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November 16, 2013

Remembering the day President Kennedy died

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.

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