---- — They were attending schools and working in factories, caring for babies or talking with friends. They can see the faces and voices that broke the horrific news. They remember the tears and the prayers as families converged around televisions and radios waiting for answers.
It was a day the soul of America of was shattered into tiny pieces.
Today, 50 years after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, residents in the Merrimack Valley and Southern New Hampshire easily recollect the events of Nov. 22, 1963.
“I was shocked. A wave of sadness came over me,” said Ellie Faulkner, who was 21 and working at a chemical factory in Andover when she heard JFK had been shot.
“I don’t think the country could understand how this could happen. Everyone loved him so much,” Faulkner recalled.
Students all sent home
On Nov. 22,1963, Mark DiSalvo was in the fourth grade at St. Michael School. Around 1:30 p.m., the mother superior who ran the school announced over the public address system that the president had been shot.
“Please go directly home to your parents,” the she urged, before leading students in the Our Father.
DiSalvo said he misheard the principal, thinking the president had been “shocked.”
“My grandfather has them (shocks) all the time,” he recalled saying to a nearby classmate. The classmate corrected him, explaining that the president had been shot.
DiSalvo’s teacher, Sister Mary Walter, knelt down while leading her class in the Our Father, he said.
At that time, DiSalvo and his family lived in a three-level tenement. His grandparents were on the top floor; his family had the second floor and his cousins occupied the first floor.
“There was one TV,” DiSalvo recalled. For the next few days, he and his extended family spent most of their waking hours clustered around that TV set.
“I probably have not watched as much TV since,” he said. Their television set was always tuned to CBS so he saw lots of Walter Cronkite, “speaking into an old microphone.”
DiSalvo vividly remembers Lyndon B. Johnson’s brief remarks at the Air Force base, after Air Force One had returned John F. Kennedy’s body to Washington.
“I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask your help and God’s,” were the new president’s words.
DiSalvo said he found those words “comforting.” They gave him the assurance that “things will do on,” he said.
‘Chaotic chain of events’
William Macek was in Harry McNamara’s seventh-grade class at the John Greenleaf Whittier School in Haverhill when a young teacher, Mary Moynihan — she later became Mary Moynihan Caron — walked in and said something to McNamara, who then announced that President Kennedy had been shot.
Macek and his seventh-grade classmates were stunned.
“We were in shock,” recalled Macek, now a Haverhill City Councilor. School was dismissed shortly thereafter.
Macek said he remembers how television was dominated by coverage of the assassination and the preparations for Kennedy’s funeral, including the thousands of “people waiting in line for hours” to pass by the casket in the Capitol Rotunda.
He also recalled the “chaotic chain of events” that included the gunning down of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man accused of shooting Kennedy, before a TV audience of millions.
Macek owns and operates radio station WPKZ in Fitchburg. During the weekend, the station will broadcast “Three Shots Fired,” an ABC special on JFK’s assassination.
The murder of America’s 35th president was a horrific event, but “it shouldn’t be forgotten,” Macek said.
News reachesArlington Trust
Jordan Burgess was 25 years old and working at the Arlington Trust Company in downtown Lawrence when he heard the news.
“I was sitting at my desk when the telephone operator started banging on the glass to tell us,” said Burgess. “It was a devastating thing. (Kennedy) was quite a fellow. He brought a lot of youthful ideas.”
Burgess, a Lawrence native who now lives in North Andover, remembers the shock that followed. Other coworkers shed tears that day.
“He was so vibrant,” said Burgess. “A beautiful wife, two young children, a World War II hero.”
His memoryis in the music
Many residents were too young to understand what had transpired, among them Dan Gagnon of Methuen, who was just 4 years old. But in the television coverage that followed the assassination, it was a rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” that still sticks out in Gagnon’s mind.
“I remember hearing that song and asking my mother about it,” said Gagnon. “I remember seeing it on TV and hearing the music. I didn’t understand. It didn’t register and my mother told me and I still didn’t understand. I didn’t know what death was.”
Gagnon now works as park ranger in Boston and describes himself as a “history fanatic.” Along with the JFK assassination, Gagnon also has vivid memories of watching the coverage following the 1968 assassinations of the president’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Those images stuck with me and made it very real for me — all three of them,” said Gagnon.
Cronkite washolding back tears
Linda Burnett was getting on a school bus when “they told me the president had been shot.”
“I was almost 18, a senior getting on the school bus from Revere High,” said Burnett, 66, a retired nurse now living in Salem, N.H. “I thought they were kidding me, pulling my leg.”
She returned to an empty house as her parents gone off to their night jobs. On TV, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite was choking back tears, as he reported Kennedy’s death.
“I remember exactly everything, including the shooting of Oswald. I remember Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby. It was live on TV.”
She watched everything and remembers her mother, a good Republican, crying over Democrat Kennedy’s death.
“I asked her, ‘Why.’ She said, ‘Because he was my president.’’’
Killing was personalfor local man
For Joe Darling, Kennedy’s assassination wasn’t just political.
It was personal, and left him so sick he walked off his job after hearing the radio broadcast and went home to grieve for a man who helped him back to his feet a decade earlier.
“I had the paint brush in my hand. I slammed it against the wall,” said Darling, now 82 and a volunteer at the Lawrence Senior Center, describing in crisp detail his reaction to the broadcast while he was painting a house in Brookline.
“I walked to the office. I told my boss, ‘I can’t work the rest of the day. I have to have it off.’’
“He said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘I’m sick.’”
“I went home. Turned on the radio,” Darling said. “I was very disturbed.”
The shooting ended a 10-year alliance to Kennedy that began with a fleeting encounter early one morning at Hayes Bickford’s, a Boston coffeehouse, where Darling had gone with friends after a night out dancing. Kennedy had just been elected to the Senate. Darling had just ended 30 months in the service.
One of his friends pointed to Kennedy sitting alone at a nearby table. Darling introduced himself and told Kennedy, a World War II veteran, that he had just been discharged.
Kennedy responded with a remark many people would consider a canned brush-off from a busy politician. Darling took it to heart.
“He said, ‘If I can be of service to you, come see me at 10 Post Office Square,’” Darling recalled.
A year later, Darling landed a seasonal job at the Post Office, but the daytime hours conflicted with the algebra class he was taking to earn his high school equivalency diploma. A supervisor insisted no other shift was available. Darling left the interview worried he would have to choose between work and school.
“Then I got a flash,” Darling said. “I walked to 10 Post Office Square.”
An aide told him Kennedy was in the office but unavailable. Darling described his problem to the aide, who promised to pass it on to Kennedy and suggested he go home. Darling waited. A short while later, the aide came back to the reception area and told Darling to go back to the Post Office and re-inquire about the hours of his assignment.
“That guy’s face was really red,” Darling recalled about the Post Office supervisor who received the call from Kennedy’s office. “He gave me an 11 to 7 shift and that was it.”
The first Catholic president
Fifty years ago, Margie Dishmon of Lawrence was 26 and working at Raytheon. News of the president’s death left her “grief stricken.”
“I remember wanting to be around people that day. I invited my co-worker to come over to my mother’s which is where I was living at the time. It’s funny because I didn’t really like her but I felt like I needed to be close to people, to help get through this,” Dishmon recalled.
“He was a great president. He meant so much to people. He was the youngest president ever at the time and he was the first Catholic president. That had a lot of bearing for people,” she explained.
“It’s unbelievable that we all still remember that day so vividly. I think that shows how much he meant to people and how great of a president he was,” she added.
Tragedy madeher return home
“I was watching ‘As the World Turns,’ procrastinating about going out to collect for the March of Dimes,” Barbara Coish remembered.
By the time the 25-year-old mother had bundled her kids into the car and driven to a friend’s home nearby, Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.
“Neither one of us could believe it,” said Coish, 75, who today is the volunteer coordinator at the Windham Senior Center.
“Needless to say I collected no more. I turned around and went home,” she said.
Coish had another memory of JFK: The Cuban Missile Crisis.
“I remember my neighbors felt we had to be in church that Sunday. Then it all turned around,” she said. “Those were trying times there.”
Country’s direction changed for the worse
Walter Fitzpatrick, then an 18-year-old freshman at Merrimack College, said he “knew something very bad had happened” when he finished his final class on Nov. 22, 1963 and headed out to hitch a ride home.
“Kids were gathered out in the parking lot, listening to their car radios,” recalled Fitzpatrick, 68, of Lawrence, a retired Haverhill High School English teacher.
“A kid that picked me up told me that Kennedy was shot. It was very stunning. Watching Jack Ruby killing Oswald that Sunday on live TV was also a stunning event. The Kennedy assassination plus the Oswald shooting made for a surreal weekend,” he said.
“Looking back now, I really believe that Nov. 22 changed the direction of the country. I thought the country changed directions for the worst. The thing I take with me 50 years later is that’s when the cynicism started. We always believed what government said until then. People don’t believe government now, even when they’re telling the truth,” Fitzpatrick said.
“Back then, you believed what JFK said. He had a lot of credibility. He invigorated the country. He challenged the nation’s youth to become physically fit and we listened. The great cynicism we have toward government today really began on the day he died,” he said.
‘A dark cloud of gloom’
Joseph Bella, then 16, was working that day at Klev Brothers Shoe Factory in Derry, N.H.
He recalls people coming into the factory with news that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. However, it took hours for the details to trickle out.
“It took a few hours before we knew he was dead. Some of the women cried. That’s when we knew he had passed,” recalled Bella, 67, a retired state worker from Methuen.
“The shop was in a state of confusion. Some people were in denial,” he said.
The mood of the country changed drastically, overnight, during that fateful fall weekend in November of 1963, Bella said.
“We all thought about the holidays. Nobody was thinking about the president being in any kind of danger. The country seemed in high spirits. The mood of the country and the state at the time was very upbeat, with people planning for Thanksgiving,” he said.
“But I remember a dark cloud of gloom came over the factory that day. People were standing in a daze, not believing what they were hearing on the radio. The mood and feelings of the people changed so quickly, from planning for the holidays to gloom,” Bella said.
Bella went home to watch the tragedy unfold on television, and the loss he felt was like a family member having his life snuffed out in his prime.
“When I was watching television that night, I actually started to cry. I actually broke down,” Bella said.
“He (Kennedy) meant so much to me and my family too. We were all in tears. I think the Kennedy assassination changed our world significantly, and I don’t think we have fully recovered from the shock. We went from Camelot to Camelot-gone. That one weekend was very transitional as far as the mood of the country. Fifty years later, for my most people of my age, you just mention the word ‘Kennedy,’ and it conjures up memories of the assassination.. It’s so embedded, it’s something you never forget.”
Teachers recall hearing the tragic news
In New Hampshire, a pair of teachers remembered exactly where they were when they heard the news.
Nikki Elliott, 94, of Atkinson, was teaching in Ohio when a student walked in late to class.
“My rule was if you come in late, to not disturb the class and I’ll find out why you were late later on,” she said.
But instead the girl walked straight to Elliott’s desk.
“She asked if it would be all right if I told you something because she had important news,” she said. “She had just come from the dentist and she told me the president had been shot.”
Elliott immediately alerted the principal, who then told the superintendent. The superintendent spent the rest of the day, going classroom to classroom alerting the school of the news.
For Janice Detour, 82, of Newton, she was walking to the field hockey field at Sanborn Regional High School when a fellow teacher told her the news.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “We were all just saddened. We immediately went back inside and some people were there by a television.”
Elliott said she had been doing research on Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in days leading up to Kennedy’s shooting.
“I had lots of written notes of paper and cards about that assassination,” she said. “This reminded me of that one. It just seemed unreal.”
A sense of security shattered in a moment
Maureen Donovan cried for four days. She was sleeping when a girlfriend called her with the news Kennedy had been shot. She wouldn’t believe it. “I told her not to say that,” said Donovan, of Methuen.
And like millions of others, she turned on the television to watch live news reports. She selected the most comfortable channel that affirmed what she dearly wanted to be true.
“One news station said he was dead, and another one said he was alive. I switched back and forth, and finally stayed on the one that said he was alive,” she said.
Donovan, now 76, called Kennedy her hero, a leader she felt could deliver bad news straight. “He was very charismatic and made me feel safe, like hew as going to take care of everything,” she said.
That sense of security, and the sense of duty elicited from Kennedy’s famous exhortation to do for your country, vanished, leaving only uncertainty in scary times. “I was scared,” she said of the time immediately after the assassination. “I didn’t feel safe with Johnson. I didn’t know what would happen to our country.”
He listened and prayed
George Hargreaves was rebuilding a carburetor in his auto repair shop in Methuen when he heard on the radio President Kennedy had been shot.
“You just stopped,” he said. “You said some prayers, and you thought, ‘Oh my God.’”
Hargreaves, 83, who owned Hargreaves Automotive Specialists for 41 years, said he sat in disbelief as he listened to the news on the radio.
“It was one of those days that just shocked you,” he said. “I had to sit there for about 20 minutes in a quiet zone. But then I knew I had to get up and get back to it, back to work.”
Staff reporters Jill Harmacinski, Alex Lippa, John Toole, Dustin Luca, Paul Tennant, Keith Eddings, Brian Messenger, Douglas Moser, Sara Brown and Mark Vogler contributed to this story. Material from the Associated Press was also used in this story.