Kennedy lay in state in the White House East Room on Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963. “Jackie Kennedy sent word that she wanted the East Room, where the president would lie in state, to look as it did when Lincoln’s body lay there,” recalls speechwriter Richard Goodwin.
Tucsonan Stewart Udall, JFK’s secretary of the interior, was on a presidential airplane over the Pacific, en route to Tokyo for a trade mission with five other members of the Kennedy Cabinet, when he heard that the president had been killed. He remembered the moment in a 1969 interview for the LBJ Presidential Library.
“You had the feeling, too, on the plane because all the Kennedy people were there and a lot of his Cabinet, that the roof had just fallen in — you know, that something had ended, a crushing weight falling on you. It’s an experience that I suppose you never go through in your life except under those circumstances. It’s different than the death of a friend because a whole life that you built suddenly collapses. ... It’s a change in your life, a very profound one. This one was so sudden, so traumatic.”
Tucsonans who knew President John F. Kennedy and those who didn’t shared a profound sense of shock and grief upon hearing the news of his assassination 50 years ago today.
It was a time when people still sent telegrams of condolence, as Tucson Mayor Lew Davis did on November 22, 1963, to the widow of a slain president. It read:
“All the citizens of Tucson join Mrs. Davis and me in expressing to you and the members of President Kennedy’s family our profound shock and sympathy upon the loss which you, the country and the world have suffered. Our prayers are with you in this time of sorrow.”
It was a time when televisions were newly prevalent in homes, but not in the workplace.
Burr Udall turned on the radio in his downtown law office on North Stone Avenue. “The legal world in Tucson pretty well stopped,” he said.
People gathered in knots on the street talking, and a crowd assembled at the American Airlines office at North Stone Avenue and Pennington Street, where radio station KTUC broadcast over a loudspeaker, according to the following day’s Arizona Daily Star.
Udall had family connections to the slain president and had met him once. His brothers had worked hard for Kennedy’s election. Stewart Udall was Kennedy’s secretary of the interior. Brother Morris took Stewart’s congressional seat in a special election.
“Stewart was on an airplane going to Japan with his wife (Lee) when it happened. They turned around and went back to D.C. It shocked the country, the world, and me,” Burr Udall said.
Like most Americans, he spent the following three days in front of the television, where the three national networks broadcast a nonstop mix of news updates, footage of Kennedy’s life and live coverage of his memorial and burial.
Cornelius Steelink was a 41-year-old professor of chemistry at the University of Arizona and was at home on that Friday afternoon with his wife, Jean.
“When Jean and I heard the news, we were just devastated. We were in tears.”
Steelink said their daughter Kaye, who was 5 at the time, walked into their bedroom and said: “Mom, Dad, don’t cry; he’s alive. I saw him on television.”
“It was so poignant at the time,” Steelink said.
Steelink and his wife, who together founded the Arizona chapter of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union before she died, were a good deal more liberal than Kennedy, but “had gotten used to some of the faults he had and his apparent lack of civil-rights activity.”
But you did not have to share Kennedy’s ideology or politics to feel the loss.
Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, a Republican who had been gearing up to run against Kennedy in 1964, said in newspaper accounts, “He was my close, personal friend.”
Goldwater announced that he was canceling all political appearances through the end of the year, both in memory of the president and to give incoming President Lyndon Baines Johnson some breathing space to put things back together.
Arizona’s senior U.S. senator, Democrat Carl Hayden, was so distraught, according to wire service reports in the Star, that “he refused to see anyone for some time, and a reporter said he could hear crying from inside the senator’s office.”
Decades later, Goldwater would tell the Arizona Daily Star that he knew on that day that he would never be president. He expected the country to rally behind Johnson in memory of Kennedy. Johnson easily defeated Goldwater in the 1964 election.
Hayden, the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, became third in line for succession to the presidency and briefly inherited Johnson’s vice presidential duties. In a statement, he said Kennedy “will go down in history as a great president and leader of men. He made this nation and this world a better place in which to live.”
Across Tucson on that Friday afternoon, businesses and schools shut down and people rushed to gather with friends and family.
At the east-side Wheeler Elementary School, young teacher Doris Evans abandoned her planned instruction and gathered together her confused fourth-graders.
“I remember them being concerned about his two children,” she said. “Of course at this point we did not know any more than President John Kennedy was dead and we now had a new president. I choked up as I wrote ‘President Lyndon Johnson’ on the board. I don’t believe we followed the lesson plan for the rest of the day. We just talked and talked.”
At the UA, most classes were informally canceled as students walked out or failed to show. But Donna Reese had to sit through a humanities class with a professor who said, “Life will go on.”
“Somebody opened the door and said, ‘The President’s been shot’ and we were all wanting to get out and find out what was happening. He just continued with his lecturing.”
After class, she rushed with a friend to a nearby apartment that her boyfriend and future husband, Chris Helms, shared with two other students. “We hunkered down by the radio,” she said.
“We both adored him, I especially. He was the savior. He was the white knight. There was a Camelot and he was the king. That was the most painful political tragedy of my life.”
Helms, who had been recently discharged from Army intelligence, was putting himself through college by “hashing” — earning money and meals by serving food at a sorority — when he heard the news.
“I was serving the girls in a food line for lunches, and this girl had her tray and she just kind of casually mentioned, ‘Oh, did you hear the president got shot?’ and she expected me to serve her.
I immediately took my apron off.”
Monsignor Robert D. Fuller was chancellor of the Diocese of Tucson and working in the diocesan offices when he heard about the president. Fuller, now 83 and pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Parish, said he was proud of the president, who was both Catholic and well-regarded. “I never saw him so much as a Catholic than as a breath of fresh air. There was an aura of hope and expectation.”
“His death was just a matter of total shock. I spent every hour after that I could in front of the television. We didn’t come to a halt; we got into low gear, giving ourselves time to witness what was going on and letting it sink in.”
Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild was only 8 years old, but he remembered being profoundly affected by the communal sense of grief after hearing from a tearful teacher at Harelson Elementary School that “the president has been shot and is in critical condition.”
“And then all these children just put their heads on their desks and started to cry.
“I will never forget that moment and this intense feeling of unified sadness from a classroom of 8-year-olds.”
Rothschild watched the aftermath of the tragedy unfold on television at home that weekend. He watched Lee Harvey Oswald gunned down on live television by Jack Ruby. The three television networks of the day provided a shared experience of the assassination and the nation’s reaction, he said.
“It was a different society then. We had a common narrative,” Rothschild said.
Michael Keith, now CEO of the Downtown Tucson Partnership, said he was most struck by the display of emotion at the usually “controlled, rigorous environment” of St. Joseph Catholic School in Tucson. “On that day, sister walked into the room and she was crying.”
Keith, an 11-year-old fourth-grader at the time, said he remembers being dismissed from school early and going home to contemplate what it all meant.
Schooled in the “duck and cover” drills of the Cold War and cognizant of Tucson’s nearby air base and ring of Titan missiles, he remembers wondering if the Soviets would take advantage of the moment and launch a missile strike.
Across the country, stores and offices closed and events were canceled, sometimes reluctantly.
The UA initially announced that Saturday’s gathering of 46 prep bands and the UA-New Mexico football game would be held as scheduled. That game and the ASU-Idaho match in Tempe were ultimately “canceled after criticism,” according to the Saturday edition of the Star.
The Star’s editor and publisher, William R. Mathews, penned a front-page editorial headlined: “Hatred Preachers Reap Their Fruit,” which blamed a conspiracy of “haters” for the deed.
He wrote that he had recently been in Dallas and was “discouraged and alarmed at the violence of the hatred.”
“It took planning to do this terrible job, and many more than one person must have comprised the group,” Mathews wrote.
That belief in conspiracy, dismissed by official investigations into the shooting, would persist in the American mind.