JFK: 50 years later

The news hit, a rogue wave: sudden, unthinkable, savage

On Boston Common, parks workers in shirtsleeves strung the last of 30,000 colored lights around a life-sized creche, preparing for the start of the annual Christmas fest. In Braintree, police kept a watchful eye on reindeer that had twice bolted from a live holiday display at the South Shore Shopping Plaza, a new open-air mall in the suburbs.

And on Massachusetts Avenue, the proper set that preferred the Boston Symphony’s Friday afternoon performance filed in between the stately columns of Symphony Hall. Upstairs in the library, William Shisler was sitting at his desk, beneath towering shelves of sheet music, when the phone rang.

It was his wife in Needham, home with the baby, watching the live broadcast of one of her favorite soaps — until a breaking-news slide and Walter Cronkite’s baritone bumped “As the World Turns” off screen.


“They just interrupted the program,” she said, “to say the president’s been shot.”

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For 45 minutes, the stunning reports conflicted — wounded, dead, not dead, last rites — but then there could be no doubt. Shisler and another librarian filtered on stage, handing out new scores on the fly, breaking the news to the hundred stunned musicians, the audience of 2,600 unaware.

Ollie Noonan Jr./Globe Staff/File
A young girl cried outside a memorial service being held for President Kennedy at Harvard University on Nov. 23, 1963.

The conductor Erich Leinsdorf, a meticulous man who rarely addressed the hall, faced the crowd to speak.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a press report over the wires,” he said, in his clipped Viennese accent, the hall utterly silent. “We hope that it is unconfirmed, but we have to doubt it. The president of the United States has been the victim of an assassination.”

A gasp. It swept the hall for eight seconds, engulfed it, the sound of sudden inhalation and startled whisper. Leinsdorf paused and spoke again. “We will play the funeral march from Beethoven’s third symphony.”


A second gasp, more anguished and agonized than the first. The shift to the “Eroica” somehow made it real. The audience stood as one, heads bowed. The orchestra began to play.

Outside, everywhere, people crowded in silence around the radios of parked cars. They gathered in knots in front of black-and-white televisions at department stores, strained to read wire copy pasted to the windows of newspaper offices.

Phone lines jammed. Sobs — “Oh, God, no! Oh my God, no!” — echoed through the marble corridors of the State House. Bells tolled for 30 minutes at Harvard. Theaters closed; movie houses went dark. At Narragansett, they pulled the horses off the track. High above Logan, a plane carrying the governor out of state banked and returned to Boston.

An entire country mourned, but here the news hit like a death in the family. Not just the sudden, incomprehensible loss of a president who embodied youth and vitality. But the murder of one of their own.

The boy from Brookline who learned to swim and sail on the Cape; who studied in Connecticut and Cambridge; who recovered from the war in Chelsea; who married in Newport; who knocked on their doors seeking votes in Everett and Charlestown, attended their VFW suppers and first communion breakfasts, captured their hearts with his wit and grace, his intensity and humor, his looks and charisma.


They knew him, loved him, worshipped him here. He was the first Catholic in the White House, and even more, an Irish Catholic descended from potato-famine refugees and pick-and-shovel laborers — his portrait on so many mantels. He was their president in a way he could never be anyone else’s.

And now he was gone. Later it would feel like one blurred, heartsick 72-hour day, from the first news out of Dallas to the final burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

In those initial moments, when all that was known was that Kennedy had been shot, it was all confusion and disbelief, hushed tones and prayer. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” one person told a Record-American reporter trying to gather reaction. “It’s too terrible to be true,” another said.

William Luiso, a 28-year-old postal worker with a route near the Public Garden, was crossing Boylston Street when somebody shouted the news out of a storefront. Luiso had shared a moment with Kennedy once, holding the door for the young congressman on crutches who had come to address Brighton High when Luiso was a senior. Now he quickened his step to get back to the post office, hoping to get to a radio.

Robert Vigeant Jr., an airman stationed at Otis Air Force Base, was on the shoulder of Route 3 with his thumb out, trying to hitch a ride home to Chelmsford. A car pulled over. When Vigeant bent down to get in, he saw the driver was crying.

“Am I getting in with a cuckoo? What’s wrong with this guy?” the 22-year-old Air Force mechanic thought.

“Are you all right, Mister?” he asked.

“The president’s been shot,” the driver said.

Shocked, Vigeant thought of the firm handshake he got from Kennedy at 17, when the Senate candidate came to campaign at the Lowell shoe factory where Vigeant went to work after leaving high school.

The two strangers drove north, listening to news on the radio, not speaking, both quietly weeping. “It took the steam right out of you. You went from an oak to a willow,” Vigeant recalled later.

When the driver reached Route 128, he said, “This is my cutoff,” and pulled the car over.

Vigeant got out. “Thank you very much,” he said. “Let’s pray for our president.”

They never saw each other again.

At Boston College, students and faculty streamed toward St. Mary’s Chapel, overflowing it and filling the gothic Bapst Library next door. Just a few months earlier, Kennedy had wowed them at BC’s centennial, validated them with his appearance, that famous hair tousled in the Alumni Stadium breeze as he stood bareheaded among so many mortarboards. Now the Rev. Michael P. Walsh, BC’s president, was leading the rosary in those first minutes when hope for Kennedy’s survival remained.

Midway through, a student approached and whispered in Walsh’s ear. He paused, and in that moment, everyone knew what it meant. “We’ll say the remaining sorrowful mysteries,” he managed, and the voices immediately grew heavy and hushed, praying not for his life but for his soul.

“President Kennedy,” Walsh said next, “has been crucified in the service of his country.”

At the Globe, where reporters could not get a dial tone amid incoming calls from readers trying to verify the news, a sign in hand-written letters appeared in the window of the downtown office for all crowded outside to see: PRESIDENT IS DEAD.

At City Hall on School Street, Christmas trees flanked the plaza, waiting to be lit that afternoon by Mayor John Collins. Buses were already filling to bring children downtown to sing carols in a ceremony that would soon be called off.

A mail carrier descended the front steps below a giant Advent wreath, placed his bag on the ground at the flagpole, and lowered the banner to half-staff. He stepped back, removed his hat, and paused. One observer saw him salute; another said he placed his hand over his heart. A moment later, he was gone.

Around the corner in Downtown Crossing, Harriet Kendall was walking back from picking up a play for an Emerson College class when she noticed everything seemed quiet. As she wandered toward a crowd gathered around a station wagon on Franklin Street, a reporter asked what she thought about the president’s death.

“I don’t understand,” said Kendall, who had volunteered for Kennedy’s last campaign as a high school student in Brookline and remembered licking envelopes in a field office when the candidate popped in for a pep talk. Now, closing in on the voting age of 21, she looked forward to casting a ballot for his reelection.

“It can’t be true,” she said. “You must be joking.”

The finality of it knocked the wind out of them, turned their worlds upside down, caused physical pain. “The sudden death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy lacerates the heart,” Rabbi Albert Goldstein, of Brookline’s Temple Ohabei Shalom, told a reporter.

Janet Foscaldo, an 8-year-old from South Boston who had written to the White House a few weeks earlier, did not know then that a pair of photos of the president and his family waited for her in the mail at home. Then the news crackled over the PA at the Gate of Heaven school. Janet looked to the front of her room. Her teacher was crying. She had not appreciated until then that the nuns who taught her, shrouded behind full habits, were actually human.

In Hyannis, Helen Sweeney had been shopping on Main Street. The West Yarmouth woman, who attended Mass at St. Francis Xavier when the president was in town in hopes of catching a friendly hello, set down the coat in her hand.

“I don’t feel like buying anything,” she told the shopkeeper.

“And I don’t feel like selling you anything,” he said, closing the store’s doors behind her.

Crowds surged to churches, lighting candles, looking for answers. James Sullivan went to the bar, needing a drink. The 82nd Airborne veteran got the news just as he was finishing up his shift as a machine operator in Holden, making the parts to put threads on industrial screws. He and a buddy went right over to the Blue Plate, downing two draft beers as they stood at the bar, staring speechless at the TV.

He got in his car and started to drive home to Spencer. Rounding a curve on Route 31, he spotted a woman running up the shoulder, waving her arms frantically. Sullivan pulled over, looked down the hill, and saw a car overturned in the Kendall Reservoir, just one wheel sticking out above the water. He sprinted down the bank, dashed in and pried open the driver’s door underwater. Four people were inside.

Sullivan pulled the first sodden body onto the rock and dashed back for the next, just as police arrived to pull out the two others in back. A flash went through his head: I hope they don’t think I drove them off the road.

But the faces of the victims on the bank began to fill in the story. The three drowned passengers — sister nuns from the same order and same family, being driven home from their mother’s 88th birthday party in Fitchburg — were ash white. But the mottled face of the man with them, who had driven for the order for 37 years without an accident, indicated a heart attack. It would stay with Sullivan for 50 years, wondering if the man had been stricken by the unfathomable news.

‘Did you hear about the president?”

Harvard football coach John Yovicsin paused as he came through the stadium tunnel in New Haven, preparing to lead his players on a run-through the day before the Yale game, still, in 1963, the biggest sporting event in New England. Sixty thousand were expected at the Yale Bowl — nearly four times the crowd who had watched the Boston Patriots at Fenway the previous week — and special trains were running from South Station to carry the fans.

“Is he coming to the game?” Yovicsin wondered. You could always count on a clutch of Kennedys in the stands for this one, and the president himself — who had played freshman football at Harvard before rupturing a disk in a scrimmage — had dropped by the Columbia game in Cambridge the month before.

“He’s been shot,” said the news photographer who had called out the question. Yovicsin stared in disbelief. But he kept walking onto the field, leading his team through its workout. What else could they do? Only when they were done did they learn Kennedy was dead.

They all loved him, especially the locals like John F. “Jack” O’Brien Jr., a center from Brockton. Everyone at home was crazy about the president; on his summer highway crew, even the few Eisenhower guys had switched over in ’60. O’Brien looked around the locker room, and the shock and sadness on his teammates’ faces would etch forever in his mind.

But this was not just a look of mourning; it was the realization in the moment that The Game might be canceled, unthinkable to the young men who for months had taken a pounding while looking toward this day, all their momentum hurtling toward Yale, beyond it the promise of off-season rest and Thanksgiving break.

Many of them wanted to play. “We thought we were ready,” said Scott Harshbarger, a halfback who would one day choose to be sworn in as state attorney general at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

It was not until the presidents of the two schools called off the game — postponed it a week — and the players returned to Cambridge that it sank in. Saturday classes had been canceled; the campus was in shock. Harshbarger would spend the rest of the weekend frozen in front of the TV. “It was like time had stopped,” he said.

Was it the work of Castro? Khrushchev? Would another shoe drop? Some looked to New York, fearing an atomic bomb, part of a wider conspiracy. At her bedroom in a South End rooming house, Lalia Ortiz — in her 80s but still taking in sewing; proudly Puerto Rican and a staunch admirer of Kennedy — feared the assassin was a Puerto Rican nationalist, like the ones who tried to kill Truman in 1950 or opened fire on Congress four years later.

She called her grandson, the folk singer Jackie Washington, startling him awake, her grief and her fear of a backlash against Puerto Ricans tumbling out in rapid-fire Spanglish amid sobs.

Washington — now known as Jack Landrón — was on tour, sleeping off a late night after playing a Baltimore coffeehouse. He tried to comfort his grandmother and make sense of it all at once. The death stung him in a way the loss of a public figure never had before. “It was like a friend or someone who lived down the street had died,” he said.

The 25-year-old singer had played the Newport Folk Festival that summer and headlined a Cambridge benefit to send buses from Boston to the Martin Luther King-led March on Washington. The son of a Puerto Rican mother and black father, he had been thrust into the news the previous winter after getting assaulted and arrested by cops looking for parking meter thieves, after he refused to take his hands from his pockets and consent to a search while walking on Newbury Street.

Washington did not just admire Kennedy because of his push for a federal civil rights act. It was the president’s warmth and ease that seemed to come through the TV set, along with the sense of humanity displayed by Kennedy in acts like inviting the family of slain NAACP leader Medgar Evers to the White House.

“It was like, maybe you could be real with this new kind of white people,” he said.

What would happen now?

That was the question the Rev. Jack Mendelsohn Jr., one in the corps of liberal, white Boston clergy working for civil rights, got that night from his 9-year-old son.

“Daddy,” Kurt Mendelsohn asked, “does the new president, President Johnson, care about negroes?”

“Yes. He does care,” Mendelsohn said, and soon his son was fast asleep.

“The struggle is not behind us but before us. It does not end with the savage murder of John Fitzgerald Kennedy,” the Unitarian Universalist minister at Boston’s historic Arlington Street Church would write, in his sermon for the weekend. “Out of the ashes of our mourning, it begins anew.”

Some tried to stick to routine. In West Hartford, Carol-Lee Cohan and her husband had dinner every Friday night with her mother and stepfather, then left the baby with the grandparents for a trip to Stop & Shop. It was time for buying the week’s groceries, but more important time for the 24-year-old newlyweds to carve out a few minutes alone.

At the table that night the four of them, red-eyed, did not say a word, just moved the food around on their plates. Then they went to the supermarket, pushing the cart slowly down deserted aisles. “The few people in the store did not speak, but when your eyes met theirs you knew how they felt,” she wrote, soon after.

They hauled the groceries home, put the baby to bed, and turned on the television, sitting in silence that night before the glow of the tube.

Cohan looked to the wall of the den, where a framed letter hung. A letter from President Roosevelt written after the father she hardly knew was killed in the South Pacific in 1943. She had rarely paused to examine it. Now it stood out to her in sharp relief. She began to read out loud.

“In grateful memory of Private Julius B. Adler, A.S. No. 34570089, who died in the service of his country,” she said. “He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live.”

Tears welled in her eyes. She read it over and over again, speaking the name of President Kennedy instead.

Saturday arrived, and weary New Englanders awoke to discover they had not been dreaming. Kennedy was dead; Johnson was president. The morning Globe carried no comics; most ads were pulled, save for tributes. Radio and TV played no commercials and ran no entertainment programming, only news, Kennedy tributes, or funereal music.

Starting at dawn, a 105mm howitzer on Boston Common blasted every half hour, the National Guard’s 26th Infantry Division reloading and firing continually until dusk, a military tradition following the death of a president. Naval ships did the same in Boston Harbor, as did installations at encampments scattered around the state.

At Logan Airport, bereaved aunts, uncles, and cousins from the Fitzgerald and the Kennedy families filled an Eastern Airlines flight bound for Washington, departing at 7:30 a.m. As word spread that Kennedy would not be buried at Brookline’s Holyhood Cemetery after all, thousands of others who felt the need to pay tribute in person rushed to ticket counters at Logan and South Station, filling buses, planes, and trains for D.C.

“He was someone close to me personally — like one of the family,” Mary Ahern, an 18-year-old secretary from Southie, told a Globe reporter after arriving in Washington with two friends. “I felt I had to go.”

At Harvard, nearly 2,500 people flooded Memorial Church, twice the capacity, for a service at noon, spilling onto the steps and the yard, listening red-eyed to the chaplain. “Once he was here, walking the same streets and paths which you and I walk,” the Rev. Charles P. Price said. “Now he has died for his country, and we died a little when he died.”

Along with the Harvard-Yale game, BC and BU canceled their football game that day — the diverging programs would never play again, ending a 70-year rivalry — and the rest of the AFL joined the Boston Patriots in calling off all games scheduled for Sunday, though the NFL pressed ahead with its seven games, albeit without television.

Most in New England spent the day transfixed before the TV — taking in 10 hours of coverage, on average, that day alone.

A shellshocked David Kaiser had no choice but to peel himself from the news; the 16-year-old Loomis student was stunned to find Saturday classes on as usual at his boarding school. The son of Kennedy’s ambassador to Senegal and Mauritania, he drifted through the morning in mute disbelief. His mathematics teacher tried to carry on as if nothing had changed. “The math,” he said, “is still the same.”

Kaiser had spent the previous two years in West Africa, where his father had persuaded Senegal’s president to deny the Soviets the use of Dakar airport as a refueling station during the Cuban missile crisis, while the teen watched the mail eagerly for newsreels from the States. Kennedy was his guiding light.

On the phone Friday night after the assassination, his father had never sounded so shaken. Still, he tried to buck up his son. “Work,” Ambassador Philip M. Kaiser had said, “that’s the answer.”

In English class, Kaiser sat down for a test on his favorite book, “1984.” He would go on to become a historian and prolific writer, but that day in class he could not manage even one word.

Some did venture out, seeking an escape in the reopening of movie theaters that had gone dark the day before, catching “Cleopatra” at the Gary, or “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” at Boston Cinerama.

Arlene Cherniak, a 23-year-old teacher, drove through a quiet city to get her hair done on Newbury Street. It was her wedding day. The previous afternoon she’d been having lunch at a Brookline deli when heads turned at once to the TV. She raced to her parents’ home in Chestnut Hill, while her fiance, Edward Levitt, hauled back from a business meeting cut short at a hospital in Palmer.

At first, they did not know what to do. Their rabbi advised they could cancel the reception if they wished, but life was fragile, and they should not postpone the opportunity to sanctify a marriage. They spent the eve of their wedding before the mournful glow of the TV.

“Everybody was just sad, overwhelmed, scared, in disbelief,” Arlene Levitt recalled.

They went ahead with the wedding and the party, too. There were few empty seats. For the guests, it provided a modicum of relief. And for the couple, still married today, “the sadness of the day helped us to bond about what’s important.”

Monday brought the National Day of Mourning. President Johnson, in his first proclamation, asked Americans to assemble in houses of worship, “to bow down in submission to the will of Almighty God, and to pay their homage of love and reverence to the memory of a great and good man.”

In Massachusetts, they responded in full, heeding the requests of the president and of Governor Endicott Peabody, who asked all businesses to close, with exceptions for public safety and public health. Most complied; food stores and firms like Raytheon, trying to meet Cold War deadlines, stayed open. Some closed at midday or gave employees breaks to watch the funeral.

Every city and town in the Commonwealth seemed to hold a memorial service, and every house of worship. In Somerville alone, 43 churches were packed. In Boston, thousands gathered at Old South and at Old North Church, where the rector noted that Kennedy had kept in his office replicas of the lanterns that Paul Revere had once looked to in the Old North belfry.

At the Charles Street jail, hundreds of inmates packed the chapel for an optional service led by a West End priest, joining the sheriff, his deputies, and their wives, praying before an altar adorned with a portrait of Kennedy and a basket of chrysanthemums and lilies.

In front of Kennedy’s birthplace on Brookline’s Beals Street — not yet a National Historic Site, still the private home of 74-year-old owner Martha Pollack, who kept a recent letter from Kennedy on the dining-room buffet — a group of local students laid a wreath out front. Residents packed the street sidewalk to sidewalk, one end to the other, listening to prayers from clergy, singing “America” in unison.

In Concord, the same cannon that boomed after the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley roared 21 times for Kennedy.

And before the State House, 10,000 mourners and 2,000 troops gathered for the largest service in New England, the soldiers and the crowd fanning from Bowdoin Street — where Kennedy had kept his voting address — along the Common and around the Joy Street side of the State House. The service coincided precisely with the burial at Arlington.

Monsignor Christopher P. Griffin, the state Senate chaplain, intoned the same words Boston’s Cardinal Richard Cushing said by the president’s grave. “I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in me, even if he die, shall live. . .”

The flag, at half staff, snapped in a bitter wind. An Episcopal bishop, a rabbi, and a Greek Orthodox priest added burial prayers of their own. Consular representatives from 23 countries joined a phalanx of lawmakers, judges, constitutional officers, and other officials who had remained in Massachusetts.

With Peabody at the funeral in D.C., Lieutenant Governor Francis X. Bellotti voiced the sorrow of the Commonwealth. Tears welled in the eyes of the politicians around him.

“His life, brief and vibrant, flashed across the heavens like a meteor, touching ours briefly, leaving our eyes burning,” Bellotti said. “Only now is the reality beginning to pierce our unwilling minds; he’s gone, and with him a part of the hope of humankind, a part of the life of each of us, never to return. The sun will rise again, life will go on, but it will never be the same. And already, we miss him terribly.”

Nearby, church bells tolled. On the Common, the howitzer unleashed a 21-gun salute, followed by three cracking volleys from a platoon of riflemen. Buglers at three points sounded the doleful notes of taps. A fighter wing zoomed overhead. Near the Mount Vernon Street door of the State House, a 72-year-old woman, walking back from the service with her daughter, dropped dead.

Then it was over, after what felt like a single suspended day, stretching back to Friday. People exhaled. Commercials returned to television. Work resumed. Families prepared for Thanksgiving. And across New England, many did what they always do when there is a death in the community. They sent a note in sympathy to the family.

“Mrs. Kennedy, you and your children have lost a husband, a father, and we the people have lost a great leader,” wrote Barbara Luiso, 27, of Billerica, signing her name and that of her husband’s, the high school sweetheart who had held the door for Kennedy back at Brighton High. “Our daily prayers are offered for him, and our hearts will mourn him until the day we die.”

In New Haven, Martha Ross — 74, deprived of schooling in the Jim Crow South, and who came north in the first Great Migration in search of domestic work — wrote in a mix of cursive and print, addressing the letter, “Dear Mrs. Jacklin.”

“I am a colored lady but [the president] seem close to me as my own and he was a part of all Americans,” Ross wrote, “sending my love and prayers” to the family. “To Caroline and little Johnnie all the love & [know] your father was my friend and everything to me in the world save for you.”

In Chelmsford, Julia Vigeant, a 44-year-old mother of seven and grandmother of two, explained that she was on disability from Raytheon after two heart attacks and rheumatoid arthritis. Vigeant, the mother of the airman hitching home from the Cape, had been home watching “As the World Turns” when the CBS bulletin cut in.

“I just froze in shock and was unable to talk or feed myself until [Tuesday]. I would not shut off the TV. I couldn’t take my eyes off every word of you and your family, and I prayed night and day. It was like a death in my family,” Vigeant wrote, in a six-page letter that took two days to complete, fighting the pain of arthritis. “You will always be the First Lady to my family. A true martyr to our country. Your name will never die in the news, and I hope one day we have a woman president. It will be Mrs. John F. Kennedy.”

And in the Berkshires, 9-year-old Cheryl Marquis wrote to 6-year-old Caroline Kennedy. She said she hoped her own infant brother Ricky would grow up to be as nice as John-John, and she asked Caroline to provide her post-White House address, so Cheryl could pass it along to Santa. She also made an offer, inviting her to Western Massachusetts.

“You see Caroline, I would like to share my daddy with you. He is a fireman and drives the big ladder truck. Should you ever come to Pittsfield, Mass., you could ride in his truck. John junior could too,” she wrote. “I remember your daddy in my daily prayers. You see I knew him pretty well. He was our President.”

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at