Fifty years later, readers remember where they were when news broke of President Kennedy's assassination

Longtime Gresham resident Gary Knutson was a fifth-grader at Kenton Elementary School in Portland on Nov. 22, 1963. He, like his classmates, was fidgety and looking forward to Thanksgiving break the following week.

But during class that Friday, Knutson’s teacher received a call from the principal’s office.

“All of a sudden, she started crying,” Knutson recalled. “She told the class that the president had been shot. Then an announcement came over the speaker system telling everyone that they could go home for the rest of the day.

“When I got home, my mother was there also. I thought this was strange that she wasn’t at work. She told me the president had died. She seemed really upset and was holding a photo in her hand. It was of then-Sen. John Kennedy and my mom, standing next to each other.” by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - In September 1960, Gresham resident Gary Knutsons mother, Marilyn, met then-Sen. John Kennedy at a butchers union convention in Seaside.

In September 1960, Harold and Marilyn Knutson were attending a butcher’s union convention at the Seaside Hotel in Seaside. Kennedy was on a campaign swing through Oregon at the time, seeking the support of labor unions.

The Knutsons were standing outside the hotel when the young senator came out, heading to the parking lot. Harold asked if Kennedy would mind posing with his wife. Kennedy agreed.

“(That) was the picture my mom had in her hand at the time of his death,” Knutson said. “Now I know why she was so upset.”

For nearly 52 years, Marilyn looked fondly upon her photo with the young senator from Massachusetts. Shortly before her death in 2012, she had copies made for her three children.

“I know she always cherished the picture,” Knutson said. “Especially after Mr. Kennedy became our president. But the funny part of the story is that Mr. Kennedy had his arm raised from his side so my mother would hold it. Instead, she kept hold of her purse.

“I found out later that my dad was upset that she would not take (Kennedy’s) arm. You have to remember this was 1960 and a good, Christian married woman, especially my mother, would never take another man’s arm. Our dad still talks about that to this day.”

A day frozen in time

It was a sunny day in Dallas, Texas, when President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife, Nellie, embarked on a 10-mile route from Love Field to the Dallas Trade Mart where Kennedy was scheduled to speak to civic and business leaders. The procession was about 10 minutes behind schedule.

As the motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza around 12:30 p.m., shots were fired from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository, fatally wounding Kennedy and injuring Connally. The limousine bearing Kennedy and his entourage rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where the president was pronounced dead at approximately 1 p.m.

In the days that followed, a stunned nation watched as some of the most heartbreaking images of loss were forever recorded. The salute of 2-year-old John Kennedy Jr. A stoic young widow, in mourning black. And a rider-less horse, with boots facing backwards in the stirrups.

It wasn’t just an American tragedy, however, as evidenced by the more than 90 countries represented at Kennedy’s state funeral Monday, Nov. 25. Around the world, everyday people also mourned the loss of a man they considered a leader in diplomacy and peace.

Global heartbreak

Rudy and Beri Miletich were living in Karlovac, in the former Yugoslavia, with their 10-year-old son, John, in 1963. Beri and Rudy were high school sweethearts who married in 1952.

Around 9 p.m. the evening of Nov. 22, Beri was tidying up from dinner, when she heard Rudy calling to her from another room.

“I was in the kitchen and Rudy started yelling, ‘They’ve assassinated John Kennedy!’” Beri said. “I went upstairs to see the TV, and it was just terrible. They interrupted programming and then, for the next three days, it was nothing but classical music on television.”

Rudy was speechless.

Kennedy was highly regarded in the former Yugoslavia as a charismatic leader whose youthfulness provided a sense of hope for the future.

“We always thought he would lead us through the disasters of the world,” Rudy said. “He was our hero, our idol at the time.”

Writing and poetry were lifelong passions for Rudy, who was known for his essays published in the local newspaper. But among those who knew him, Rudy was considered a gifted poet. Late in the evening, after learning of Kennedy’s death, Rudy picked up a pen to express his feelings.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Beri and Rudy Miletich framed the poem Rudy wrote following Kennedys assassination, referring to the late president as his hero. “Believe me, oh, believe me, you all,” he wrote, “just as if one of my men died, a man of my tribe, of my blood … the hero has been killed.”

Beri’s aunt was visiting the family from the United States at the time. A few weeks later, she returned home with Rudy’s poem in an envelope and instructions to mail it to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. In February 1964, the Miletichs were surprised to receive an acknowledgment of Rudy’s poem from the White House.

The Miletichs immigrated to the United States in 1968. After a brief stop in Cleveland to visit family, they settled in East Multnomah County. Beri taught school in the David Douglas School District, retiring after 24 years. Rudy retired from the steel industry.

While both still express sorrow about the events of Nov. 22, 1963, they are still touched by the kindness on behalf of a woman they only knew from pictures.

“I wanted the poem to go to Mrs. Kennedy,” Rudy said. “That was always my intention. But can you imagine getting a thank you note from America at the time?” by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Miletich received a condolence card from the White House in February 1964, after his poem was sent to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

Where they were

"I was in the Battalion Headquarters of the 1st Recruit Training Battalion in San Diego. When we heard of the shooting, we all gathered around the Chaplain’s office to hear the news broadcasts.

“What a tragedy. I had liberty for the next three days and drove to Riverside, Calif., with a friend. We stayed in a motel that night and early the next morning, while watching the news on TV, we watched live as Lee Harvey Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby.

“On a brighter note, I had a blind date that night and next March (2014) will be our 50th wedding anniversary.”

Bud Snavely, Gresham

“I was in my high school senior geometry class taking a test, when the school principal’s voice could be heard over the intercom. He made a quick announcement that the president had been shot and that further details would be announced. All of us, our teacher included, just looked at each other in shock. This was early 1960s America, a time when violence in society was not as prevalent as it is today.

“Finally, the teacher told us to go back to the test. I tried to continue but couldn’t stay focused. I just didn’t know what it all meant.

“I think that was a common reaction of most people in the coming days as well. This event upset the status quo of everyone in the USA, from top to bottom.

“It was a terrifying day in American history. The American public lost more than a president that day — it was the end of an innocent era. As the saying goes, ‘the times they were a-changing.’ ”

Don Neary, Gresham

“I was 10, with three younger siblings, ages 9 months to 6 years. My dad was a U.S. Army captain assigned in Bavaria, Germany. We lived in a large rented house (which had been commandeered by Nazis in World War II) in a small town while waiting for post housing. Usually after dinner we gathered in the living room and listened to “Music in the Air,” the American Armed Forces Network radio station which played nice relaxing music in the evening. My mom knitted, my dad read, I did homework, the younger kids played with toys. No TV.

“Then, the chilling and now-dreaded words, “We interrupt this program … ”

The announcer went on to explain the president had been shot in Dallas during a motorcade. My mother turned to me and quietly, calmly, but very firmly said, “Take the little ones to the boys’ bedroom and play with them.” My parents listened until the fateful and final news came through.

“We lived on the street of an international college, Goethe Institute. Every day, students passed our home to and from classes. We kids would hang over the front balcony on the street and say ‘Hi.’ The students would wave and chat. When the president died, my dad draped an American flag over this balcony.

“I remember my parents being so touched that many of these students from all over the world came to our door to express their condolences. Just now typing this, I am having the realization that this home had been occupied by Nazis, and less than 20 years later, lived in and visited by citizens and foreign admirers of the world’s greatest democratic country.”

Margaret Rice, Gresham

“I was just 17, a senior at Lake Oswego, and in the library grading some papers for a teacher when the news came over the PA system. You could have heard a pin drop right after the announcement and then the hallways started spilling over with students, going home, to lunch and consoling each other. I remember going outside to try and make sense of it and noticing the principal, alone, apparently trying to gather his thoughts and probably wondering how to cope with it and all of us students at the same time. The rest of the day was spent listening to the news in all of our remaining classes.

“Someone had taken a picture of the principal outside that afternoon, alone, and it became a part of our yearbook the following June.

“The next morning The Oregonian had the iconic photo on the front page, showing Lyndon Johnson being sworn in with the Jacqueline Kennedy at his left side. I still have that paper.”

Alyson Huntting, Gresham

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Kennedy's motorcade through Dallas began at Love Field. It was less than 10 minutes away from its Dallas Trade Mart destination when the president was shot.

“It was a cold, damp afternoon at Ft. Knox, Ky. I was there attending the Armor School, learning how to operate tanks. We were out in the field practicing driving maneuvers.

“There was still a little mist falling from the steel-gray sky as we took our afternoon break, finding rock or logs to sit on, lighting up a smoke. One of the guys had brought a pocket transistor radio along, and even though it was a taboo, he was listening to some music. Suddenly, he jumped to his feet and started looking for the sergeant.

“’ Hey Sarge, someone just shot the President!’ he yelled.

“I honestly don’t remember what happened in the next 30 minutes or so, we were all so shocked. I do know that training was suspended for the day and we returned to our barracks, where we were told to stay and wait for instructions.

“At the time, Ft. Knox was the largest Army Post in the States. There were something like 40,000 GIs stationed there. But for the next few days, until President Kennedy was buried, it was like a ghost town; no troops marching around, absolutely minimal vehicle traffic; a feeling of despair everywhere. Troops were assigned to guard motor pools and ammo bunkers, but other than that, there was no sign of life. The entire Fort was in lock-down.

“I was 18 then. I had just enlisted in the Oregon National Guard (the previous) January. That event, and those of the days that ensued, are as fresh in my mind as if they had just happened yesterday. I shall never forget what a lost our country suffered on that tragic day.”

Tom Wirch, Gresham

“When class was over and I was walking out of Introduction to Education at Pacific Lutheran University, I could immediately sense a feeling of disaster, of tragedy. Individuals in the hallway were sharing the horrible information. Everyone was very quiet but moving and wanting to get to a television.

“As denial was transferred to reality, and the reality was absorbed, the immediate question was wondering what to do next. We learned that the university was being closed. And my brother and I found ourselves back with family in Gresham. We watched the news and talked with friends, trying to make sense of what had happened. We were impatient to be with our friends at school, because that was where we were growing our identities. However, at a time when one felt their life had changed forever, and with so many unknowns, the steadiness and comfort of family was sustaining.”

Mardy Stevens, Gresham

“Fifty years ago Nov. 22, I was walking the halls of Emanuel Hospital in Portland, trying to bring our next child into the world. Someone walking the other direction said, ‘Isn’t it terrible what someone did to our president?’ and continued walking on. I had no idea what she meant, but of course, soon found out.

“Soon, I was actually delivering our son, Steven, and then back to my room. As our rooms then did not have TVs in them, I missed out on the coverage of it all until I left the hospital just before Thanksgiving. I feel like I missed out on having more awareness of such an important event in our history.”

Joanne Dobrinski, Troutdale

“I was eating lunch in the typing room, which was also the teacher’s lunchroom, with fellow teachers at Sandy High School. An announcement came over the intercom that JFK had been shot. We went back to classes (mine was the science lab next to the typing room, more recently the Counseling Center) after lunch. Then, an announcement had come that JFK was dead. We just sat quietly in my classes the rest of the day. It was clear that not all students were sorry for what had happened. JFK was not strongly popular in the Sandy area, as was also the case in many places in the country. And not as well regarded nationwide as is largely the case now. That weekend and into Monday, we sat at home by the TV in quiet shock as events developed.

“JFK had spoken to Sandy High School students in the cafetorium during the 1960 primary, so there was some awe of him. I had then been a Portland State University student, annoyed by his challenging of Oregon’s favorite son, Wayne Morse, in the Oregon primary. I had an open period at PSU so I went to his presentation at PSU during the primary. He was magnificent in his presentation, yet I still voted for Morse in the primary and wrote in Morse in the general election. Also, I hadn’t quite come to terms with JFK’s legitimacy by Nov.22, 1963, and while I’m now recognizing he had grown in the office of president, I still haven’t found him to be the overall hero as currently often portrayed.”

Dick McQueen, Wildwood

“I was touring the United Nations building and was having lunch in the dining room, when the news of Kennedy’s assassination was announced. The waitresses were all crying because they remembered serving him. They said that the drapes by the river windows were always closed to prevent anyone shooting from the river.”

Myrna Rhodes, Gresham

“After struggling with a fussy one-month-old and getting both her and her older sister ready for baby’s first visit to our pediatrician, I was finally ready. My husband pulled up to the front of our apartment building and I hurried them out the door.

“The two ‘mean girls’ from upstairs called down to me and said, ‘Somebody shot your holier-than-thou president. He’s probably going to die.’ They would do anything to get any of the young mothers in the building, including me, so I didn’t even look up the stairs.

“When we got buckled in, I asked my husband what was going on. He said that all the stations were reporting that the president had been shot and they had taken him to the hospital. But those were the only details.

“When we arrived at the doctor’s office, baby and I were hustled into the tiny lab shared by both my OB-GYN and the pediatricians. I glanced at the nurse, who came in to do a PKU test on the baby, and noticed her eyes and nose were red. ‘How is he? Do we know anything?’ I asked. She shook her head and said that my doctor was trying to reach a classmate working in a Dallas hospital.

“She pricked the baby’s heel and took the sample for the test as our pediatrician walked into the room. He asked if I had heard anything on the way over and told us to reschedule the physical exam, as he was closing the office. Then he picked up the fussing baby and cuddled her against his shoulder as my OB-GYN came through the door.

“These were two 60ish and (I had thought) humorless, stolid men, who had never done or said anything personal to me that was unrelated to their professions. Certainly, my doctor had never done anything more empathetic than shake my hand.

“My doctor sat down next to me and put his arm around me and kissed my temple. I was speechless. Then he looked up at his partner and said, ‘He died.’ For a moment, I couldn’t even think. Then both men began to dab at their eyes and blow their noses. Doctor said that he had gotten through to his classmate at Parkland Hospital. He was in the emergency room when they brought the president in and he said that no body could survive that kind of trauma.

“I must have gasped or made some sound because my doctor laid my head on his shoulder and his head on mine. He told me that we would never forget this day as long as we lived. He was right.”

Judy Giorgi, Gresham

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