The city of Tyler came to a near-standstill after news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination reached residents on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963.
Tyler residents reacted to Kennedy’s death in much the same way as other communities — shocked disbelief and mourning.
Democrats dominated Smith County politics at the time. Although some residents disagreed with Kennedy’s progressive politics, he still was their president.
Flags were set at half-staff around the city immediately as stunned residents gathered around televisions, radios and the most current newspaper editions for more details following the slaying.
They followed the assassination, the swearing in of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the capture of Lee Harvey Oswald and facts surrounding the president’s death, Oswald’s killing and the Kennedy’s funeral.
Churches held prayer services and public officials sent telegrams of sympathy to Jacqueline Kennedy and her family.
Smith County business went on as usual because “everybody appeared stunned and undecided about what to do,” according to the Tyler Morning Telegraph archives.
Smith County Judge Harry Loftis, a Democrat, said the assassination was the “greatest shock” he had ever received. He said he hoped the motivation behind the killing was not political.
“Within our American political system, I can’t imagine any emotionalism in this country that would go to such extremes, but feel certainly it must be a deranged mind or completely subversive elements that caused this,” he said. “This is a loss to the whole world in my opinion.”
Local historian Randy Gilbert was in the eighth grade and remembers how the community stopped to follow the historic event unfolding 100 miles from Tyler.
“It just shut everything down,” he said.
The Church of the Immaculate Conception began multiple Requiem High Masses for intercessory prayers Friday for the president, who was Catholic, until he was laid to rest in Washington, D.C., on Monday.
Schools, businesses, government offices and civic organizations stopped business that Monday, the day of the president’s funeral. Schools closed all day while most businesses closed 11 a.m. to noon. Citywide, churches held prayer services for Kennedy and the nation in place of scheduled Thanksgiving events.
“May this tragic experience draw all of us closer together rather than widen the rift that has heretofore existed,” said Mayor Jerry Nasits in remarks regarding the day of mourning.
The day of the funeral, about 700 mourners gathered at the First Presbyterian Church, filling it to capacity, where clergy from four Tyler churches led a solemn service to mourn Kennedy’s death. Prayers were led for Kennedy, his family, the families of Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit, who was killed by Oswald shortly after the president was slain, and the assassin, Oswald.
“The stage of grief has been crowded today,” the Rev. William Summers said in his prayer. “Center stage has been a young widow (Mrs. Kennedy) and her two young children. But in the wings is another young widow in Dallas and her three young children.”
Mary Jane McNamara, Smith County Historical Society, attended the mass at the Catholic church. She said residents were dazed by the news and seeking updates throughout the weekend and days after the shooting.
Ms. McNamara said it was devastating to have the event happen so close to home. So many people were thrilled to have the president touring Texas, she said.
“We all were walking around in a state of shock and not paying attention to what was going on around us,” she said. “It was a very shattering event.”