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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Baker residents remember where they were on Nov. 22, 1963

Baker residents remember where they were on Nov. 22, 1963


The front page of the Baker Democrat-Herald on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963
The front page of the Baker Democrat-Herald on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963

By Jayson Jacoby

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There had never been a day quite like it in American history.

And almost certainly it will never be replicated: Nov. 22, 1963.

John F. Kennedy was not, of course, the first American president to be assassinated.

But the murders of presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley preceded radio and television.

In the absence of those far-reaching media it wasn’t possible for any country — and in particular one as vast as the U.S. — to experience a momentous event in such an instantaneous way.

The day the Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, probably comes closest to Kennedy’s assassination in epitomizing Americans’ concept of “where were you when you first heard?”

In 1941, Americans were tuned in to current events through radio, newspapers, magazines and movie theater newsreel reports. 

Twenty-two years later, though, the TV set was well along the road to its now familiar ubiquity in U.S. homes.

And so, when Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy in Dallas, the news was available to the vast majority of Americans within minutes.

It seems unlikely that even today, with the increasing use of smartphones, that the news of such a momentous event would spread any faster.

And given the tighter reign police tend to put on the media today, compared with that comparatively innocent era before Watergate and before America had anything but “advisers” in Vietnam, it’s quite possible citizens in 1963 knew more — and knew it sooner — than we would today under similar circumstances.

Oswald pulled the trigger of his mail-order Italian Carcano bolt-action rifle about 12:30 p.m. CST.

It was 10:30 in the morning in Baker City that Friday.

This newspaper, then called the Democrat-Herald, was, and still is, printed in the morning and delivered in the afternoon.

As a result the newspaper was able to get the story in that Friday’s edition. A photograph of the top part of Page 1 of that edition is reproduced above this story. 

The headline, which stretched across the top of the front page in capital letters almost 2 inches tall, was “PRESIDENT KILLED.”

The accompanying story from United Press International did not name Oswald although it noted that a suspected assassin had been arrested after fatally shooting a Dallas policeman, J.D. Tippit (also not named in the story).

Oswald was arrested at about 11:45 a.m. PST.

The Democrat-Herald staff also had time to insert a paragraph stating that Vice President Lyndon Johnson had been sworn in as president.

There wasn’t time to get any comments from local residents; indeed, the editor might have had to hold the press that day.

But the next day’s issue — the Democrat-Herald published on Saturdays — included several local stories related to the assassination (please see Page 8A).

We’ve talked this week with several Baker City residents, most of whom were here on that day, about their memories of Nov. 22, 1963.

Here are their stories:

Jim Van Duyn was a senior at St. Francis Academy, a Catholic school in Baker City

Van Duyn, 67, a Baker City architect, has a connection to Nov. 22, 1963, that, though purely coincidental, is also preserved forever in paper and ink.

At the bottom of the front page of the Democrat-Herald, looking tiny compared with the headline at the top of the page, is this headline: “Juvenile Traffic Court Referee System Effected in Sept.; Students On Panel.”

Accompanying the story is a photograph of the eight high school students who were chosen to hear court cases of juveniles accused of traffic violations, and to recommend punishments.

Van Duyn was one of those eight students, and the only one chosen from the Catholic school that stood at the corner of First and Church streets. St. Francis Academy was dismantled in 1970.

Van Duyn said all but a handful of the 75 to 80 high school students at St. Francis at the time sang with a chorale group that was rehearsing on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963.

When the principal walked into the music room, “everyone knew it was a big deal,” Van Duyn said.

How big, though, was beyond any of the students’ comprehension.

When the principal announced that President Kennedy — American’s first Catholic president — had been shot, “there was just a huge collective gasp,” Van Duyn said.

“It was just a blow to the gut,” he said, “in the same way that 9/11 was.”

St. Francis students were allowed to go home early.

“We were all just glued to the TV for the next several days,” Van Duyn said.

He said Kennedy’s death stunned him, and indeed his generation, the baby boomers, in a couple of ways.

For one, the assassination was the seminal event of their lives.

“Nobody had a collective memory of World War II, although we had heard stories from our parents,” Van Duyn said. “But this was the first time something of this magnitude had happened in our lives.”

Secondly, Kennedy, as the youngest man ever elected president, was “such a symbol for the country, and a symbol of youth,” Van Duyn said. 

He didn’t cry that day, Nov. 22.

But about a week later, he said, the grief “sort of crept up on me” and he wept for the late president.

As a tribute, each of the seniors at St. Francis Academy assembled a scrapbook of Kennedy’s presidency for their senior project.

Van Duyn still has his scrapbook.

Tim Kerns was a college student in Corvallis 

“I was in college in Corvallis. It was right before Thanksgiving,” said Kerns, now almost 70 and a Baker County Commissioner. 

“It was similar to 9/11. ... Everybody was awfully saddened. I think we were all so awestruck by it. Nobody was making jokes or making fun of what was going on. It was too serious,” he said. 

Kerns and other students were glued to the TV for several days in the common area of their living quarters at Oregon State University. 

He remembers most classes being cancelled so there was ample time to watch the sad and shocking events unfold.

“Everything was changing all of the time,” Kerns said. “I think they swore in Johnson almost immediately, on Air Force One, in Dallas. Then two days later, Jack Ruby shot Oswald ...”

President Kennedy had successfully handled the Cuban missile crisis only about a year before.

“It was still fresh in our minds,” Kerns said. Most Americans were “proud he accomplished that. His stature was getting better then, all of a sudden, he was shot.”

Kerns also mentioned that he was watching TV recently with some of his college-age grandchildren. One of the many JFK assassination programs that have been airing this month was on.

He was able to tell them that he was where they are now, in Corvallis, “watching that all happen.”

— Terri Harber

Cass Vanderwiele was a senior at Baker High School

Vanderwiele, 67, was in Al McCullough’s chemistry class when the voice of Principal Emmett Ritter blared from the classroom’s intercom speaker.

“He said the president had just been shot,” Vanderwiele said. “Everybody was just in shock. Absolutely just in shock.”

And that emotion continued throughout the day.

“All the typical school stuff that goes on just came to a halt,” Vanderwiele said. “Everybody was very, very somber.”

Phyllis Badgley was working at a local bank

“Yes, I remember clearly. I was working at US Bank and someone called with the shocking news they had heard on the radio. 

“The initial report spread across the bank, like wildfire. Shock, disbelief, and my own personal emotions dictated spreading the word of this tragedy to each customer.

“My noon hour lunch break was not until 1 p.m. and I could scarcely contain myself, waiting out that half hour until I could get home, turn on TV, and get further info. It was the longest half- hour I ever experienced, as I waited for lunch break. Hard to realize 50 years have passed.”

Note: Badgley, 89, is a local historian and Baker City native.

— Lisa Britton

Al McCullough was a teacher at Baker High School

McCullough, who’s 90, was at least as surprised as Vanderwiele and the other chemistry students when the principal spoke through the intercom that late morning.

“The intercom was never used, and suddenly it came on,” McCullough said.

As he recalls, someone put the microphone next to a radio speaker and just let the news go out to each classroom.

In McCullough’s room, he said, the students “just sat there silently.”

He said he was equally stunned — and perhaps affected in a way his students couldn’t understand.

McCullough supported Kennedy, and had voted for him in the 1960 election.

Barbara Johnson was a young mother in San Francisco

“I was a stay-at-home mom with seven children. The youngest was 2 and we were in the car on the way to the library,” said Johnson, now a Baker City Councilor. 

“I was astounded,” she said of the tragic event. And as the drama transpired over the coming days she was glued to the TV.

“I was watching when Ruby shot Oswald. My husband was working swing shift for IBM and asleep. I woke him up,” Johnson said. “I felt sorry for Jacqueline Kennedy. It must have been so difficult.”  

Her other six children were attending school. The news was broadcast on campuses. The events were shocking, but also a bit intriguing, to her children. The oldest was 13.

 “It was because our last name is Johnson and Vice President Johnson was sworn in as president,” she said.

“It was a turning point, a tear in the fabric of our society,” she pointed out. It was the first of several shocking attacks against politicians over the next several years.

Fifty years have gone by since the assassination happened. The Kennedys’ surviving child, Caroline, was recently named as the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Johnson noted.

“I stop and think ‘I’m 80 and a lot of people alive now weren’t alive at that time in our history.’ And who knows how things would have turned out in our country had he not been killed?” she said.

Johnson intends to watch some of programming commemorating the 50th anniversary of the event. But so far, “I haven’t had time to watch.”

— Terri Harber

Greg Brown was a junior at Baker High School

Brown, 66, was in Mrs. Patterson’s English class when the announcement came over the P.A. system.

“All of us were just stunned,” said Brown, who’s retired from the Oregon State Police.

He said his two most vivid memories of that moment are watching his teacher almost slump into her seat, and hearing the voice of a classmate from the back of the classroom.

“He said, ‘I knew Kennedy was going to Dallas but I didn’t know he was going hunting,’ ” Brown said.

For Brown that comment epitomizes the sense of disbelief. That Kennedy could be shot was surprising; that he could be felled by an assassin’s bullet was in effect unthinkable.

Brown also recalls watching on TV two days later when Jack Ruby fatally shot Oswald as the assassin was being moved from the Dallas police headquarters.

Ted White was a senior at Baker High School

White, now 67, recalls that the announcement that Kennedy had been shot came near the end of the class period — English for White rather than chemistry.

He remembers walked down the hall, going to his next class, and seeing a male teacher — White doesn’t remember the man’s name — standing outside his classroom, silent, but with tears rolling down his cheeks.

“That’s what I remember more than anything,” White said.

Not long after, White, who was a member of the BHS yearbook staff, wrote a letter to the White House, asking for a photograph of the late president.

“We dedicated the annual that year to JFK, and we used that photograph,” White said.

“I still have the photograph.”

Gary Dielman was teaching at the University of Iowa

Dielman has spent most of his life in Baker City but wasn’t here on that historic day. He was teaching German at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Dielman, 74, said the first sign that anything unusual had happened was the pealing of the bells from the old capital building (Iowa’s capital was moved in the 19th century from Iowa City to Des Moines).

After class was over Dielman walked into the hallway and a student told him Kennedy had been shot.

“The hallways were full of students and that was the only topic,” he said.

The anniversary has a particular resonance for Dielman because his son, Nels, had been born just two weeks earlier.

Note: Dielman is one of Baker County’s foremost historians. 

Jim McElroy was a junior at Baker High School

McElroy, now 66, was a junior and in Spanish class when the shocking announcement came.

“We all just stopped what we were doing,” McElroy said.

The assassination, and what it might mean for America, were the main topics in classes the rest of the day, he said.

“The teachers were acting like counselors, really, letting us discuss the situation and talk it out,” he said.

McElroy emphasizes a point that is difficult for people from later generations to understand — that 1963 was nearly the height, as it were, of the Cold War, and that the possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union was seen not as remote and theoretical, but almost as a probability.

“It was a nervous time, and there was a question of whether the assassination was going to be the start of something,” McElroy said.

Deryl Leggett was a junior at Baker High School

Leggett was a junior at BHS and although he doesn’t remember what subject he was studying that morning, his memory of his and his classmates’ reaction remains vivid.

“It was absolute disbelief to start with,” Leggett, who’s 66, said. “You just absolutely can’t believe this happening.”

Leggett said he remembers learning about the three other U.S. presidents who were assassinated.

“That seemed ancient,” he said, “something that was never going to happen again.”

When it did happen again, Leggett said, “you almost felt like you were personally attacked.”

In common with Van Duyn, Leggett said the only event in his lifetime that compares with Nov. 22, 1963, was Sept. 11, 2001.

Perhaps the most distinct similarity between those events, Leggett said, is the way Americans temporarily replaced political partisanship with national unity.

“Kennedy commanded a great amount of respect, and the country came together, it didn’t matter which political affiliation you had,” he said.

Dave Hunsaker was attending high school near San Diego

Hunsaker, the retired manager of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, describes his experience:

“No.” “It can’t be.” “I can’t believe it.” “Why?” were just some of the feelings expressed by my high school classmates and me on Nov. 22, 1963.

I was a high school senior on that day at Coronado High School just across the bay from San Diego. Half of the island (actually an isthmus) is home to North Island Naval Air Station. Aircraft carriers of the day docked there when in port. The USS Ranger, Constellation, and others could be seen looming over the north end of Coronado ... just across a chain link fence. Many of my classmates had fathers in the Navy and Marine Corps stationed there.

We were in the gym that morning and when our coach heard the news he had us all sit down. We wondered what was up ... back then PE (physical education) was a big deal and to stop the class took something big. When we heard the news, we were shocked ... and afraid.

In addition to dealing with the loss of a beloved president, we wondered what might happen next. Not too long before, the Cuban missile crisis had shaken the nation, and military bases around the country felt it deeply. For the rest of that entire day while we were all at home glued to our black- and-white TV sets, trying to come to grips with our shock and grief, the Navy was reacting to the assassination with speed and efficiency. The next morning San Diego Bay was virtually empty of naval ships. The giant carriers and other support ships were gone ... no one knew where they were. Accustomed to the thundering of jet fighters taking off and landing over the beaches of Coronado, all we heard that day and the next were helicopters ferrying sailors and Marines who had not made it back to the base before their ships evacuated the port. From a young man’s perspective ... it was scary.

The following days would become a blur of loss, shock again at the death of Oswald, deep sadness at the funeral of the President, and an emerging feeling of things changed forever. Now ... 50 years later ... I pull out my fading San Diego Union newspaper EXTRA: PRESIDENT DEAD! ... and weep. 

 What was it like to be in Dallas?

Mary Ellen Daugherty of Baker City was an 11-year-old sixth-grader, living in a Dallas suburb, on Nov. 22, 1963.

Her parents, Herb and Maude Johnson, both worked in downtown Dallas.

Her mother’s office was on an upper floor of a building near the Texas School Book Depository, from which assassin Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shot.

“I would go and visit with my mother at her office,” Daugherty said. “You could see the School Book Depository from there. You’d drive right by it and never notice it.”

Daugherty was in school when the principal announced over the P.A. system that President Kennedy had been shot.

Students were sent home early that day.

Daugherty said she walked home and immediately turned on the TV.

Only then did she learn that Kennedy had died.

“My parents got home later that afternoon and they were just devastated,” Daugherty said. “They were major Kennedy fans.”

Both her parents had been on the sidewalk, though on different blocks, watching as Kennedy went past in his convertible.

Daugherty said she’s been fascinated with the Kennedy family ever since. A few years ago she and her husband, Randy, traveled to Dallas to visit family and friends.

They toured the School Book Depository, which is now a museum.

“That day has left a lasting impression,” Daugherty said.

— Jayson Jacoby 

 

KENNEDY WAS POPULAR AMONG BAKER VOTERS in 1960

Although Republicans have a solid advantage over Democrats in Baker County these days, the opposite was true in 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected president.

A story in the Baker Democrat-Herald on Nov. 9, 1960, the day after the election, read:

“Baker County, holding true to its Democratic tradition, gave a majority of its votes to the winning presidential candidate, Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.), in Tuesday’s general election.

The vote was close: 3,717 for Kennedy and 3,508 for Vice President Richard Nixon in a county that has an overwhelming Democratic registration.

So Baker County, a weathervane of sorts as far as presidential elections are concerned, picked the winner for the 11th consecutive time in at least 40 years of history dating back to 1920 when it gave Republican Warren G. Harding a majority of its votes.” 

 
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