able to help me understand, but how could anybody explain this? We drove down the hill and onto Duckworth Street, passing a long row of lawyers' offices.

For me, President Kennedy's death created sadness and sorrow. I was only 10 years old at the time but I had a precocious interest and comprehension for news and current events.

I remembered the Cuban missile crisis and how President Kennedy had averted global catastrophe. What would happen now, I wondered?

My sadness came from knowing his children, Caroline and John-John, had lost their father, that the world had lost a leader, an attractive one with a real sense of fun.

He enjoyed self-deprecating humour, and laughed when impressionists mimicked his Boston dialect. I would often entertain family members with my own childish impression of the famous president.

And so it was for these witnesses to tragedy, the tragedy of that black Friday, Nov. 22, 1963.

Millions of others on this Earth have stories to fill similar canvases. It is a testament to the impact this promising young American president had on an entire world. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1917-1963.

T. Alex Hickman

T. Alex Hickman, a young St. John's lawyer who would later become the chief justice of the Trial Division of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland, is sitting in one of those Duckworth Street law offices reading documents. "My secretary came in with tears streaming down her cheeks to tell me that President Kennedy had just been shot. I remember it vividly. It was a very sombre day. It was a Friday afternoon. Our office was empty within half an hour of hearing the news. My reaction was one of disbelief and then when I went home the drama continued to play itself out during the next two or three days."

Ron Pumphrey

Further east on Duckworth, at the corner of Bates Hill, journalist/publisher Ron Pumphrey is on the third floor of the Empire Building busily getting an edition of his Mount Pearl paper ready.

"I was at my machine with my printer's apron on. Then it came on the news on a little radio on the wall and I sat down in utter disbelief. I was shocked beyond measure. My God, I looked out the window and I saw cars parking, I saw people getting out of cars and talking and inviting pedestrians to hear their car radio. I went across the street to the barber. He said, 'Ron, I'm in more pain now than ever with this knowledge of President Kennedy having been shot.' We sat there and I said, 'My God, boy, let's go to the tavern next door,' and we did.

"We went to the tavern and we sat down and ordered a few beers, he the barber and me the printer-editor. People began coming in and there was a hubbub of conversation and disbelief. And I remember my sister Mary having said to me something, which I never forgot, when I visited her that afternoon. She said, 'You know, I think God took President Kennedy away because he was such a good man that he might have been in a position to sin and therefore be punished eternally, so God took him away.' And I said, 'Mary, don't be so foolish.'"

Greg Malone

Across town at the new north end of St. John's, in a high school called Gonzaga, a few hundred students anxiously await the final bell signalling the end of the week. Among them is our future premier, Danny Williams, budding actor Andy Jones, and another star in waiting, Greg Malone. Suddenly Malone hears the classroom's speaker come to life.

"Father McKenna, the principal, came over the PA system and announced that President Kennedy had been shot. It was all very grim and I remember our teacher made some allusion to the fact that, 'Well, pretty soon now the missiles will be hitting; you never know but atomic bombs might start.' That was the age of nuclear terror anyway.

"There were still air raid sirens around. Walter Cronkite had us scared to death we were gonna be vaporized by a bomb."

Elaine Dobbin

Turning southwest of St. John's beyond its western boundary and down the Conception Bay Highway past Manuels, Upper Gullies and Seal Cove, a yellow bus is slowly making its way through the town of Holyrood. Future champion for autistic children, Elaine Dobbin, is one of many noisy passengers.

"I will never forget that day. I was on a school bus returning from school, when it was announced. Almost everyone on the bus was in shock and deeply saddened. The assassination of President Kennedy devastated the world, including a bunch of young teenagers from Holyrood."

Gordon Pinsent

Meanwhile, two time zones west, in the heart of bustling Toronto, thousands of expatriate Newfoundlanders are at work or engaged in regular daily activities. Among them is Grand Falls-born actor Gordon Pinsent. Pinsent and his actress wife, Charmion King, are in their Avenue Road home.

"It was one of those times when - even though the television was on - our mutual activities were such that we only caught snippets of the early part of the broadcast. I forget the first actual bit on it, but caught the entire Cronkite announcement. And I recall, the two of us sinking into chairs, at the same time, in slow motion seemed like, and turning stone cold by the news. I left the chair for a moment or two, and when I came back, Charm had not moved from her initial position, but the tears had been flowing. We then watched the footage, over and over and over again, with all else fading from the day, and as it turned out, from the ensuing weeks."

Martin Currie

In Nova Scotia on the highway to Halifax, a young man named Martin is trying to hitch a ride into the city. He is a student at St. Francis Xavier University. Years later, Martin Currie will become the Roman Catholic Archbishop of St. John's.

"The Atlantic Bowl game was on in Halifax and I was hitchhiking from Antigonish to Halifax to see the football game. I was picked up and we were listening to this man's car radio as we were driving along, and the news came on that President Kennedy had been assassinated. ... How could something like this happen in the United States? There was a real sense of shock that such a thing would happen.

"He was special to Catholics because he was the first Catholic to be elected president of the United States. It was sort of a battle and we thought, well, we're here now. And I remember at the university itself - StFX in those days had a number of boys from Maine and Massachusetts there. They were in a state of mourning. They were given the day off to deal with it because it really struck those American lads very deeply."

Elliott Leyton

From the East Coast, the news is travelling across the Atlantic. Not yet residing in their beloved Newfoundland, but living in England, are Elliott Leyton, future MUN professor, and his wife, artist Bonnie Leyton. "Bonnie heard it first on the radio and came running up the stairs to tell me.

"Like millions around the world, we had read and seen so much about the Kennedy couple that we thought they were part of our family, and now he was dead. Bonnie and I cried for days. It took months to absorb the loss."

Fergus O'Byrne

From where the Leytons sit stricken in England trying to comfort one another, west across St. George's Channel and then north in Dublin, Ireland, a teenager and future Newfoundland educator and musician named Fergus O'Byrne is pedalling his bicycle as fast as he can to get home. The brisk fall air chills his boyish round face.

"I was 16 years old, which meant I was bicycling back and forth to school on a regular basis. In those days I'd cycle five miles to and from school. I have this vague memory of cycling home, so I probably heard the news at school and was cycling home to tell my parents. In Ireland at the time it was just a general knowledge President Kennedy had been assassinated, because he was the first Catholic of Irish descent that became president of the United States and it was a big, big deal in Ireland. You had the Queen and Joey hung up on the walls in Newfoundland but in Ireland it was the Pope and President Kennedy."

(After his death the same iconic photograph - JFK, seated, tanned and smiling, wearing a navy suit, white shirt and dark red tie - would grace the walls of Catholics, believers and non-believers around the globe.)