NORMAN — The nuns at St. Joseph Catholic School were a no-nonsense bunch of educators. They lived together in a big house on Ponca Avenue, traveled in a blue Ford Falcon station wagon and presided over the small, red-brick school on Tonhawa with paddles, straps and coat-room detention or whatever form of punishment that would command a pupil’s attention.
So when the announcement came that school would be dismissed after lunch on that wintry November Friday 50 years ago this week, we knew something was very wrong. It wasn’t a Catholic holiday. We knew those by heart. The county and state fairs were weeks earlier. The weather wasn’t that bad and the school’s heaters were working fine.
Sister Doris, our stoic principal who had a glass eye and swift ruler, announced the early dismissal. Parents had been called to pick us up, she said, before turning to hug our teacher. Their tears scared my classmates. A neighbor dropped us off. At home with siblings, mother was crying when she met us at the door to share the news: President Kennedy was dead.
The afternoon Transcript’s bold headlines made it official a few hours later: ‘PRESIDENT KENNEDY KILLED BY SNIPER.’
Mine was a big family of Kennedy Democrats, optimistic in the young New Englander’s promises to build a better, more just nation for all Americans. He was the first Catholic president and it reinforced the notion of equality.
My parents even bought a record album of his famous speeches and it played in our living room on special occasions. A plastic model of the PT-109, the World War II patrol torpedo boat commanded by LTJG John F. Kennedy was assembled on our kitchen table and floated in neighborhood creeks.
Our school was canceled on Monday, too, for the funeral. Television brought it home with the Kennedy children saluting their father’s casket as it passed them in the procession.
We cried and prayed together for our nation and knew Thanksgiving week would never be the same. As the oldest son, I remember hiding because I didn’t want my sisters or my parents to see me cry.
It had been more than 40 years since the assassination and PBS newsman Jim Lehrer was in Norman to accept an award. At a small, Boyd House dinner with President and Mrs. Boren and a few others, he shared his experience as a young Dallas reporter assigned to Love Field. Journalism had asked him about it a few hours earlier.
His job was to cover the presidential plane’s arrival, report back as to what time the plane touched down, what Mrs. Kennedy was wearing and any other details and then call it all back to his city desk. A telephone was set up for him on the tarmac and his city editor called to test the connection.
The editor asked what the weather was like and whether it was raining there. Would the president ride with the top down or leave the bubble top on the limousine?
Lehrer asked the Secret Service agent on duty and there was a discussion between them about the rain. It was decided to remove the top, a decision that has haunted Lehrer his entire career. One seemingly minor decision could have changed the course of history.
When he told that story at our dinner, suddently the tears that came to me at age 6 were back. Nearly everyone at dinner was crying. Only this time, there was no place for any of us to hide.
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