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North country remembers assassination of JFK

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“Shocked and grieved of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Massena residents mourned the loss of the 46-year-old Chief Executive. American Flags lined Main Street immediately when news was flashed through the community that President Kennedy died in a Dallas, Tex. hospital of bullet wounds received a half hour earlier Friday afternoon. Nov. 22, 1963.” The Massena Observer, Nov. 26, 1963

MASSENA - It doesn’t matter if you were a student sitting in class, a man at work, a mom home taking care of her children or a priest in seminary.

If you were old enough to develop memories, you know exactly where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

Father Donald Manfred, who grew up in Hannawa Falls and now serves as the priest at Sacred Heart in Massena and St. Lawrence Church in Louisville, said he was in seminary at the time.

“I was in Greek class,” he said. “Our professor was teaching a class in Greek, reading from a book when someone knocked on the door and whispered into his ear.”

What happened next is something Father Manfred said he will never forget.

“He closed the book and in a voice that was clearly broken up said, ‘Gentlemen the president has been assassinated.’ Then he left the room,” Father Manfred recalled, adding his instructor was from the Diocese of Boston.

Not really knowing what to think, Father Manfred said he and his classmates sat silently in the classroom for the next several minutes. Classes, he said, would eventually be cancelled, as were all activities for that weekend.

“Everything was cancelled except mass and meals,” he said.

As a priest, Father Manfred said he is aware that Mr. Kennedy was the first Catholic elected president, but to him at that time it wasn’t really all that big of a deal.

“I grew up in the country, and we didn’t make much of a distinction between Catholics and Protestants,” he said, adding the same couldn’t be said for his father.

“I do remember my father and some of his generation saying they were in disbelief that a Catholic could ever be elected president,” he said. “In those days some people viewed it as a threat. People used to say the Pope would run the country from Rome. He (Mr. Kennedy) obviously proved them wrong.”

Longtime Massena Town Councilman Albert N. Nicola had enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Fort Benning, Ga. at the time.

Mr. Nicola said he was on the escape and evasion course when all of a sudden a bunch of trucks pulled up.

“They loaded us all in and they wouldn’t tell us what happened,” Mr. Nicola said, adding he and many of his fellow soldiers initially thought something might have happened connected to the Bay of Pigs invasion.

“We were afraid we wouldn’t be able to graduate and would be commissioned early,” he said. “It was a very trying time.”

The truck took the soldiers to the Bachelor Officer Quarters, where they were informed President Kennedy had been shot.

Longtime village trustee and former Potsdam Mayor Ruth F. Garner said she remembers the events of that day quite well.

“We were so shocked, not just me, but everybody,” she said. “I don’t think people ever thought he could be assassinated. People make threats, but you never expect people to carry them out.”

Ms. Garner said she was actually attending a class at the time and didn’t hear about the tragedy until she arrived home.

When she arrived home from school, she remembered her mother and husband were in the kitchen.

“I walked in and said, ‘What happened?’ My mother said, ‘The president is dead,’ and I said ‘What president?’ she recalled.

“I don’t know of any event where everybody was so stunned. Whether you believed in his philosophies or not, it united everyone,” she said.

Potsdam Town Supervisor Marie C. Regan said she remembers the day as if it were yesterday.

“I was folding and ironing baby clothes,” she said. “I had the television on while I was taking care of a newborn. She was napping, and I was watching soaps. Then the world just came to an end.”

Ms. Regan said she prefers to remember President Kennedy for the leadership he provided the nation, during what were very trying times.

“He was so young and vibrant. He made us all feel full of hope,” she said.

Longtime Massena Village Trustee Albert C. “Herb” Deshaies was working at the time.

“My partner and I were running phone wires on Bridges Avenue when a lady came out the door and the language she used could have curled my hair,” he said. “I had hair at the time. She came running out the door and said some son-of-a-bitch shot the president.” At the time, Mr. Deshaies noted not everybody had televisions, but the majority of homes did have either a TV or a radio.

“Of course everybody stayed right by the television or radio the whole time.”

Among those in front of the TV was an 11-year-old Francis J. Carvel.

Mr. Carvel, who is now a village trustee, said he was a student at Madison Elementary when the shooting occurred.

“They brought us all into the cafeteria and put a TV up on stage,” he said. “We all listened to the TV and watched it until it was time to go home.”

Piggybacking off of Mr. Deshaies’s comments, Mr. Carvel called the assassination of President Kennedy a ground-breaking moment for television news.

“It was the assassination of a president. It was big news. It was a big event,” he said. “That was the first time television was around for a really big event.”

Massena town councilmen Charles A. “Chuck” Raiti and John F. Macaulay were both in the sixth grade at the time.

“We had been in recess,” Mr. Raiti recalled. “We had just come in off the playground when an announcement was made.”

That announcement, Mr. Raiti said, took the innocence away from his generation.

“We were in shock. The room was black and it was dark. The room was dead silent. All the kids were sitting there dead quiet. It took the innocence right out of our generation,” he said. “We were young, but we knew he was our president.”

Mr. Macaulay, who was in class at St. Mary’s, said he remembers school being dismissed shortly after the announcement was made. He also remembers that one fellow student, although he couldn’t recall her name was tasked, with delivering the news to his class.

“There was a girl in the first row whose job it was to answer the phone if the principal wasn’t in the office,” he said. “The phone rang and then she told us the president was shot.”

Mr. Macaulay also remembers being misinformed the first time he heard about the tragedy.

“The first announcement I heard was Kennedy was shot and (Texas) Governor John Connelly was dead,” he recalled. “Obviously it was the opposite.”

Retired St. Lawrence County Newspapers Editor-Publisher Charles W. Kelly was the assistant managing editor of The Journal in Ogdensburg on Nov. 22, 1963. The paper, which was an afternoon publication, had already gone to press by the time he heard the news shortly after 1 p.m. The report came over his car radio as he was pumping gas at the former Shell station on Canton Street.

Mr. Kelly said he jumped in the car and raced back to the office, all set to yell, “Stop the press!”

It turned out he didn’t have to.

“The press had a mechanical breakdown. It hadn’t run yet,” he said.

The breakdown provided a lucky break for the newspaper, which carried the Associated Press report of the president’s assassination on the front page by the time it came off the press at 2:45 p.m.

“We were probably the only newspaper in the state to carry the story,” he said. “Most of them in those days went to press at noon.”

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