Where were you? East Texans rememberJFK

Published on Monday, 18 November 2013 00:29 - Written by

Editor’s note: Throughout the week, the Tyler Morning Telegraph will be sharing the memories of where East Texans were when they found out about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.



Bishop Edmond Carmody is originally from Ireland.

“President Kennedy was big news in Ireland, as his family was part of the working-class Irish at one time,” he said.

Carmody served as bishop of Tyler from 1992 to 2000 and now serves as Vicar General of the Tyler Diocese. He was a 29-year-old priest serving in San Antonio when he heard the news Kennedy had been shot.

“The parish bells began ringing, and we were told the president was shot. We all began to pray,” he said.

— Rebecca Hoeffner



Tyler resident Betty Plyler, 87, was a first-grade teacher at Clarkston Elementary School when Kennedy was shot. Mrs. Plyler, who is the wife of former Tyler ISD Superintendent Jim Plyler, said she and her friends had anticipated the Kennedys’ visit. The women especially wondered what Jacqueline Kennedy would be wearing and where Lady Bird Johnson would be.

Although she found out at school about his death, she learned more about the situation from news reports once she got home.

“I was very distressed to think that something like that happened in our state,” she said. “I had read, I think, in the Time magazine that they were coming to the state, and I remember it was just a tragic thing to think that riding in the car and then he was killed and they had planned for the trip. I was saddened I really was and very distressed. I felt terrible that something happened in the state of Texas that was that horrible.”

— Emily Guevara



Jacksonville City Secretary Betty Thompson was a child when Kennedy was assassinated.

The 60-year-old said her mother and a group of ladies were supposed to go to Dallas to watch the parade. However, Ms. Thompson was sick, and her mother’s plans changed.

Ms. Thompson said her mother thought Kennedy was wonderful, and her father got various newspapers after the assassination.

— Kelly Gooch



Tyler resident Mary Jane McNamara, 89, was at home on her lunch break from her job at the Carnegie Library when she heard the news on the radio.

Just 39 at the time, she thought it was some kind of trick, but after a few minutes it became clear it wasn’t.

“Their voices were so startled,” she said. “Really it was just as though all the breath had been knocked out of you and your feet had just been yanked out from under you. (I’ll) never, never forget it. It was so strange.”

As Irish Catholics and Democrats, she and her family members were very enthusiastic about JFK. And she said at the time it wasn’t popular to be a Republican.

“We were always interested in the Democratic Party and worked in politics,” she said. “My father, who was dead by then, had been an enthusiastic party member.”

Nobody expected an assassination to happen, because it had been a long time since any president had been in danger.

“Really we just didn’t dream that things could be so extreme even after a war that we got through,” she said. “You just didn’t look for bad things to happen.”

When she returned to work that afternoon, she said several of the employees were very sad and one of the librarians was sneering at them and wondering why they were upset because they didn’t even know Kennedy. But Ms. McNamara said it didn’t matter.

“Most people were genuinely grieving and genuinely horrified,” she said. “Frankly, a lot of us were genuinely thankful Lyndon Johnson (had) taken hold because he was our own, you know.”

Most, if not all, of the churches had services, she said.

“It seems like everybody was just struck down as thought it were a member of our families,” she said. “It was just a very sad and shocking time.”

Although information came out later about Kennedy and his family’s “questionable behavior,” at that time that was not widely known, Ms. McNamara said.

“He had been very idealized,” she said.

“I just can’t think how shocking that was and you know after that we had presidents attacked and (people) attempting to attack them,” she said. “It was a very terrible introduction to the realities of a dangerous world.”

--- Emily Guevara



Tyler attorney Bobby Mims was a 16-year-old student at Jacksonville High School during lunch, purchasing a candy bar from a vending machine. A girl he car-pooled with came up and said, “They shot Kennedy!”

“I said, ‘OK what’s the joke?’ She started crying and said, ‘It’s not joke.’” The word spread around the lunchroom quickly and everyone sprinted out to their cars and trucks to turn on the radio, Mims said.

“I sat in the car with two friends and we listened to the live reports until the bell rang. ... When we got to our next class, the principal allowed the radio to be played over the school intercom,” Mims said.

He said it was bizarre and everyone was shocked.

“I am a proud Texan, and I remember feeling the shame that this had happened in Texas. I cannot remember if we played football that night or not because everyone was stunned and glued to the television,” Mims said.

“We watched the events unfold live on TV, the funeral cortege, the riderless horse, the drum beat as the funeral marched through Washington, and then the TV cut away to Dallas live as they moved Oswald to the county jail,” Mims said. His family had just returned from church and had gathered to watch the parade. “When the TV announcer was describing Oswald, the policemen brought Oswald out and we watched him shot on live TV,” Mims, now 66, said.

“It was an incredible weekend and, it seems that America has never been the same — so many bad things happened after that to the country,” Mims said.

He called the Kennedy assassination the defining moment for his generation.

“After 50 years it is still hard to believe,” he said.

--- Dayna Worchel



William Brown, now a 64-year-old Rusk County District Attorney investigator, was in his ninth-grade English class at Henderson Junior High “when the principal came over the loud speaker and said the president had been shot. About 30 minutes later he came back on to tell us the president had died.”

“I remember the day of the funeral, some friends and I were riding our bicycles around downtown Henderson,” he said, “and it was really strange. The funeral was on TV and there was not one person outside except for us. It was really weird.”

--- Kenneth Dean
Mayor Barbara Bass said her fourth-grade class had finished recess and was in line at the water fountain when some of the fifth-graders told them the president had been shot. 
“I recall the teachers being very somber and many of the students starting to cry,” she said. 
“We were all in shock.  Even today, I recall the sadness that gripped our nation,” said Mayor Bass, now 59.
Dayna Worchel
The Rev. Orenthia Mason was in the sixth grade at Griffin Elementary School in Tyler when she learned of Kennedy’s assassination.
“Somebody had a radio who wasn’t supposed to and it came across on the radio …” said Rev. Mason, 61, who is Tyler ISD’s board president, Texas College’s alumni affairs director and pastor of Cole Hill CME Church. “I know we started talking about it around the student’s desk.”
Her teacher also told the students about it, and Rev. Mason said the mood was very solemn for the rest of the day.
“There was a great love for President Kennedy,” she said.
When she got home that day, she joined her family watching the news as they always did.
“We all sat around our black and white television and watched …” she said. “I remember my mother expounding somewhat on it, that he was in Dallas, Texas, on a motorcade and that someone was shot.”
As an African-American growing up in a segregated society, Rev. Mason, along with her peers, was uncertain of what Kennedy’s death would mean for their race.
“We did wonder how it was going to affect us as a people,” she said. “Would it hinder us in any way or was the next person going to be one to step up and push integration …?”
Emily Guevara
Jacksonville ISD Superintendent Dr. Joe Wardell was in elementary school at Edwin J. Kiest Elementary in Dallas when Kennedy was killed.
“We were in the middle of reading class when the principal announced over the intercom that President Kennedy had been shot and had passed away,” he said. “I am 61 years old and still remember that day.”
Kelly Gooch
Jacksonville Councilwoman Ann Chandler was in college at Stephen F. Austin State University.
Ms. Chandler, 70, said she heard about Kennedy at lunch and went home.
“Everything just shut down,” she recalled.
Kelly Gooch
The Rev. Michael Mast, of Greater St. Mary’s Baptist Church, in Tyler was 12 or 13 when Kennedy was killed.
“When we heard he was shot, I was in school,” he said. “I remember our teacher told us, and we just put our heads on our desks. Kennedy was looked at as kind of a savior, after (us) being denied so much (as an African-American). As a child, we had this attitude of ‘What are we going to do now?’ I remember my mother had a real sense of loss about it, she was very active in the civil rights movement. She felt a loss as if it were a family member.”
— Rebecca Hoeffner
Joey Cleckler, 82, remembered that two of her granddaughters were due to be born on Nov. 22. One was born Nov. 15, the other was born on the day Kennedy was killed.
“That always made me sad,” she said.
— Rebecca Hoeffner
Dr. Gary Gross, 64, physician, Blood Cancer Center of East Texas,lived in New York City at the time of the assassination.
“I was in Mrs. Ruderman’s ninth-grade geometry class. Another teacher called her out in the hall and she came back into the room in tears. We were dismissed early. We were all devastated. The mood in our home was as if we had lost a family member. I had volunteered for his campaign and stayed up all night election night, holding on till 11 a.m. the next morning when the results were final.”
Coshandra Dillard
Ruby Smith, 90, “will never forget that day,” she said.
“I was at work, then I’d gone to a friend’s house for lunch. We saw it on the 12 o’clock news,” she said.
— Rebecca Hoeffner

“I was a Kennedy fan at age 14. JFK came to my town in Wisconsin during the primaries, and he was very much a dark horse, unknown to most of us,” Tyler Junior College President Dr. Mike Metke said. “Hubert Humphrey, from Minnesota, was a front-runner, but our civics teacher said we should go because ‘you never know.’
“We walked down to city hall where Frank Sinatra’s song ‘High Hopes’ was on the loud speaker. It was modified for the Kennedy campaign and we were all captured by the excitement and Kennedy’s charisma. A photo of our enthusiastic group ended up in Look magazine, which was a big deal at the time.”
“As president, Kennedy emphasized fitness and a group of us did a 50-mile hike to Milwaukee,” Metke said.
“I was homebound with the measles during the Cuban missile crisis and watched TV coverage nonstop thinking there might not be a tomorrow.
“We were all relieved and proud when it was resolved.”
Metke was eating lunch as a freshman in college on Nov. 22, 1963, when a shocked cafeteria server told him that the president had been shot.
“We were all in a daze, but I had a zoology class to attend, and I still remember that the professor didn’t cancel it. None of us heard a word he said, but we were all upset that he kept us in class.
“I guess I still am.”
“For so many young people of my era, Kennedy was the first politician we cared about. It was a new generation of baby boomers who thought the torch was being passed to us.
“Two years later, I joined the Peace Corps. All of us could tell you in detail about the day he died. A part of all of us including our innocence died that day. Turmoil followed in the ’60s and ’70s with all the protests, assassinations, (and assassination attempts) as well as the whole upheaval of society. After Kennedy was killed it seemed like our world went crazy for at least a decade.”
Emily Guevara

Larry Don McAfee, of Yantis, remembers he was a teacher standing in front of his fifth-grade class in Hawkins when he received a message that the president had been shot. His wife came from home where she had heard about it on television.
McAfee said his students were normally talkative and participated in the class but they became silent when told about the shooting.
McAfee said he felt remorse and anger that a common guy did it in front of law enforcement and the military.
“My thought was what’s going to happen to us, where are we going, how are we going to do without this type of leadership?” McAfee said.
“At that time in my life, I had a tremendous amount of confidence in the president. He had proven himself to us with his endeavors.
“It was heartbreaking that something like this would happen so close to us. I don’t think we ever outgrow this need for the leadership he provided and the confidence he provided us.”
Betty Waters

Judge Carole Clark, Smith County 321st District Court, was 11 years old and in the eighth grade at Lake Air Junior High in Waco in art class when Kennedy was killed.
“I remember vividly where I was. I was learning to draw a flower and was working on a picture of a rose — the principal came on the loud speaker and told us what happened,” the judge said. “He then put a radio broadcast on the speaker and we listened to news.
After that, we were allowed to go home. I lived fairly close to school and since it was a couple of hours early I started walking home,” Judge Clark said.
Her dad came home from work early and they all gathered around the TV.
“We were all shocked and stunned. That night we went to our church for a special service,” Judge Clark said.
For what seemed like days her family continued to stay gathered in the den of their home watching their black-and-white television.
“It was surreal even to a kid. We were all watching when they had the funeral and I remember the casket on the wagon drawn by the black horses with the boots reversed. I remember seeing Mrs. Kennedy with a black veil on and the two small children,” she said.
“Finally, we were watching when Jack Ruby shot Oswald and I still remember my dad shouting ‘He shot him, he shot him,’ Judge Clark said.
After all of the activities, school resumed but even as a kid, she remembers thinking that unexpected things could happen to anyone and her world seemed less secure than before.
“We didn’t think of violence to ourselves or our family and friends before that event,” she said.
Dayna Worchel
Jacksonville City Secretary Betty Thompson was a child when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
The 60-year-old said her mother and a group of ladies were supposed to go to Dallas to watch the parade. However, Ms. Thompson was sick, and her mother’s plans changed.
Ms. Thompson said her mother thought Kennedy was wonderful, and her father got various newspapers after the assassination.
Kelly Gooch
Frances Whiteside, a local community actress, was 25 and living on base RAF Upper Heyford where her then-husband was stationed.
“My main recollection in relation to the British people (as opposed to how the base and its personnel were affected) was this: in the weeks and months that followed, whenever a British person — a stranger passing on the street — heard my American accent, he or she would stop and express condolences on the loss of my president,” she said.
“Many years after 1963, I happened to be in a gathering when a ‘where were you when you heard?’ exchange arose. It emerged that every person present had been in November 1963 either active duty military or a military dependent living overseas. Every one of us had identical experiences receiving sympathy from the individual citizens of the host nation.”
Stewart Smith
Albert Gusner, of Star Harbor, was in the military aboard a ship coming back from Korea when it was announced that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
“We were all wondering what was going to happen to the United States and where we were going to be sent to fight again since somebody had to be punished,” Gusner, who spent 40 years in the military, recalled.
When he got back to a Marine base in Hawaii, he said, there was a special parade around the parade field and a memorial program for Kennedy.
Gusner was hearing so many stories everyday from the news media that he said he did not want to believe anything he heard.
Gusner said he was sad but didn’t show sadness because Marines don’t cry.
“I think it was a big loss for the country,” Gusner said. Although a Republican since childhood, he said, “Kennedy was one of the few Democrats that I had very high respect for. I felt he was doing the best job he could to serve the people even though he was a Democrat.”
Betty Waters
Gloria Ferguson, who moved to Lindale a year ago, was attending North Texas State University and came home to Carrolton for the weekend after Kennedy was shot. She went to the high school to meet some friends, one of whom told her Kennedy had been killed.
“It was quite a shock,” she said. “It was horrible, and it’s still sad. It breaks my heart to this day.”
Ms. Ferguson remembers the Texas license plates on her family’s car drew criticism when they went to Memphis, Tenn., for Thanksgiving shortly after the Kennedy assassination.
Her husband, Louis Ferguson, also a student at NTSU at the time, was at a friend’s apartment playing cards when he heard about it.
“It was a bad day for America. I felt very sad, depressed to hear about it,” he said. “I was young and didn’t know much about running of the government, but I liked him (Kennedy) just like I liked Ronald Reagan. They were great presidents.”
Betty Waters