'This Can't Be True'

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Cecil Stoughton/AP file photo
In this Nov. 22, 1963 photo from the White House via the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston, Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as president as Jacqueline Kennedy stands at his side in the cabin of the presidential plane on the ground at Love Field in Dallas.
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Residents recall fateful day in Dallas

Some were in school. Some were in Dallas. Some were simply going about their lives when word came down 50 years ago today that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas.

It’s a day that many Denton County residents will never forget.

Here are their recollections of the day that changed America.

 

Shock on the university campus

Denton lawyer William Trantham had planned on going back home to Dallas to see the parade on Nov. 22, 1963, but decided to stay in Denton. He was a student majoring in history and government at what was then North Texas State University. And as he headed into an English class, he heard from other students that Kennedy had been shot.

“I was thinking, this was just crazy, these rumors going on,” Trantham said.

Then the English teacher came out to announce the news and class was adjourned for the day. Classes were canceled the following day as well, so Trantham met some friends at the student union. Someone had parked a car nearby, leaving the doors and windows open and playing the radio so everyone could hear the newscast about the transport of President Kennedy’s body.

“It was just eerie, very eerie,” Trantham said.

He went home that weekend to visit his family. His father was a member of the Dallas police force and had filed a report of witnesses he’d interviewed that day. Trantham still has a carbon copy of the document his father typed. His aunt was an emergency room nurse who had seen the president’s wound as they wheeled him in.

He went by the site where Kennedy was assassinated and it was filled with crowds of people. Elm Street was packed, too, with cars streaming past Dealey Plaza.

“There were thousands of flowers on the hill,” he recalled recently.

 

Nuns, students in tears

Betsy Nelson, a school registrar and data clerk at Brockett Elementary School in Aubrey, grew up in the Chicago area and was a high school student attending an all-girls Catholic school on Nov. 22, 1963. The classes were primarily taught by nuns.

“Needless to say, they all loved our first Catholic president,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Denton Record-Chronicle.

While she was in study hall, news came over the loudspeakers that the president had been shot.

“We were stunned and many of us started crying,” Nelson wrote. “When the bell rang to change classes, I went to my music class (Glee Club) and the next announcement was the most unexpected and devastating one: the President was dead. All the girls and nuns were crying.”

Nelson recalls staying glued to her television the next three days and the shock she felt seeing Lee Harvey Oswald being shot on live TV.

“It was surreal,” she wrote.

She watched the president’s funeral on television at a friend’s house, and when the president’s son saluted his casket, she recalls they “all lost it.”

“Even then I knew the world was going to be a different place,” Nelson wrote.

About 15 years ago, prior to moving to Texas, she said her family visited The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas.

“Watching the news footage of those days it was like NO time at all had passed,” Nelson wrote. “I was back in high school and 16 years old again.”

 

Downtown Dallas worker stunned by news

Denton resident Dianne Upchurch was 18 and working in downtown Dallas for the Liberty Mutual Insurance company typing insurance policies.

On the day the president’s motorcade was to travel through Dallas, employees at the office were allowed to leave the building, go to the street and watch as the motorcade passed by, she said.

“We went and waved at the President as the car went by. Then we started back to work,” Upchurch wrote. “By the time we arrived back to the office, he had been shot and everyone was upset and crying. I don’t remember being upset, just shocked. But then, I was young.”

 

A mother’s tears

David McCall, a counselor at Butterfield Elementary in Sanger, was 7 years old at the time.

Playing in the backyard of his San Antonio home with his younger siblings, he remembers his mother coming out of the house crying.

“She called us over to her on the patio. She said, ‘Someone just shot the president,’” he wrote in an e-mail. “We all just stood there for several minutes, crying. I think, being as young as we were, that we cried more because our mother was upset rather than the fact that the president had been killed.

“However, it is a memory that I can recall as if it had happened yesterday. It is an experience that has stuck with me that ranks right along with the Cuban missile crisis and the Apollo 11 moon landing.”

 

Watching the transfer of power

Argyle school Superintendent Telena Wright was in the eighth grade at Ballinger Junior High in Ballinger in West Texas in November 1963.

Everyone paid attention when they were told what had happened in Dallas, she wrote in an e-mail.

“I do remember that even before the plane got back to D.C., Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the president of the U.S.,” Wright wrote. “It taught me that anyone can be replaced very quickly. That stuck with me forever.”

She remembers attending a church retreat in North Carolina two years later.

“Everyone there knew about Texas and Dallas. They were curious about us because of it,” Wright wrote.

 

Police chief watched on black-and-white TV

Denton Police Chief Lee Howell was only 5 years old when he saw his mom get upset for the first time — it was Nov. 22, 1963.

“I remember the day pretty well,” he said. “I was at home with my mom on Westchester Street here in Denton, watching coverage of the president in town on a little black-and-white television.”

Howell remembered asking his mom about what was going on.

“I just remember her getting really upset all of a sudden and crying while saying, ‘This can’t be true.’ ... It certainly left an impression on me even though I didn’t quite understand the magnitude of it all at that time.”

 

Too young to understand

Retired Denton County Sheriff’s Sgt. Roger Griggs of Lewisville doesn’t remember much about the day President Kennedy was assassinated, but he recalls that everyone was upset.

“I was in the sixth grade at University Park Elementary School,” he said. “The principal announced JFK’s assassination over the PA system and dismissed school early.”

Griggs said he was too young at the time to realize the full impact of what had happened.

 

Toddler grew up with others’ remembrances

Diane Forester, a kindergarten teacher at Brockett Elementary School in Aubrey, was 2 years old and living in Dallas when the president was assassinated.

Her family was Catholic, she said, and her mother intended to go downtown and assist the Catholic women who were providing a luncheon after the president’s visit. But Forester was sick with a cold, so her mother stayed home to care for her.

The assassination was a big deal in her household, she said, and she still has the front pages from Dallas newspapers that her father saved, announcing the shooting and death of the president. Forester said she grew up hearing stories from her older brothers of watching the news and seeing Lee Harvey Oswald shot on live TV.

 

Remembering the details

David Stewart, a criminal justice teacher at Ryan High School, was 8 years old and a third-grader at Will Rogers Elementary School in Amarillo.

He remembers that the principal came over the school’s public announcement system with important news.

“I remember him saying, ‘Today the president of the United States of America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.’ I will never forget that day,” Stewart wrote in an e-mail.

His teacher began to cry and so did all the girls in class. Students were released from school and sent home, he recalls.

“I remember watching on television the funeral procession and the one thing that stuck in my mind was the horse without a rider, the boots turned backwards in the stirrups, and the drums beating the death march the entire way,” Stewart wrote. “I also remember watching on live television when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald in the stomach.

“It was a sad day for America.”

 

A photographer’s perspective

Resident Gene Gordon was a photographer with the Fort Worth Press during the president’s visit. He snapped several photos that day of John and Jackie Kennedy in Fort Worth before the entourage departed for Dallas.

“Everyone was so happy that day,” he said. “There were people lining the block to see a glimpse of the president.”

Gordon also recalled an eerie conversation he had with a police officer that day. Gordon said at one point he decided to stand on a ladder to get in a better position for a picture. But shortly after, a police officer asked Gordon to step down.

“I told the officer, ‘What’s wrong? I’m not going to shoot the president,’” he said.

The president’s visit was the talk of the region, Gordon said. And it was in a local sandwich shop during lunchtime in downtown Fort Worth when Gordon heard the news of the assassination.

“You don’t forget where you were when something like that happens,” he said. “The president was shot.”

 

Sad for the children

Guyer High School Principal Barbara Fischer was 7 years old when President Kennedy was assassinated.

Nothing was said of what had taken place in Dallas at the small Oklahoma school where she was in the second grade, she recalls.

“When I got off the bus at my home, I could tell something was wrong,” Fischer wrote in an e-mail. “My dad owned a horse sale barn and it was sale time so there were a lot of people at our house. Everyone was crying and watching the TV. My mom told me that the president had been shot.

“It scared me. I just sat and watched the TV with everyone.”

She remembers how sorry she felt for the Kennedy children.

“I guess I related to them more than the president or first lady,” she wrote. “I remember an overwhelming sense of sadness from everyone. The only thing I can compare it to is 9/11.”

 

A college professor recalls

The fall of 1963 was the first semester Cecil Adkins had ever taught at North Texas State University — now known as the University of North Texas.

Every morning at 11 a.m., he taught a class in the College of Music, and when the students from his class distilled into the hall, the chatter centered on how President Kennedy had been shot.

“[Campus] was pretty stirred up, as I remember,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that not much teaching got done the rest of the day. It was something no one wanted to believe, I think, or really could believe.”

He navigated through the halls during lunchtime and headed home, immediately turning on the television to watch the news unfold. Adkins recalls being glued to the television screen and feeling shock.

“It was so sudden and unexpected,” he said.

 

A sad Thanksgiving week

Denton resident Susan Keith was a 17-year-old North Dallas High School student in 1963.

“Many of my friends were excused from school that day to go to Love Field airport, or downtown or to line up along Turtle Creek in the Highland Park area of Dallas to see President Kennedy’s motorcade travel from Dallas Love Field to downtown Dallas,” she said.

Keith said she didn’t attend the event because she didn’t have a car, her parents were Republicans and because she had to tend to her yearbook editor duties.

“I do remember that I was in the library with several students after lunch that day instead of in class when the librarian hushed us and turned the radio up for all of us to hear the announcement that the president had been shot,” she said. “She began to cry, and we were shocked, as were all Americans.”

Keith said she watched the swearing in of Lyndon B. Johnson by Judge Sarah T. Hughes with Jackie Kennedy standing by, still in her pink suit. She said she also remembers watching TV when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald.

“Then we watched every minute of [Kennedy’s] funeral the next week,” she said. “And that week included Thanksgiving, which was a very sad holiday that year.”

Staff writers Jenna Duncan, Megan Gray, John Harden, Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe, Bj Lewis and Britney Tabor contributed to this report.


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