FRANKLIN COUNTY – “I spent the entire afternoon at my mother’s house with a box of Kleenex and cried,” said Betty Kelley Finn, of St. Albans, who will be 86 this Thanksgiving.
Her late husband and longtime Democratic Party stalwart, State Sen. John R. Finn, would have been filled with the same anguish of loss.
Interviews with area residents about the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on this day 50 years ago seemed to act as a catalyst for that same kind of pain felt across the nation’s history.
They brought to the surface not only the memory of the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt but the nameless thousands who died 150 years ago at Gettysburg, a tremendous national loss that was memorialized 150 years ago this week in Abraham Lincoln’s five-minute-long Gettysburg Address.
Lincoln, that day, said, the “world will little note nor long remember what we say here but it can never forget what they did here.”
Such was the tone of many of those who remembered the loss of a young president now five decades ago.
Abe Brown of Enosburg Falls reached by phone in Marco Island, Fla. asked that tantalizing question: What might the young president have done if he had lived?
E. J. (Ted) Tyler III, retired attorney and Tyler Place Resort CEO, e-mailed several entries of a diary he has unfailingly kept for well over a half century. It is a mix of a family high point and a nation’s despair that week so long ago.
“Thursday, Nov. 21 – Carol’s visit to (Doctor) Tabor reveals #6 on way, sure enough.
“Friday, Nov. 22 – President Kennedy assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Tremendous shock. Oswald supposed murderer.
“Sunday, Nov. 24 – Nothing on TV stations except news and music – four days. Kennedy’s supposed killer himself shot and killed by one Ruby – in front of TV cameras – macabre. We visited Grandmother Tyler (with our kids) at Mrs. Stanley’s in Sheldon.
“Monday, Nov. 25 – National day of mourning, but our office in full time operation per usual.”
“It was one of those really seminal events in the 20th Century,” said well-known Long Trail caretaker, poet and printer Don Hill, 86, now of Swanton. He also recalled where he was when the news arrived. “I was having lunch at Pud’s Snack Bar when John Webster, an attorney, came running in and told us. My first reaction was disbelief. It was something no one expected. My first thought was, frankly, that it was a conspiracy. I was a little doubtful about the Warren Report. It’s hard to remember how I felt, but I do remember thinking, ‘Well, they got him,’ though I wasn’t sure who ‘they’ were.”
The ceaseless flow of media coverage this week has given Cheryl and Ward Henneveld, of Enosburg, insights they had missed.
“I never realized what a tough person he (Kennedy) was (spending 24 hours in pain in the water) when his PT boat sunk,” Ward said, adding, “He was some guy for getting something done.” Henneveld is a former Johnson College adjunct professor and Third World education consultant.
Cheryl and Ward were students at Pomona College in California. “I was shocked that he could be shot,” she said in a telephone interview, adding that she at that age was attracted to the Kennedys “as a glamorous couple.” After hearing the panorama of voices carried by the media, many of them unheard for 50 years, she agreed with one commentator’s assessment “that there was a sense of something that had changed in our lives.”
Ward Hennefeld recalled where he was when the news hit. “A lot of things in my life I don’t have a picture of in my head but I do for that,” he said. “I see myself standing on the stairs outside this old building, bewildered, with a lot of other 20 year olds.”
He continued: “One would think that Lee Harvey Oswald was tied up to somebody, but he was also nuts. That, Ward added, leads him to believe there was no conspiracy and that Oswald acted alone.
Henry Raymond, of Fairfax, active in the local historical society and who was at IBM for 35 years said, “I was working on the assembly line down there and everybody was absolutely taken aback by it. They announced it over the PA system, something they rarely did. Some people snuck out in the hallway to the pay phones and called home to see what was going on. My wife and I were so fond of him as a president. It was really a sad time when he got shot.”
Michael Pain, 53, of Fairfax, president of its historical society, according to Raymond, is well versed in the subject of attempted and actual assassinations.
“It could happen again, that’s the scary thing. It is likely. It always is. You never know what might trigger someone to do it. Part of a personal agenda? Or something bigger,” Pain said, adding, “and then there was Reagan shot by someone trying to impress someone.”
“I remember I was working at the store,” said Abe Brown, 95, who from his Enosburg Falls home-base opened a string of auto and home stores before he and his wife, Jean, built a senior living complex then a community care home said. In a Tuesday interview he added, “It was a great sadness, something like when Roosevelt died. They were the great pride of America, that couple. America was so proud.”
He continued, “It was a terrible tragedy with Kennedy. He was such a popular president … when he went to France, when he went to Russia, when he went to Germany. They were so proud of our leader.
“Maybe quickly, I thought it was a conspiracy, but when asked if another investigation should be launched, he was emphatic. “Aw, nah!” he exclaimed.
“I was upstairs in the office of the Collector of Customs Russell Niquette visiting with Russell and his secretary came in and told us what happened,” Stanley Beauregard, of St. Albans, a former postmaster and before that a Messenger journalist said in a telephone interview. “We were both political appointees, by Kennedy, and it struck us pretty hard.”
“Yes, we all had hopes for a better tomorrow” Beauregard said of Kennedy’s presidency, and added, “I don’t think anyone thought it was possible for that assassination to take place. It changed a lot of people.”
A shaken nation was held together, he believes, by first lady Jackie Kennedy’s “actions and attitudes.”
Beauregard believes that Oswald was the lone shooter. “I guess it all hinges on what you perceive to be the truth of the whole thing … whether you have reservations and that there are reasons for holding back the whole story.”
For him, however, “The Warren Commission did an outstanding job.”
Frances Hopkins, of Franklin, who resides in the house of her great grandparents, said, “I was 13 and I was really scared and going to bed at night and crying and my mother getting close to me and answering my questions. I got scared because I didn’t know what was going to happen to the country. My mother consoled me in my bedroom that night.”
Like many she has her own theories about the president’s death. “We all know the Warren Commission Report is a sham,” she said. “I think it’s very foolish for any American to accept the standard line.”
Ron Kilburn, president of the Swanton Historical Society and a former judge and states attorney said Wednesday, “Did you see Pat Leahy’s comment on the news? It was really quite profound. He choked up,”. “There couldn’t be anything more meaningful than what Pat said.”
He added, “The context is interesting. Pat and Marcelle (Leahy) were in Washington, at the same time Sandy (Kilburn’s wife) and I were in Newark, N.J. (at Rutgers). I heard about the assassination on my way from school to work – I worked evenings. I was so devastated that I went straight home. I met Sandy there and we embraced. We were just so sad about what had happened.
“Here we were, two kids from Vermont in their twenties in a strange place. … We just felt so all alone because there wasn’t anybody we could share our grief with.”
The Leahys, who had wed in 1962, purchased a TV to catch the comments of Walter Cronkite, the legendary CBS Evening News anchor. This was years before Leahy’s political career began and while he was attending law school at Georgetown University. He said, “We went out and bought one, so we could watch the news … be connected to what was going on. Nothing else mattered at that point. There was so much hope, there was so much promise, so much excitement around a president and his administration and suddenly it was gone, in a heartbeat.”
Overseas at the time, Pixley Tyler Hill, Ted Tyler’s sister and now wife of Don Hill, wrote to her parents, Ed and Judy Tyler from Tokyo.
Beginning with “Dear Mother and Daddy, The news of Kennedy’s death reached me this morning back in Tokyo. Even after I had watched (on TV) the cars pull out of Arlington, I still feel suspended in disbelief. The usually reticent Japanese have stopped me on the streets and street cars to express their unhappiness and shock from sign language to school English to business English.”
And in a following line, Hill summed up what was to become and remain an American paradox: a nation incessantly rushing into the future with an obsession with JFK and the past.
“I leave in another few minutes for Taiwan,” she wrote. “So this letter, with no beginning and no ending, will have to go as is.”