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For many, time stood still as news of shooting spread

Friday, November 22, 2013

From Bulletin staff reports

The events of some days are so horrifying that memories of them hardly fade.

That is the case for many people who recall Nov. 22, 1963 — the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

David Williams of Henry County said he was 8 years old and attending South Martinsville Elementary School in 1963. Today he is a circuit court judge.

“I remember about 1:30 (p.m.) or so, my grandfather, who was the janitor and drove the school bus, too, came by my room and told the teacher that Kennedy had been shot,” he said recently.

The teacher told students, and a short while later, an announcement was made that the president was dead.

“People were crying and very upset about the whole situation. The year before, in October, we had gone through the Cuban Missile Crisis,” during which “basically everybody thought we were going to die,” Williams recalled.

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Kennedy had brought the nation through that, and at the time of his death, he “was very popular, young, handsome, rich as all get out and married to this young fashion plate for the country. Then, we went through the whole process of the funeral. The Kennedy family” contacted Dr. James I. “Bud” Robertson — a then-history professor at Virginia Tech who now is alumni distinguished professor emeritus — to ask about Lincoln’s funeral following his assassination, Williams said.

“That’s how you had the caisson with the horses. Pretty much the field procession was modeled on Lincoln’s. ... At that point in time, I think people had more respect for the office than what they do today,” Williams added.

H.G. Vaughn of Ridgeway, a member of the Henry County Board of Supervisors, said he had been rabbit hunting that morning, “but when I came home and was putting my dog up, my grandmother came out on the back porch and told me President Kennedy was shot. Even at a younger age, it was devastating. I, along with a lot of other people in the country, thought a lot of him and the things that he was doing and the type of president he was.”

Thurman O. Echols, the pastor of Moral Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Axton, was a junior in high school in Danville when the announcement came over the school’s PA system.

“It was a sad day because the leader of the country had been shot,” he said. “It threw the country off guard. I was just a youngster but it made some impact. President Kennedy had a very promising future and was doing so much with his energy, his enthusiasm and his youth that a whole lot of us young people” were inspired by him.

Harry Hensley of Martinsville said he was teaching at Patrick Henry School and had his class on the playground.

“One of the students came out and told us” that Kennedy had been assassinated, Hensley said.

In the following days, first lady Jackie Kennedy “orchestrated everything,” Hensley said. “The whole time, people just stuck to their televisions. I don’t think it will ever be matched. Hopefully, it won’t have to be.”

Shelton Scales of Martinsville, who served with the Marines in World War II, including Iwo Jima, said three U.S. presidents — Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield and William McKinley — were assassinated before Kennedy was shot in 1963. Presidential assassinations were “not a new thing,” he said.

Still, “I was shocked” to learn about Kennedy, he said.

Scales was with family at his home when someone who had been watching television in another room came in and told everyone about the shooting. Everyone then gathered around the TV.

“We couldn’t believe that our president had been killed. We were just awed. All we could do was wait and see what developed,” he said.

Anne Copeland of Fieldale, a volunteer at the Bassett Historical Center, was a freshman at Ferrum College in 1963.

“I was coming out of choir about 2 in the afternoon. They released us early because they spread the news (of the assassination) around campus. When we got back in the dorm down in the basement, we never left the whole weekend. We watched television. We had food brought in. Everybody was crying ... mostly (in) disbelief. Nothing like that had ever happened in our lifetime.”

Betsy Mattox of Bassett was in her first year of teaching at John Redd Smith School in Collinsville when “our principal, Curtis Wall, came over PA system and asked us to come to the office. We had a few TVs, and we watched some of that on TV. I think we had the day of the funeral off, and I watched it all day long,” she said.

“It was interesting with the children (students)” who were in seventh grade at the time, Mattox said. “We had talked about the presidents” and others who had been assassinated, “but we hadn’t gotten to Kennedy yet. One of the young men that was in that class came by the other day, and he said, ‘I remember that.’”

Brenda Prillaman of Martinsville, the executive assistant to Martinsville’s city manager and clerk of Martinsville City Council, was a student at the former Drewry Mason High School in Ridgeway. An announcement about the shooting was made over the school’s public address system, she said.

“I was shocked. Tragic deaths are always shocking. Everybody was kind of somber” for a few days, and people were “glued to the TV” in the days following, she said.

Jim Adams of Bassett, chairman of the Henry County Board of Supervisors, was a fourth-grader at the time. “I recall my school teacher coming into the classroom crying. That was a shock in itself because we had never seen a school teacher crying. Later in the afternoon and getting home, the television during broadcast hours was on pretty much the entire weekend. There were news accounts,” and Lee Harvey Oswald was charged in Kennedy’s death, he said.

In a matter of days, Oswald also was killed as he was led by Dallas officers in the police headquarters.

“Getting home from church on Sunday,” the family learned of Oswald’s death, Adams said. “Schools were out for (Kennedy’s) funeral, and for several days, folks were somewhat glued to the television set. It was a matter of disbelief, wondering how could it happen. But as a small child, I don’t think you realize the depths of the situation at the time.”

Debbie Hall of Martinsville, executive director of the Martinsville-Henry County Heritage Center & Museum, said she was a couple of months shy of her fifth birthday that November and had been shopping with her mother, who was expecting Hall’s younger brother in mid-December.

“I remember coming home, and my dad was sitting in the living room. He had the TV and radios and everything going. It was odd for him to be home that time of day,” Hall said.

News of the assassination “was all over the television. I just remember as a small child that everybody was so sad. It made enough of an impression for me to remember,” she said.


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