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Where were you on that very early afternoon of November 22, 1963? Probably, like most of us, you were in school or at work. It was just another Friday in America until suddenly gunshots rang out in Dallas, Texas, around 12:30 p.m.
A few minutes later television and radio flashed the horrible news around the world. John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, had been assassinated.
For the next three days the shock and questions of, “How could it happen?” only seemed to grow. Just two days after the assassination, millions witnessed the assassin himself being shot and killed right before their eyes on live television.
Looking back 50 – years – ago, how different would the world have been had President Kennedy lived to win and serve a second term in the White House?
Would the quagmire of Vietnam have been avoided, and would thousands of American war dead be alive today as a result? We’ll never know, of course, because history happens in real time and doesn’t give us the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.
Raymond Hargis: “November 22, 1963, was a pleasant fall day in Grundy County. It was sunny with mild temperatures and no wind. Whatever activity one might plan, the weather would be fine for it. Being Friday, it would be a good day to start a long weekend.
Many of you remember the old Grundy County Courthouse in Altamont (it burned in 1990). Things were going at a slow pace there that day. None of the courts were in session. There were no tax deadlines to be met and no urgency for any local government activity. Probably the only steady work-taking place was that of the state auditor who was performing the annual audit of county officials. He would be checking the receipts and expenditures of each office and the records that tracked those financial accounts.
About two months earlier I had completed the first year of my second term as county court clerk. My wife, Doris, was my ‘unpaid assistant.’ She was an excellent accountant and bookkeeper and also an excellent typist. Our records were accurate and up to date, and we had never had a negative audit. Since customers were few, Doris had taken Friday off because I knew I could take care of what business the office would have. She would prepare lunch, and I would take the 10 minutes or so to drive home. I left the courthouse at 12:00 noon, and when I got to our house on Ranger Creek in Coalmont, Doris asked me if I had the car radio on. I said I did not, and she said the TV news said President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, TX. The news said the President had been rushed to nearby Parkland Hospital, and doctors were working to save his life.
When I got back to the courthouse at 1:10 p.m., I was told the news was reporting that the President had been officially declared dead at 1:00 p.m. Everyone was in stunned disbelief. The rest of the day was a very quiet time with people speaking in subdued tones. They could hardly believe what had happened. We all tried to keep up with the events that followed – Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as President on Air Force One with Jackie Kennedy present as they were heading to Washington where President Johnson would assume the President’s duties.
More events followed: Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the President’s murder. Then, on Sunday, November 24, Oswald was murdered by Jack Ruby. Yet nothing really changed the stunning news of the President’s death. All of us kept talking to each other in a sort of daze hoping that someone might say that the event never happened.
Perhaps the best example of individual reaction was that of the state auditor. I passed his workstation several times that afternoon, and each time he was vacantly staring out the window in complete silence. He was a quiet, friendly man in his late fifties or early sixties. I do not recall his name now, but he was from Woodbury, TN, in Cannon County, and his stunned silence expressed a feeling we all felt.”
Mr. Hargis is a retired teacher, principal, county court clerk, and Grundy County school superintendent. He’s 85 now and lives in Manchester, TN.
W.H. “Buck” Sanders: “I very well remember the awful days during that time of November 22, 1963. We had gone Christmas shopping in Chattanooga on that eventful day. We had parked in the parking garage at Sears and entered the store, I think, on the third floor. Everyone was gathered in the area of the televisions, and we learned of the shooting. It was an unbelievable thing that had happened. I thought President Kennedy was a good president.
I think of all my childhood friends at Palmer, and I’m glad to hear from them through your articles in the Grundy County Herald.”
Buck grew up in Palmer and has lived in Tracy City for many years. He’s a retired postmaster of the Tracy City Post Office. Many of you know his first cousins Charles Edgar Sanders and Harold James of Palmer.
Hallie James Knight: “I was working in a shirt factory at the foot of the mountain in Dunlap. We kept a radio on at work, and that’s how we heard it. I was born in 1932, and in my opinion, Kennedy was the best president in my lifetime and Bill Clinton would be next. Mama lived to be almost a hundred years old, and she said Franklin D. Roosevelt was the best President during her lifetime because of how he helped put people back to work in the Great Depression.
President Kennedy took to many chances like riding in an open car and probably more guards wouldn’t have prevented what happened. It looks like that if anyone else other than Oswald had been involved that they could have found out in the last fifty years.”
Mrs. Knight lives in Gruetli-Laager and is the widow of Horace “Gid” Knight.
James Henry McBee: “On November 22, 1963, I was working at the Boeing Company in Huntsville, Alabama. It came over the intercom that President Kennedy had been shot and then a few minutes later that he had died. A great silence fell over the plant, and some people cried. It affected a lot of people.
In February 1964 I was drafted into the U.S. Army along with Tommy Sissom of Coalmont and the late Bill Nunley of Laager. We were all sent to Fort Polk, Louisiana, for basic training. I don’t know where Bill went after basic, but they sent Tommy to Ft. Sill, OK, for artillery AIT and then on to Vietnam.
After basic, I thought I would be sent on, but they trained me to type. I became a clerk-typist. All of my Army time was spent at Ft. Polk, and I was discharged on my birthday, February 5, 1966.
Mr. McBee is a 1960 graduate of Grundy County High School and says he didn’t take typing there because he was afraid he couldn’t type as fast as they wanted you to. He’s a son of the late John Henry and Irene Layne McBee and still lives in his old hometown of Gruetli-Laager.
Dennis A. Sweeton: Can you imagine being in uniform on the other side of the world and hearing that your commander-in-chief had been assassinated?
Mr. Sweeton was one of the first Americans to serve in Vietnam and was a U.S. Army soldier when he heard the news on the radio in the mess hall. He grew up in Tracy City, married the former Dottie Nolan of Palmer, and today they live in the Barker’s Cove Community where they have made their home for many years.
Carolyn and Dick Johnson: The Johnson’s lived in Roan Mountain, TN, at the time, and Mrs. Johnson says, “We heard the news on evening TV. How sad for our great nation and more so for the Kennedy family. I was impressed with Jackie’s (his wife’s) and her children’s ability to handle it so well publicly – so sad for President Kennedy’s mother to lose a child. The Johnson’s have visited Grundy County several times with Sara Swann Shipley and live today in Elizabethton, TN.
Sara Swann Shipley: At that time Sara and her late husband, R. Bruce Shipley, were living in northwest Philadelphia, PA, and heard the news on the radio while traveling to Knoxville, TN, to meet the new baby of University of Tennessee friend, Jimmy Smith.
Sara grew up in Palmer and is a 1935 graduate of Grundy County High School.
Ralph Rieben: “Yes, I remember the John Kennedy assassination. I had been working at the Arnold Engineering Development Center for a little over a year.
As I recall it happened on Friday, November 22, 1963. One of my work associates was at home sick that day, and he called and said the President had been shot. He did not have any of the details, and I assumed that the President would be OK. I think that most of us were in shock that someone would shoot the President of the United States. However, I must mention that we had one individual who stated, “He had it coming.” After a lengthy discussion, we all went back to work for the rest of that day. The best that I remember, I did not know the President was dead until I got home from work and got the news on television. We only had black and white television back then, and we, my whole family, stayed glued to the television until very late that night. The TV coverage went on for the entire weekend and through the next several weeks, which included reports on Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby.
It was a very difficult time; there was a lot of contention with the country being divided over liberal versus conservative values, along with the threat of a nuclear war hanging over our heads. Considering the situation, I think President John Kennedy did a remarkable job.”
Mr. Rieben is a longtime civic leader and former chairman of the Grundy County Commission.
Joy Walker Caldwell: “I was a student at Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, VA, which is now a technical college. That day I remember coming home from school and seeing my mother standing in the door crying. My parents were very concerned about what would become of the country after the Kennedy assassination. We didn’t watch much television at our house, mostly ‘Bonanza’ and ‘Lawrence Welk’ so we didn’t see as much of all the TV coverage that probably most people did.”
Mrs. Caldwell has been publisher of the Gundy County Herald since 2002.
Billy Ray Nunley: “At that time I was part owner of a car dealership with Bob Borst in Birmingham, MI, which is a suburb of Detroit. I had probably been to lunch and had just pulled back up to the business when I heard it on the car radio.” (In those days car radios were very important as sources of news, weather reports, music, and sports.)
“That was Thursday and on Sunday when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, I was deer hunting in Roscommon, MI, with Melvin “Poss” Pocus. Snow was on the ground and, when we came back to the car to drink some coffee, we heard about it on the car radio.
In 1960 I voted for Kennedy and believe that he would have been a great president if he had lived and served a second term. Bob Borst died just a few months ago at the age of 95. He was a fine Christian man and an honest businessman who made sure his employees conducted themselves likewise.”
Linda Caldwell Mainord: “Back then I enjoyed watching soap operas like ‘As the World Turns,’ which came on from 12:30-1:00. My daughter Carol (now Carol Parsons and a teacher at Swiss Memorial Elementary) was born October 30, 1963, and I had just sat down to give her a bottle when they announced President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. I cried.
On Sunday I saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV. I’ve got six VHS ‘Kennedy Tapes’ which go into the assassination in depth. Like a lot of people I’ve always thought there was more to it than what we were told at the time. If I could have I would have voted for President Kennedy when he ran in 1960, but I wasn’t old enough.”
Mrs. Mainord is the widow of Corky Mainord and has been director of the Gruetli-Laager Senior Citizens’ Center for a number of years.
David and Janice McNabb McAnally: Many times today we take modern medical care for granted, but 50 years ago things that we don’t think of much today could be life threatening, especially for children and the elderly. “David and I were at Tepper’s Clinic in Chattanooga with David, Jr. who had been admitted for bronchitis. He was about two years old at the time. When they gave him oxygen they would put an “oxygen tent” over the crib. When I was off work, I would stay, and when David was off work, he would stay. Just as everyone else that day, we saw the drama of that awful day unfold on TV. There was such a feeling of unrest and disbelief, which stayed with us for days. The TV was rarely turned off until after JFK’s funeral. Just five short years later, his brother, Senator Robert Kennedy was also assassinated.
Thanks, David (Patton) for all you do to bring historical events alive for the enjoyment of your readers and to educate those of us whose memory might be fading just a little.”
Mrs. McAnally is a native of Palmer and the daughter of Crandel and Ethleen McNabb. She, along with her husband David and her parents, live today in Dunlap, TN.
Charlotte Sissom Haggard: “I remember vividly the day President Kennedy was shot. My husband was out of town for a few days. My phone rang, and I answered. His first words were, ‘Have you seen the news?’ I hadn’t. I absolutely could not believe this could happen in America. I don’t think I even tried to do anything but sit in front of the TV the rest of the week. How could this happen in America – the land of the free – built on freedom so that we could walk our streets in safety and love and help our neighbors? I do believe this was the beginning of America’s problems. We surely do need to get back to the old ways. Some of our first Presidents were trustworthy and honest.
President Kennedy wasn’t a perfect person and did not always do things in his personal life, maybe, the way he should have. But I do believe he was truly for America all the way. I can still see his casket being pulled by horses down the street and his family, especially the little boy, John Jr., saluting him as he passed in front of them. In my opinion John F. Kennedy was one of the best, if not the best, president the United States has ever had. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was also a great president.”
Charlotte is a daughter of the late Rev. Buford and Gladys Overturf Sissom of Palmer and lives in Elkhart, Indiana.
Bettye Wooten Sherwood: “On November 22, 1963, I was teaching at Eighth District Elementary School in Fayetteville, TN. At 1:00 p.m., the teachers took their customary break. We assembled as usual in the cafeteria, but on this day our principal joined us to deliver the devastating news that President John F. Kennedy, our 35th President, had been assassinated a few minutes earlier while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, TX. We were all shocked, saddened, and some even cried. It was, then, the responsibility of each teacher to relate the news of this tragedy to his or her students. As expected my fifth graders were very emotional and shed many tears. They had many questions, most of which I could not answer, so I just tried to comfort them and told them that all the details of this tragic day would be played over and over on television that night. When the students were dismissed at 2:45, they were met in the parking lot by grieving parents who embraced them and reassured them that all was well.
After school I went to get my daughter, Sherri, at her grandmother Sherwood’s. As expected, I found Mrs. Sherwood was very disturbed and saddened by what she had learned of the dreadful occurrence of that day. When I arrived home I called my parents, Clarence and Julia Mai Wooten, in Hubbard’s Cove. Mother was home from Altamont Elementary where she taught. Someone had called her school to break the news of the horrible happening in Dallas. The teachers had turned on their TV’s, and the students watched the unfolding events until the time that they were dismissed. One of those students told me recently that all children watched the television in complete silence, and she said, ‘It as one of the saddest times that I ever knew.’ By 3:30 my television was on, and I remained glued to it all weekend and the following Monday, which was declared a National Day of Mourning with schools and federal and state offices closed and flags flown at half-staff. One of my most vivid memories is what happened shortly after the body of President Kennedy was placed on board Air Force One for the trip back to Washington, D.C. It was so touching to watch the dignity and grace portrayed by the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, as she stood solemnly, still wearing her blood smeared pink suit and witnessed as Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn into office as our next president.
I watched intensely all aspects of the funeral, which had been meticulously planned by Jacqueline Kennedy in order to allow a grieving nation to honor its fallen president. Still etched in my memory is the sight of John John (JFK, Jr.) on his third birthday as he saluted his father’s casket. And then there was the unforgettable scene of Jacqueline with her daughter Caroline as they knelt by the casket to say their final goodbyes.
Mrs. Sherwood and her husband Bob live, today, in Hubbard’s Cove.
Janelle Layne Taylor: Janelle was a senior at Grundy County High School in Tracy City. An announcement came from the intercom while she was in Mrs. Dorothy Schaerer’s English class. She and the friends who sat around her, Richard Laxson, Dave Melton, and Willene Campbell were in disbelief that anything like that could have happened. After all, they lived in the United States, not some uncivilized area of the world.
Transistor radios were new technology at the time, but Janelle had brought hers along that day, so the group held the little radio up to a metal pipe in the corner of the room. It brought the signal in more clearly so that they could hear the news. Mrs. Libby O’Dear let them continue listening to the radio during the next class as the story of the assassination unfolded.
Today Janelle is a retired teacher married to David Taylor and is active in the Grundy County Historical Society.
Donna Landon Lovelace: “On November 22, 1963, I was in U.S. History class at Grundy County High School with Mrs. Marean Crabtree as the teacher. Our principal, Mr. John A. Anderson, came on the intercom and announced that the President had been hit by gunshots while in Dallas, TX. The class was stunned and just sat there for a few minutes. The students slowly began to ask questions of Mrs. Crabtree and to talk among ourselves. No one could believe that such a horrible thing could be done. The class simply sat there and waited for any further news about the incident. Sometime before school was dismissed, Mr. Anderson came on the intercom again and announced our president was dead and that Lyndon B. Johnson had been sworn in as President.
Riding home on the school bus was a very muted experience. The students were still asking questions and were very upset that such a thing could happen in the land of the free. I got off the bus at Mr. Mose Birdwell’s Service Station in Gruetli and walked home. Mom and Dad had heard the news also and were talking about it when I got to our house. To me they didn’t seem as shocked as I was, and when they asked how school had been I broke down crying and said, ‘Don’t you realize that the President has been shot?’ and ran in the house crying.
I remember that the family sat and watched all the newscasts that were constantly on that day and after that. I remember the scene of the theater, which Oswald was supposed to have hidden in. I remember the crowd of policemen, reporters, and others that were in the basement of the police station when they were moving Oswald to a more secure place, I guess, then suddenly this man in a hat pushed his way into the crowd, and a shot was heard, and Oswald slumped with the near-by policemen trying to catch him as he fell. Other policemen were seen grabbing the man in the hat. The announcer was excited and didn’t seem to know what to say.
This was on the news for several days and weeks. I really don’t remember what I thought of Mr. Kennedy. I guess I was just not interested in politics at the time. I just remember how upset I was when he was killed.”
William Ray Turner: “We were living in ‘Black Bottom’ in Tracy City next to the shirt factory at that time. Me and Wilburn Fults and Charlie Dykes were putting shingles on a garage at the house when someone from the shirt factory called and told us about it.
During President Kennedy’s term we almost got into a nuclear war with Russia over them putting missiles in Cuba. I remember that President Kennedy called Cuba ‘Cuber.’ Maybe when the 100th year of this assassination comes around they’ll tell who else was involved in it.
Wilburn Fults and Charlie Dykes are dead now as well as Paul Wilhelm who ran the shirt factory then. His wife, Mae King Wilhelm, just passed away earlier this year.” Mr. Turner has been our Grundy County historian for many years.
David Patton: “I was a student in Isabel Gunn’s math class at Grundy County High School on that very early Friday afternoon. I don’t know if he was at school that day, but I remember that Pig Harrison of Palmer was also in the class.
One of the most amazing things to me was the assassin himself, Lee Harvey Oswald, being murdered right there on television forty-eight hours after he killed the President. Talk about poor security! In today’s age of terrorism that would be very unlikely to happen.
Everybody talks about what a shock it was, but we had three presidential assassinations before Kennedy, all within the time span of just 36 years. McKinley was the last of those in 1901. That was sixty-two years before Kennedy and maybe because it had been so long was why people had largely forgotten that it could happen again. President Reagan was the last to be shot in the 1980’s and came within a hair of dying. Today we realize it as an ever-present danger, and security is much tighter than it was in 1963.
On October 12, 1963, I turned sixteen years old. Before Kennedy our images of presidents were of old gray-headed or bald men wearing glasses and looking like your grandpa. To the young people of 50 year ago, President Kennedy and his wife Jackie looked more like them than old people, and you could relate to them.”
We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Janelle Layne Taylor, Donna Landon Lovelace, and Michelle Travis in bringing you this story. It may also be viewed on the Grundy County Historical Society website at www.gchs.homestead.com.