JFK assassination: SLO County residents remember day of grief

On Nov. 22, 1963, Pat Ward took a break from her secretarial job at Southland Life Insurance in Dallas so she could buy a gift for her 7-year-old brother, who was about to receive his first holy communion.

But since John F. Kennedy was about to pass through downtown, she figured she’d get a look at the president first.

“I saw the president, I got a bite to eat, I went and got the rosary, and I went back to work,” said Ward, 71, of Arroyo Grande.

Roughly seven blocks away from where Ward stood, more than 400 students from J.L. Long Middle School had watched the president’s limo roll past. One of them, Stephen Hughes, nudged his way through the boisterous crowd — getting his foot run over by a police motorcycle in the process — so he could hand the president a “J.L. Long Buccaneers” pep ribbon. A smiling Kennedy held it momentarily, then dropped the ribbon to the ground.

“It was all excitement,” said Hughes, of Grover Beach. “None of us had ever seen a president before.”

Neither Ward nor Hughes heard the gunshots that rang out roughly three blocks from where Hughes stood. In fact, neither knew the president had been shot until after they left the parade.

Hughes found out on the school bus; Ward at the office.

“I was on the elevator when somebody said, ‘The president’s been shot,’” Ward said, sitting near a stack of old newspapers in her living room. “And you just think, ‘They’re pulling my leg.’”

When The Tribune asked readers to send their memories about the day — 50 years ago — that Kennedy was assassinated, more than 100 responded. While a few were actually in Dallas, readers heard the shocking news from as far away as Japan and Somalia.

Tom Comar, 69, of Atascadero, was a student at the Sorbonne in Paris, where a hysterical woman approached him, delivered the news in French and English and gave him a hug.

“I was numb,” he wrote. “But as I got to the cafes, people were crying and distraught, as the president was very popular there.”

While presidential assassinations were rare — it had been more than 60 years since William McKinley was shot dead — Kennedy’s death was especially difficult because he was a young president who symbolically represented a changing of the guard.

“We were young, oh so young, and we were still inspired and energized by this fresh-faced young president, who seemed such a relief from the grey and dismal years of Eisenhower, the McCarthyite witch hunt, and massive, almost limitless military buildup and mounting nuclear weapons,” wrote Jim Griffin, 67, of San Luis Obispo.

But the optimism that came with Kennedy’s presidency was cut short when two bullets tore through his body — the first through his neck, the second through his skull — around 12:30 p.m. that day.

“More than anything, I remember feeling frightened,” wrote Marcy Prescott, 58, of Cayucos, who — like many respondents — learned of the assassination while at school. “There was such a feeling of doom and hopelessness in the room.”

When a pregnant Bev Hensel, of San Luis Obispo, heard about the assassination on TV, two thoughts came to her:

“My first reaction was disbelief,” she wrote. “Then to more pressing thoughts — I did not want my child born that day.”

Given a Nov. 22 due date for her third child, Hensel prayed she wouldn’t deliver on that day. “Being born on the day a great president was assassinated would be memorable, but not a memory I wanted my child to carry.”

While Hensel’s baby would arrive several days later, in Hawaii, Corynn Colagrossi’s baby couldn’t wait. As her husband, Paul Onkels, rushed her to the hospital, a fellow driver waiting at a traffic light beside them motioned for them to turn the radio on.

The couple learned that the president had been shot, but they didn’t know how badly he’d been injured.

“I was a breach baby — I turned sideways,” said Shawn Onkels, of San Luis Obispo. “So they had to do a C-section.”

To do so, Onkels said, they had to render her mother unconscious.

“When she came out of anesthesia, she asked two questions,” said Onkels, who turned 50 today. “The first question she asked was if she had a girl or a boy, and the second question was if the president was alive or not.”

In Dallas, Ward noticed a media headquarters had been set up near her office. Military men with weapons arrived as well.

“That was kind of scary,” she said.

She and her co-workers were sent home around 2. Before she returned, she picked up a copy of the Dallas Times Herald, with its huge headline: “PRESIDENT DEAD.” When she got home, her husband at the time — a fireman who was off duty that day — was absent.

He had gone to catch a movie at the Texas Theater. But as he sat in the balcony, his viewing was disrupted.

“He just said he heard a noise, then he turned around and had a rifle in his face,” Ward said. “They just said, ‘Don’t move.’”

Police entering the theater to capture Lee Harvey Oswald had gone to the balcony first. Then, after a scuffle, they captured the man believed to have killed the president and a local police officer.

Before Ward’s husband arrived home to tell his story, Hughes and his classmates returned to school. While sitting in geometry class, Hughes and a friend — members of a folk trio named Dan, Tim & Steve — wrote a song about the assassination, titled “The Long Black Rifle.” A rework of the Kingston Trio song by the same name, it later won a citywide award.

Nation mourns

Three days after the assassination — a day after Oswald himself was shot and killed — a mourning nation watched as Kennedy’s casket was driven on a horse-drawn caisson to the U.S. Capitol.

As the casket passed Robin Crawford’s family, she said, strangers suddenly held hands, forming a human chain.

“People just instinctively reached out for each other,” said Crawford, of Paso Robles, who was 9 at the time. “You could hear people quietly sobbing.”

While some feared for the state of the nation, Crawford, there with her parents and twin 7-year-old siblings, had another thought.

“I felt so bad for the kids,” she said. “It was like, ‘Oh my God — they just lost their daddy!’”

While many had questions about what and why, some blamed Texas.

In Boston, wrote Paul Kellett, of Cambria, an angry mob turned over a car with Texas plates and lit it on fire.

Hughes said he felt that resentment whenever someone outside Texas heard where he was from. “Dallas suffered,” he said.

Still, the legacy of that day isn’t all dour.

James Goode, who grew up in Kennedy’s hometown of Hyannis, Mass., was a sophomore at Georgetown University when he found out about the murder.

“I did end up serving in the Peace Corps in Iran in response to his call, and that changed my life in unexpected ways,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, Hughes’ middle school class would eventually compile a list of their memories in a book, “The Quiet Confusion,” partially sponsored by The Sixth Floor Museum, located in the building where Oswald fired his rifle.

“We have, strangely enough, stuck together,” he said. “Most of us trace it back to the assassination.”

MORE MEMORIES: SLO County residents recall where they were on Nov. 22, 1963 »

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