50 years after Kennedy was shot, suburbanites remember

Just as they do for Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 7, 1941, many people remember exactly where they were 50 years ago today, on Nov. 22, 1963, when they heard President John F. Kennedy had been shot.

Some people can even recall precise details — the unseasonably warm day in the suburbs, the exact words spoken while hearing the news, and the stunned, sick feeling that something like this could happen.

“It still gets me,” said Marjorie Dever, 78, of Arlington Heights, who was at home in Park Ridge that day, having just given birth to her fifth child, and heard the news on television. “I loved Kennedy. I had such high hopes for him. It was a terrible, terrible thing. The whole world changed because of it.”

Larry Peterson, of Lake Zurich, a 26-year-old history teacher at the time, remembers exactly where he was standing in the old Palatine High School, now Cutting Hall, as well as the name of the student who told him the news, Mike Lange.

Peterson then broke the news to the room full of students and they all sat in silence for the next 55 minutes.

“Students were crying, and a lot of them had their heads down. ... I can still remember seeing the kids like that,” he said. “I let the silence do its own talking. We didn't have a lot of facts about what had happened yet, so I thought that was the most appropriate thing to do.”

Though a “down-and-dirty Republican,” Peterson had been won over by Kennedy's charisma during the Nixon-Kennedy debates on TV. He still gets teary-eyed recalling the scene of coming home from work after the assassination. He walked in the door, he and his wife exchanged looks, and the first words out of his mouth were, “I want him back.”

In other schools around the suburbs, principals made announcements over the public address system or ushered students into the auditorium to listen to news coverage.

Michael Warme of Arlington Heights was taking a physics test that Friday at his Catholic high school in Seattle when the priest announced, “The president has been shot. Finish the test!” Everyone did as instructed, but then Warme and his friends skipped school after lunch to go home and huddle around the TV.

The tragedy marked the first time people watched breaking news unfold live on television, and many spent the weekend glued to their TV sets. The images from that fateful day, and the days that followed, made lasting impressions — including the live broadcast of Jack Ruby shooting Kennedy's killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, or the image of John Jr. saluting at his father's funeral.

“That got me,” said Betty McLean, 62, of Wheeling. “I thought, 'No little boy should have to see his dad like this.'”

Disbelief was a common reaction to Kennedy's assassination, as was crying in public. That's how Jim Cermak, 67, of Arlington Heights knew something was going on. While walking down College Avenue in DeKalb, on his way home from class at Northern Illinois University, he saw a student crying on the street.

“I said, 'Hey, what's the matter, man?' And he said, 'They killed Kennedy!'” Cermak remembers. “I was amazed. It was a sickening, sickening feeling. It's something you will never forget. I wish it never happened.”

The shock often came with silence, which is how Jane Merydith remembers the scene on NIU's campus that Friday afternoon.

“People were walking around in a daze,” said Merydith, 67, of Arlington Heights. “I don't think I remember anyone talking.”

In the shock and quiet, people showed kindness toward each other. Commuting home from work on the el that afternoon, Shirley Maxwell, 70, of Arlington Heights remembers a stranger offering her a seat on the crowded train — something that was highly unusual during rush hour.

When she got home, Maxwell turned on the TV and watched Walter Cronkite remove his glasses and choke back tears while announcing the president had died.

Kennedy's death changed the life of Marilyn Stemble of Arlington Heights. She was a history teacher at Roberto Clemente High School in Chicago, but after Nov. 22, 1963, she became a counselor and helped people talk through their emotions about the president's violent death.

Gerald Gagnon of Lake Zurich didn't hear about Kennedy being shot until hours after it happened. That's because he was on a ship off the coast of Russia — doing oceanographic research with the U.S. Coast Guard. They learned the news from a Teletype message, which was posted on the bulletin board.

“There was a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth, but we were more concerned the Russians were gonna blow us out of the water,” he said.

For many people, Kennedy's assassination changed their outlook on the country and society.

“This sort of thing didn't happen in our country. It just didn't,” Cermak said. “(The country) was so perfect, it seemed. And then everything seemed to go haywire.”

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Images: 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination

  Former Palatine High School teacher Larry Peterson, of Lake Zurich, was monitoring a study hall on Nov. 22, 1963, when he heard President John F. Kennedy had been shot. Peterson is standing in the exact same spot in what is now PalatineÂ’s Cutting Hall where, 50 years earlier, he was told the news by a student standing on the bottom step. Mark Welsh/
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