50 Years After JFK’s Death, Memories Remain Sharp

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UPDATED: Wednesday October 30, 2013 7:44 PM

Half a century ago, the nation mourned the death of President John F. Kennedy.  For central Ohioans who lived through it, that memory burns like a flame.

Retired teacher Phyllis Brasher was a child at the time.

"You're a little kid and you're thinking, wow, your whole world is crumbling. Because you have this leader of your country and somebody has assassinated him," she recalled.

It was in Dallas on November 22, 1963. For the first time since the death of her infant son the previous summer, Jackie Kennedy joined her husband on a campaign trip.  

We've all seen the images, whether in person, on television, or in history class.  

Crowds cheered. The President planned to speak at a luncheon. But as the motorcade passed the Texas Book Depository, a loner named Lee Harvey Oswald fired his rifle from a fifth floor window.  

The Warren Commission, which later investigated the assassination, concluded that two bullets struck the President.

For many Americans, the first word that life had changed came from a CBS bulletin that interrupted regular programming.  Anchorman Walter Cronkite delivered his statement, then slipped off his glasses and looked away, fighting for control.

"We just have a report from our correspondent Dan Rather in Dallas, that he has confirmed that President Kennedy is dead," he said. "President Kennedy died at 1pm Central Standard Time, 2 o'clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago."

In minutes, the era known as Camelot ended.  It had started with such hope, on an unusually cold January day in 1961. That’s when the newly inaugurated President spoke in ringing tones of his commitment to see freedom triumph around the globe.

"The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world," he said.

Katherine Meyer, then a teenager, was near the back of the crowd with her father.

"It was particularly special I think, because of his youth," she said.

She is now an OSU emeritus professor of sociology.  Then, she was a high school student who lived in a neighborhood filled with Congressmen and Kennedy relatives.

"It was the first time I was politically conscious. The Kennedys sort of created a spirit in which you thought things could change," Meyer said.

Carol Aultman, now of Westerville, and her twin sister were freshmen at Trinity College in Washington. They left campus to see the inauguration.

"We kind of wiggled our way into pretty much the front, almost in front of the podium," she said.

The Kennedys were known for glamour, and culture.  Jackie restored the White House.  And the nation could not get enough of little Caroline and John.  

The President enthusiastically supported the space program and started the Peace Corps.

Months before he died, amid violence in the South and the March on Washington, JFK pushed for passage of the Civil Rights amendment. It’s a cause that still echoes in central Ohio today.

"He reached out legislatively in ways that no other President, really since FDR or even going back to Lincoln, had done, and that earned him a lot of credit within the African American community," said Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries of the OSU Kirwin Institute for Race and Diversity.

Dr. Andrew Carlson, a history professor at Capital University, added, "He was a vehicle for people's love and admiration and hopes."

But the hopes ended on that Friday in November.  Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office on Air Force One. Then both Presidents, the living and the dead, flew home to Washington.  

Kennedy's body lay in state, first at the White House on Saturday, and then on Sunday at the Capitol.  A quarter of a million people lined up to pay their respects.  Carol Aultman was one of them.

"There were throngs and throngs of people and we were shoving to try and get across that street right to the Capitol grounds,"  she said.

But she never got inside.  She left after she heard news of another shooting, again in Dallas.  Within hours of the assassination, police had arrested Oswald for killing the President. But as they were taking him past reporters at the Dallas police station, a strip club owner named Jack Ruby darted forward and killed him. It was caught live on television, in front of millions of horrified Americans.

Burt Griffin, a retired judge in Cleveland, said that shooting was simply a moment of opportunity for Ruby. Griffin is one of the people with intimate knowledge of the Kennedy assassination.

In 1963, when he was a young lawyer, Griffin was tapped to service on the Warren Commission. The Commission spent eight months investigating the assassination.  Judge Burt Griffin says Ruby had been a block away sending money to a stripper.

"Four minutes before he shot Oswald, he sent the Western Union money order," Griffin said.

But how did Ruby know that Oswald would be there?

"He saw a crowd still around the Dallas police station," replied Griffin.  

Griffin said Ruby wandered over to see what was happening, mingled with the crowd of reporters, and whipped out his gun as soon as detectives escorted Oswald past them.

Griffin said the Warren Commission staff worried about national security.

"We really had an intense desire to find a conspiracy," he said.

Theories rose as soon as Kennedy died. Oswald had a Russian wife and tried unsuccessfully to defect to Cuba.  Ruby had gang connections. Was the assassination a plot by Russians? Castro? The Mafia?  

Griffin says the evidence proved to be an overwhelming "no."

"Would anybody have worked with Oswald?" Griffin asked.  "Was Oswald the kind of person who had a personality in which he would work with anybody else? You would have to come to the conclusion that this guy was a loner. We had people who were claiming that they had information of one kind or another, but when you pursued it, there was no foundation to it."

The nation mourned with the Kennedys.

Jackie Kennedy led a procession of world leaders to St. Matthew's Cathedral the day of the funeral.  One million people lined the streets.  Among them was Mark Aultman, now Carol's husband, but then a senior at Georgetown University.

"I just felt history coming around me at the time," he remembered.

History surrounded a Worthington man that day, too. The late Bob Foster was one of the Secret Service agents charged with protecting the Kennedy children. 10TV spoke with Foster more than a decade ago.

"When we were at St. Matthew's Church for mass, John got fidgety, and Mrs. Kennedy said, get him out of here," Foster said.

The agent took John, who had turned three years old that day, to a room where the boy spotted a colonel, and saluted with the wrong hand.

"The colonel said...no, no, no, John.  That's not the way to salute.  You salute with your right hand.  When we got out, and Mrs. Kennedy said ‘Say goodbye to your father, John’ and he hooked up that salute, I thought I'd di -  and with the right hand."

For many Americans, it was an iconic moment.

The burial was at Arlington National Cemetery, where the family lit the eternal flame.

Carol Aultman watched from a hill above the burial site.  Mark Aultman had stood in silence as the funeral cortege passed by.

"We lost our young President all of a sudden. And then after that, things went crazy. We lost Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy. It was just a shocking time," he said.

Fifty years after Kennedy's death, among Central Ohioans, that love and pain still lingers.

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