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Friday, November 22,2013

‘The president’s been shot’

Local, statewide officials recall Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated

by Bill Castanier

This story was corrected on Nov. 22 to say that U.S. Debbie Stabenow was in eighth grade in Clare, Mich.

“The president’s been shot.” No words could be more succinct and terrifying at the same time.

And those exact words were the first that most of us of a certain age heard that Friday afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963. Even today, they still have the power to launch a tragic cinema verite of where we were and what we were doing that fateful day.

Some heard those words from a crackling intercom box while sitting in a classroom — incredibly impersonal by today’s standards, but, then again, it’s more likely now we would’ve learned by a tweet. I heard the news first from my 10th grade homeroom nun. When you see a nun with a tear on her cheek, you instinctively knew something was terribly wrong.

Former Lansing Mayor David Hollister was coming out of Morrill Hall at Michigan State University when he heard the news.

“I knew something big was going on,” he said. “Students were milling around and crying and someone shouted, ‘The president’s been shot.’” Hollister immediately ran across the street to Campus Book Store where he worked and began the television odyssey that gripped the nation.

“There was a terrible sense of loss and it was a real blow. We watched that little black and white (TV) set and hung on every word.

“What we really lost ultimately was the enthusiasm for public service which Kennedy had created,” he said.

When Doug Roberts, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at MSU and then a high school junior in Maryland, heard the news from his principal over the intercom he reacted instinctively. “I flew from my chair — I was gone.”

Roberts’ father, Emory P. Roberts, was a member of the Secret Service detail and had accompanied the president to Texas.

The young Roberts used the hall pay phone to call his mother and still remembers his first desperate question: “Is dad okay?” His mom never faltered and told him “he was fine,” even though later she admitted that at the time she had no idea.

Roberts remembers his dad coming home that evening and typing up his report on the assassination.

“I was the first person to read that report,” he said. Roberts and his mother and brother also were at the White House the day of the funeral and he recalls seeing a “tall” French Republic President Charles de Gaulle and Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie with a “chest full of medals.”

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who was in eighth grade in Clare at the time of the assassination, said she was walking to band class and vividly remembers someone saying the “president has been shot.” She recalls telling her fellow band mate “that’s not so funny.”

Moments later, the band director would make the same announcement and ask for a moment of silence.

“Everyone was stunned into silence and there were a lot of tears, including mine,” she said.

There were those who, when hearing the news of the president’s death, began thinking about the who and why. Was it the Russians, the Cubans, white supremacists, anti-Catholics? The list of conspirators and who killed Kennedy dogs us until this day.

Joe Darden, an MSU geography professor, said he was 20 years old and in his second year at the University of Pittsburg when he heard the news.

“I was not only shocked and sad, I was also afraid that Kennedy’s death was by a white supremacist who shot him because of his efforts to advance civil rights,” Darden said.

Newsmen across the country immediately jumped into action and coverage of the assassination would continue almost non-stop through the Monday funeral.

Jerry Crandall, who would later have a distinguished career in public service working for Gov. John Engler, was taking a nap when he got a phone call from his employer, WKHM-AM in Jackson.

“I was sound asleep and the first words I hear are ‘the president’s been shot,’” he said.

He high-tailed it into work and was one of many newsmen who gave updates every 15 minutes and at 6:15 p.m. he hosted his daily call-in show.

Former Lansing State Journal staffer Curt Hanes said a group of writers was coming back from a late lunch at Tarpoff ’s restaurant when they got the news. He said the editor called everyone together and handed out assignments.

“We were stunned,” he said. He remembers the silence of the newsroom punctuated by the wire service alarms, which by now were going off with some regularity.

Hanes was assigned to write an article about the last time Kennedy was in Lansing — Oct. 14, 1960 — when his whistlestop campaign made stops in Lansing and at MSU. Using mostly content from the morgue, Hanes wrote a 16-and-a-half-inch story for the next day’s edition.

He said although newsroom legend differs about who got to make the call (likely Hal Fildey, the executive editor), an editor called downstairs to the press room already printing that day’s afternoon newspaper to shout over the phone, “Stop the Presses.” And that they did. A late Lansing State Journal carried the headline “Kennedy Is Slain” in 72-point type size.

Former Gov. James Blanchard learned while in class when his professor told the class: “There is some bad news — a report the president was shot.”

“I ran from Berkey Hall to my fraternity house (one block away at 139 Bailey St.) where I learned the president was dead.” Until that time, everyone on campus had been in reverie for the upcoming Saturday football game with the University of Illinois. The winner would go to the Rose Bowl.

Blanchard said later that day he drove to Detroit Metro Airport to pick up a friend who was going to join him at the game. “I cried all the way,” he said.

Ultimately, the Saturday day game was cancelled, but initially MSU was among the teams that had decided not to cancel its Saturday games. On Saturday, only a couple of hours before kickoff with tens of thousands of fans (me included) already in town for the game, former MSU President John Hannah would cancel the game against the wishes of his Irish football coach, Duffy Daugherty. Rescheduled for Thanksgiving Day, MSU would lose to a Dick Butkus-led team and Daugherty, who wanted to play the game Saturday in memory of Kennedy, quietly attributed the loss to the change of date.

Blanchard is among the legions of Kennedy admirers who were drawn to public service by the youthful and energetic president.

“I was already politically inclined and he inspired me and millions to go into public service,” Blanchard said.

Blanchard, as president of the Senior Class Council, had already invited Kennedy to be graduation speaker in spring 1964. When word of that reached Hannah, he was not happy and arranged a meeting on Nov. 22 with Blanchard and other members of the Council. He politely told them he would take it under consideration.

On the Saturday after the assassination, Blanchard said he received a letter from Hannah respectfully stating that another speaker had been selected and that they would consider some student involvement next year. Blanchard still has that letter in his personal keepsakes.

Former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley was in the second year of his 37-year reign when he accompanied then-Gov. John Swainson on a Kennedy barnstorming swing to promote Swainson’s reelection in 1962.

“He was the most impressive person I ever met, bar none,” Kelley said of the president. “He was the personification of our Irish American Prince and Irish people greatly admired him because we knew that public service would keep us free.”

Kelley said he was doing his daily swim in the downtown Lansing YMCA on Nov. 22 when his deputy director Leon Cohen ran into the pool area shouting, “President Kennedy’s been shot.”

Shortly after things had settled down in Washington, Secret Service agent Roberts received a note from Jacqueline Kennedy that read: “Thanks for everything you did. Please don’t forget him.”

It’s clear he has not been forgotten.

“Eye Candy of the Week,” our weekly look at some of the nicer properties in Lansing, will return next week. If you have a suggestion, please e-mail eye@lansingcitypulse.com or call Andy Balaskovitz at 999-5064.

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