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A day that changed America

Memories of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination remain vivid in headlines of Richmond newspapers saved by Curt Saunders of Hartfield. (Photo by Tom Chillemi)

by Tom Chillemi

In an instant, innocence was lost.

It’s been 50 years since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the anniversary this Friday, November 22, brings back memories of those dark days.

“Some were angry, all were shocked. It was like a sudden death in the family.”
— Jerry Suyes, Deltaville

Billy Mayo of Urbanna was in his senior history class at Middlesex High School when principal Walter Allen Harrow announced over the public address system that Kennedy had been shot. “I didn’t want to believe him,” said Mayo.

The class sat in stunned silence; then said a silent prayer for a country turned upside down. “What in the world will happen?” Mayo thought.

Questions of what might have been linger five decades later.

“Death in the family”
Fear of the unknown runs deep, said Jerry Suyes, who had just opened his dental practice in Buena Vista near Lexington at the time of the assassination. “The whole town was upset,” he recalled. “Some were angry, all were shocked. It was like a sudden death in the family.”

Suyes, 76, of Deltaville, compared Kennedy’s murder to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

But, from this tragedy came unity, Suyes added. In one another, the townspeople found hope. People phoned each other and got together to talk about their loss. “There was a lot of discussion of ‘Where will we go from here?’ ”

The finding of the government investigation (Warren Report) that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination did not help Suyes find closure. “It took a while before we regained our trust in government.”

The wary public questioned the Warren Report, said Suyes. “Is this a conspiracy, a foreign initiative, or is it just a crazy guy? We didn’t really have an answer. You were a little reluctant to believe the Warren Commission.”

“Utter silence”
Curt Saunders of Hartfield was a student at the MCV School of Pharmacy. On Friday, November 22, 1963, he had just finished lunch and there were five or six classmates sitting around getting ready for afternoon classes. “We heard the radio reports from Dallas saying the President had been shot,” he said. The students grabbed a transistor radio and by the time they got to class, President Kennedy had been pronounced dead. “There was complete and utter silence for a few minutes,” Saunders recalled. “You didn’t know what to feel.” Classes were dismissed.

MCV is located on Broad Street, a busy road in the heart of downtown Richmond. “By the time we walked three blocks to the dorms, the whole city had gotten quiet,” Saunders recalled. “It was like someone had thrown a big ball of cotton over the city. There were no harsh sounds.”

Central Fidelity Bank flew a tremendous flag from its multi-story building that could be seen from all over Richmond. “They lowered the flag to half mast,” said Saunders. “I can still see it.”

What did the nation lose that day? “We’ll never know the full extent of what could have been,” he said. “On that day, whether you voted for him or not, he was definitely your President.”

“It all made me think”
Curt’s wife Genie was a junior at Mathews High School when she got the news of the assassination as radio reports were played over the school intercom. “The entire class went silent.”
Like many, she spent the weekend glued to the TV. And, in those sobering days, she became more aware of politics. On Friday morning she had been a “happy-go-lucky” teenager. By the time the funeral caisson carried the slain leader to Arlington Cemetery, she had matured. “It all made me think about us, the President, and our place in the rest of the world.”

Like many, she still asks, “I wonder what the future of our country would have been?”

Sometimes you wonder
Don McNamee, who retired to Hartfield, was 24 years old and working in a central office at C&P Telephone in Richmond when the news of Kennedy’s assassination broke.
“Every switch that was available went into use at the same time when people heard it,” he said. “The whole switchboard system locked up; there was no way anyone else could get through until someone hung up.”

McNamee and astonished workers relied on the radio for updates. “This is unbelievable,” he remembers thinking. “It felt like something bad had happened in the family. It’s something you never forget.”

Regarding Oswald as the lone assassin, McNamee commented, “Some say leave it alone. Can we trust the government? Sometimes you wonder.”

However, McNamee is sure “we (the country) would have been a whole lot better off if Oswald had not shot Kennedy. We had a lot of hope with Kennedy. I don’t think it came back until we got Reagan, who was a leader and people person. The President needs to be a strong leader.”

“A Profile in Courage”
On Monday, November 25, 1963, a memorial service was held at Christ Church. It was 46 minutes long—one minute for each year that Kennedy had lived.

Rev. Charles Chilton’s entire message, “A Profile in Courage,” was reprinted on the front page of the November 28, 1963 issue of the Southside Sentinel. A large memoriam to Kennedy also was on the front page.

In summation, Rev. Chilton wrote, “So we say for the last time our fond ‘Hail to the Chief.’ The bullet that tore his body has torn our hearts in a way we shall never forget.”

Fifty years later, wounds may have healed, but scars remain. 

posted 11.20.2013

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