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JFK, 50 years later: Local residents feel impact of event

As news of assassination spread, people in area reacted with disbelief

POSTED: November 17, 2013 12:30 a.m.

JFK memories: Bill Wilson

Readers recall what they were doing when news of the JFK assassination was announced.

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Jerry Castleberry was 15 years old and driving past the Terrell Philyaw Asphalt Co. on Athens Highway during Driver's Education class at E.E. Butler High with instructor E.L. Cabell when news on the car radio told that President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Cabbell told Castleberry to turn around and go back to the school.

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The bullets didn’t just take down a popular president.

They also struck the American public at its core, stirring up deep emotions, such as sorrow and fear. And for many Americans, they also shattered what they had perceived as an innocent, almost idyllic, age.

Nov. 22, 1963, the day of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, was simply a day never to forget. Fifty years after the fact, it still resonates with area residents.

“We were devastated and shocked,” said Anne Waller of Gainesville. “And I think everyone was very, very frightened, because they didn’t know what would be happening next.”

In a motorcade traveling in Dealey Plaza at 12:30 p.m. Central Time that day, gunfire erupted, with bullets striking Kennedy in the neck, head and chest. A Catholic priest later was summoned to administer the last rites at Parkland Hospital, and at 1 p.m., Kennedy was pronounced dead, according to the JFK Presidential Library and Museum.

Like so many, Waller knew where she was that day, down to fine details.

Waller at the time was shopping with her mother at an antique store, where First United Methodist Church of Gainesville now stands.

“When we left to head back into town, we saw all these cars that had their lights on,” she said. “We got home and the phone was ringing. A friend of mine told me the news.”

Her husband, Ed Waller, meanwhile, was golfing at Chattahoochee Golf Club, on what is today Tommy Aaron Drive. He figures he was on the third hole about the time Kennedy was shot.

His group was unaware of what happened while others apparently were, having left the course.

“We finished the first nine holes and really didn’t see anybody,” Waller said. “It’s like we had the whole course by ourselves, which I think we did.”

When the group was done, the golfers started to enter the clubhouse and found it locked.

“About that time ... a greenskeeper came up and asked if we had been playing golf,” Waller said. “He then told us the news. We stood around and talked about it a few minutes, then all of us left. I got in the car and turned on the radio.
“‘First shots came from the grassy knoll’ is what I heard.”

Initially, police and others rushed the knoll, which was on the motorcade route, to see if the sniper was hiding there.

“It was really an unbelievable thing,” Waller said.

Darkness had fallen by the time he got home and saw Anne for the first time since the tragedy.

“They were about to arrive back in Washington with the body and we watched that on the TV,” Waller said.

‘What a good man he was’

Mordecai Wilson of Lula recalled hearing the news when he was delivering ladders in his native Boston.

“My heart just sank,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, what’s next?’ I felt so bad because he had been such a good influence, particularly he and his brother (Robert), who had been helping the civil rights movement to move along.”
Wilson, a Lula city councilman, said that many other blacks felt the same way.

Jerry Castleberry echoed that sentiment. He was a 15-year-old driver’s education student at all-black E.E. Butler High School, which had opened just a year before and would close by the end of the decade with integration.

Driving in the area, he stopped at Coach E.L. Cabbell’s house — where St. John Baptist Church is now — to pick up peanuts.

Passing an asphalt company on Athens Street, near where Fieldale is located, news came over the radio that Kennedy had been shot.

“Go back to the school,” Cabbell immediately said.

Castleberry did as he was told. When they arrived at they school, he saw the principal, Ulysses Byas, and other teachers crying.

“This was my first understanding of what President Kennedy meant to the black community,” Castleberry said, now the transportation director for the Gainesville school system. “I was five days from turning 16, and it just didn’t have the impact as if something had happened today with a world leader.”

Still, he felt Kennedy’s legacy through his father, a huge admirer.

“He would talk a lot about what a good man he was,” Castleberry said.

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, “got a lot of credit for (civil rights legislation), but I think it started with President Kennedy,” he said. “I think people in my generation understand that based on what was taught to us by our parents.”

Tested, but optimistic

Kennedy faced many challenges during his nearly 1,000 days in office, including a showdown with the Soviet Union over missiles in Cuba, a failed CIA-backed military invasion of Cuba, widespread racial discrimination and instability in Vietnam.

Still, for many Americans, he conveyed a sense of hope and optimism, with his youthful energy and good looks, elegant wife and his inaugural call for Americans to “ask not” what their country could do for them but what they could do for the country.

“In every speech, he said we must have a strong defense, and (today) they want to cut it,” said Harold Murphy of Gainesville.

He and his wife also remember Kennedy’s call to land an astronaut on the moon by the end of the decade.

“I think we would be a lot further along in our space program if he had not been killed,” said Harold’s wife, Marie.

A South Hall High School student at the time, she doesn’t remember hearing about Kennedy’s death at school.

But she recalled the news on TV when she got home. Disbelief was her first reaction.

“I thought, ‘They’ve killed the best-looking president we’ve ever had,’” Marie said. “I was really shocked, but I was really glued to the TV.”

She remembers Kennedy’s funeral procession in Washington, D.C., an event poignantly marked by Kennedy’s young son, John Kennedy Jr., saluting his father’s casket.

“That was really heart-breaking,” Marie said.

Harold was traying eggs at Southern Hatchery on Bradford Street in Gainesville when a girl, who lived next to the plant, said Kennedy had been killed.

“The rest of the day and the next day, people had tears in their eyes,” she said. “I was shocked and everybody else was, too. I wasn’t expecting that to happen.”

‘We were absolutely stunned’

John and Ruth Parsons, who live at the Lanier Village Estates retirement community in North Hall, both were students at the University of Michigan.

While walking on campus, she recalled hearing pieces of conversations about someone being shot and taken to the hospital.

“We were finally told in a class that classes had been canceled — the president had been shot and killed,” Ruth said. “We were absolutely stunned. He was a young person’s president, and we all believed in him. To hear news like that was just horrendous.”

John recalled about the same thing.

“When we got back to the dorm, people started going into the (recreation) room and were glued to the TV,” he said.

“Nobody was leaving the room. People didn’t know what to do, so they just sat there.”

Ruth added: “Usually it was like ants, the campus was so busy. And all of the sudden, it was like a ghost town.”

Bill Wilson, manager at Gainesville’s Riverside Water Treatment Plant, remembers his mother keeping him out of school that day to help her deliver Atlanta Journal newspapers. His grandmother usually helped, but she was baby-sitting for an aunt who had just delivered a baby the night before.

Waiting for a delivery truck at a store, someone came out and told the mother and son, “The president’s been shot in Dallas. You might want to come in and listen to the radio with us.”

“It wasn’t too long until we heard that he had died,” Wilson said.

The newspaper was late getting to the street because of the shooting.

“It was unlike any other day I ever spent helping her or when I did it myself for her,” Wilson said. “People would walk up to the car and stop you in the street to buy a newspaper from you. And people would want to talk to you about it.”

Mordecai Wilson said: “The very thought of (Kennedy’s death) was just devastating. Here was a guy who was cut down in the prime of life. It was just a shameful act, whoever did it.”

Many questions remain

Conspiracy theories abound about Kennedy’s assassination. The federal Warren Commission determining in 1964 that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in shooting the nation’s 35th president from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, off Dealey Plaza.

Fueling the theory machine is Oswald’s murder by nightclub operator Jack Ruby on live television two days after Kennedy’s death in the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters. Also, there was plenty of domestic and international intrigue at the time, from the mafia to the Soviet Union, where Oswald had lived as a defector for some time.

And yet, the mystique behind the Kennedy clan and the cluster of events surrounding Kennedy’s killing have captivated many.

“It’s been interesting to me since I lived through that — to see all the different spins put on it and that kind of thing,” Bill Wilson said. “I tried reading the Warren Commission report, but I was in the eighth grade ... and it was a little too deep for somebody in that grade.

“I’ve never been convinced that it wasn’t pretty much like they said it was. Oswald’s marksmanship was good enough to have done it.”

Area residents also remembered the concerns and uncertainty that followed the assassination.

“There was a lot of fear of war and nuclear attack around that time,” Bill Wilson said.

In October 1962, in what was a key milestone in the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviets, the two superpowers clashed over the U.S. discovery of Russian missiles in Cuba. The crisis ended with the Soviets giving in to Kennedy’s demands and withdrawing the missiles.

“There was a climate of ‘What would happen next?’” Wilson said.

Political, cultural and social change would go on to mark the 1960s, from psychedelic rock and hippies to Vietnam and more tragedy, including the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

“It’s hard to say what (Kennedy’s death) changed, but it did change a lot of the way America thought,” Ed Waller said.

“That was a happier time back (when he was president). Maybe that was because I was much younger too — I don’t know.”

For Castleberry, there’s no doubt that Kennedy was one of the nation’s greatest presidents.

“I think all the standards for president were set by (him), even in the short time he served,” he said. “He came along at a time when we had a divided nation. Even as great as (President Franklin D.) Roosevelt was, Kennedy has to get the credit for bringing this country together.”


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