By ROGER SCHNEIDER email@example.com
---- — GOSHEN — Fifty years is a long time to remember anything, but one event, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was so startling, that even today many people can recall just when and how they heard the terrible news.
“I remember very plain,” said Norm Swihart Monday as he sat waiting for the noontime meal provided by Real Meals at Greencroft’s Manor IV. “I was a custodian/bus driver at Jefferson School, which at this time was grades one to 12. The principal, Harry Smith, called a meeting in the gymnasium and we got all 12 grades of us in there and he made an announcement that Kennedy had been shot. And of course he later died. It was a real sober day.”
That shocking news has been a collective memory for several generations of Americans who were old enough to understand the day’s events at the time.
Swihart, who is 87, was 37 on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963 when Lee Harvey Oswald raised an Italian military-surplus rifle and fired three shots at the Kennedy limousine.
“That was probably one of the biggest shocks in my life,” he said.
The assassination not only took Kennedy’s life, but also erased his presidential agenda, some of which was later taken up by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Asked if his generation missed out on Kennedy’s campaign promises, Swihart was quick to respond.
“Oh sure we did,” he said. “We lost a lot. I think he was doing a good job.”
Just through a doorway from where Swihart sat in a waiting room, a group of women circled their chairs around a large table to sip coffee and chat up the day’s events, something they do often.
“I was at work,” said Jane Nagle of where she was at when she heard the news of the assassination five decades ago. “One of the mechanics or something came by and told us Kennedy was shot.”
“I was in the bakery,” said Phyllis Shaum, who was working at Strauss’ Bakery in Mishawaka. “We got a small TV and they crowded around and listened to it.”
“I worked at The Associates and a group came around and said what it was and someone tried to find a radio and listen,” is how Clair Motts recalls hearing about the president’s death. “But we didn’t get off of work or anything like that. But it was a shocker.”
Hearing each other talk about how they heard the news brought back details long set aside by the women as life moved on.
“It was my first years of teaching at Shipshewana High School,” Phyllis Frey told the group. “It was exactly 2:30 in the afternoon when I think I heard it on the steps going from the lower floor to the second floor. Someone stopped me and told me what had happened. Yes, what a shock.”
Shipshewana went ahead with its scheduled basketball game that night.
“We had a special tribute and turned all the lights off, and I mean that was some kind of dramatic experience,” Frey said. “But yes, you can always remember the date.”
Joan Gary didn’t recall where she was when the news of the president’s death came, but details of the aftermath and the funeral are still fresh.
“I was watching TV when they brought Oswald and that guy (Jack Ruby) shot him,” Gary said. “Now I can’t remember what I done yesterday, but I can remember that,” she added while sharing a laugh with the other seniors around the table.
Gary was born in Boston and had heard as a young child about “Old Joe,” she said, referring to the president’s father Joe Kennedy.
“I took it all in because of the Kennedy family,” she said. “I talked to my girlfriend in Boston. I was in shock, just horrified I think.”