There was a sound of laughter; in a moment, it was no more. And so she took a ring from her finger and placed it in his hands. — Mike Mansfield, Senate Majority Leader, on Sunday November 24 in the rotunda of the Capitol as Kennedy’s body lay in state.
As the principal’s voice broke through the static that seem to accompany the beginning of every school announcement, his tone seemed to lack its usual authoritative, god-like quality. “President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas.” With that, as he placed his microphone next to a radio so that all could hear, the life of a nation changed. That our own, individual lives would also change was made apparent when the teacher at the head of the class turned away, struggling to compose himself. For those watching on television, having seen their Friday installment of As the World Turns interrupted by a similar announcement, Walter Cronkite would fight the same battle of composure a short time later as he announced to the nation, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time. 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”
Fifty years have now passed since the announcement of the president’s death bore its way into America’s collective soul. More than history, it is a moment in time that has traveled with so many over the decades. Like Pearl Harbor before — and 9/11 after — the emotions of those four days in November are never far from the surface. And, as many will this weekend, it is never difficult to answer the question, “Where were you when you heard Kennedy was shot?”
Like most Americans, Woodstockers heard the news in their classrooms, at work, in their cars and in their homes. While Woodstock was a decidedly Republican town in 1963, the shock and suddenness of the news hit with an impact that obliterated partisan barriers. And, while that may be a concept not readily understood by those only familiar with the political landscape of today, the fact was, Kennedy was America’s president and, with his death, the nation’s knees buckled. Stunned faces seemed to ask for answers. Tears flowed. It was, for example, the first time I can recall my own mother crying, a woman who, borrowing a phrase from Richard Nixon, was perfectly happy wearing her “respectable, Republican cloth coat.” Nor were the tears assigned according to a 1960s, Mad Men stereotype. Jack Fallon, forty-one at the time and living in Zena, was driving his son Michael into Woodstock to do some shopping at Grand Union. Shocked when the news broke over his car radio, he returned home, sat down, and cried. “It was a terrible thing.”
There was a wit in a man neither young nor old, but a wit full of an old man’s wisdom and of a child’s wisdom, and then, in a moment it was no more. And so she took a ring from her finger and placed it in his hands.
As the reality of the news from Dallas began to take hold, schools began to dismiss students. Stores, offices and factories began to close. The morning commute and school bus ride, which had begun only hours before, were reversed as Woodstockers headed home. As they did, what had begun as a tragedy brought to the nation by radio — car and transistor radios alike — soon gave way to the pull of the singular black and white television set found in most homes. With that, for the next four days, the medium of television would come of age as Americans shared a reality show they couldn’t turn off.