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Local school officials look back at reaction to death

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

Vivid memories of the Kennedy assassination remain for Joe DeVault, chairman of the Henry County School Board; Pam Heath, superintendent of Martinsville City Public Schools; and Angie Weinerth, principal of Martinsville High School.

“Still today I can’t watch videos (of the Kennedy assassination) without getting tears in my eyes,” Weinerth said.

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, 50 years ago Friday. Weinerth said she was 9 at the time and in the fourth grade in Alabama.

“We were practicing for a Christmas play” when someone came in and said the president had been shot, she said. “It was scary for someone my age.”

“In Alabama, we had practiced drills” because of such things as the Cuban missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs, she said.

She remembered voting for Kennedy in her first grade class election and watching the president’s children growing up. The Kennedys were viewed as Camelot, she added.

His death, she said, “was a very sad day for this country.”

Heath also was in the fourth grade and in class when she learned of the shooting. She lived in Wichita, Kan.

“I remember vividly when they made the announcement,” Heath said. “Everyone was upset. The teacher was crying. That was during much simpler times. The flag was lowered to half-mast. Businesses closed down. Everyone was in shock.”

“The era of President Kennedy and Jackie is often referred to as Camelot. That (the assassination) was sort of the end of that time,” Heath said.

“Personally for me, I was going to a private Catholic school. President Kennedy was the first Catholic to have been elected president,” Heath said.

“Everyone was very mournful” after the assassination, she said. “It was so unheard of at that time.”

Black-and-white television was widespread back then, she said, and people stayed glued to their TVs watching news coverage.

Heath remembers the replays of video footage of the shooting of Kennedy, as well as the grassy knoll where it was suspected that shots had come from; suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby; “the terrible sadness of everyone at the funeral”; and little John Kennedy Jr.’s “famous salute.”

“Everyone loved Jackie Kennedy,” Heath said, recalling “how sad we were for her.” She noted that her Barbie doll had a Jackie bouffant hairdo. For Heath’s mother and the mom’s friends, the president’s wife was a role model. “They had bouffant hairdos. She was someone women of that time really looked up to — young and beautiful and first lady.”

“Television was becoming such a big part of American life. Kennedy and Nixon had the first televised (presidential candidate) debate,” Heath said. She added that the Kennedys “had that charisma. It seemed like an idyllic world. They were greatly admired. We were devastated when it (the assassination) happened.”

“It (the assassination) brought my community together in a way Sept. 11 (2001) did,” Heath said of the terrorist attacks.

The assassination happened during the Cold War, she noted. “We didn’t know if it was some kind of plot by the Communists. There were all these theories going around.”

There were many civil defense missiles underground in Kansas and fallout shelters, and drills were held about what to do in an attack, Heath said.

“Our fears about Russia and the Communists were very heightened during that era,” Heath said.

That was the first major violent event she could recall, but more violence and unrest followed, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the escalated war in Vietnam — “all these young men were dying” — “the (continued) civil rights movement and lots of demonstrations going on, women’s liberation ... draft dodgers,” young people trying to get the voting age lowered from 21 to 18, Heath said.

DeVault said he was a senior at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., in a senior philosophy class the morning of Nov. 22, 1963.

“I remember coming out of class and immediately recognized something had happened. Everyone was standing around awestruck,” he said.

DeVault said he didn’t know what had happened, inquired, hurried to a TV and heard an announcement that Kennedy had died. “We were glued to any access we had to news the rest of that day.”

“That was a Friday. I wanted to go home. I did. I drove to my home in Galax. Va., to see my parents and spent the weekend there,” DeVault recalled. “I was watching TV live when Oswald was shot. It was all very vivid. Reading news reports in the last week or so brings it all back.”

“I was 21, 22 at the time,” DeVault said. “It had a profound effect on me then. President Kennedy was like a new breath, like the world was changing, and this young president, things he was doing and had done and was trying to do, to see him cut down like that — what has happened to this world? All of a sudden this happens.”

“Still being a college student, although a senior, it was maybe a message (for me): You’re now an adult. There are a lot of tragedies that you don’t think about as a carefree college student. It was an awakening to the fact that bad things are happening, the world is changing, you are now an adult, and you’ve got to be able to deal with these things,” DeVault said.


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