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Rockford on the day of the Kennedy assassination

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The following is an excerpt from the book “Rockford — Big Town/Little City”:

It was lunch hour in Rockford on a warm, rainy Friday in November.

Marjorie Owens was watching “As the World Turns” on Channel 13. Her daughter, Luann, a first-grader, was at school. Newsman Fred Speer of WROK radio was on the air from the scene of an armed robbery at the Jewel Food Store on Auburn Street. Police office Charles Jackson was riding a three-wheel motorcycle on Seventh Street.

In Washington, Rep. John B. Anderson of Rockford was at a House committee meeting on research spending. At a seminary in Baltimore, Michael Tierney, who would later become pastor of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Rockford, was playing football with classmates. At a U.S. Air Force base on the island of Crete, Bob LeHew, who would later become an alarm operator for the Rockford Fire Department, was drinking coffee in a restaurant.

All of them would remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news on Nov. 22, 1963.

At 12:34 that afternoon, bells rang on the United Press International wire machine at the News Tower, and 11 words of copy appeared: “Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas.”

At 12:36 p.m., Fred Speer had barely finished his report on the supermarket robbery when Don Gardiner of ABC Radio broke into local programming on WROK with the bulletin from UPI.

“I headed into the station because I knew there was a lot of work to do,” Speer recalled. “I was really shocked and stunned…It was a long day.”

At 12:40, CBS Television interrupted “As the World Turns,” and Marjorie Owens saw an obviously distraught Walter Cronkite on the screen.

“The first reports,” said Cronkite, “say the president was seriously wounded.”

At 12:45, local viewers of “Bachelor Father” on Channel 39 saw NBC newsman  Chet Huntley break in with a bulletin.

Fifteen minutes later, at 1 o’clock, President John F. Kennedy was pronounced dead at Parkland Hospital in Dallas.

In Washington, Anderson’s committee meeting abruptly adjourned, and the congressman hurried back to his office and sent his staff home. In Baltimore, Tierney was coming in from his lunchtime football game when fellow seminarians told him the news. On the island of Crete, Airman LeHew was told that he was “on alert and to haul ass.”

At her school in Rockford, Luann Owens’ first-grade teacher cried. At Seventh Street and Fourth Avenue, a couple in a car pulled up alongside Officer Jackson’s motorcycle and told him the president was dead.

“I don’t think you ever forget that particular moment,” Jackson said years later.

For the next four days, until Kennedy was buried, Rockford and the rest of the country stood still. Television was the common bond.

For this one brief period, the nation was more united in thought and emotion than ever before or since. But the net effect was almost the opposite of catharthis. People were numbed, and when the numbness faded, they and their country were never the same again.

Journalist David Brinkley once suggested that the killings of John Kennedy and his alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, were beyond understanding.

“The events of those days don’t fit,”  Brinkley said. “You can’t place them anywhere. They don’t go in the intellectual language of our time. It was too big, too sudden, too overwhelming, and it meant too much. It has to be separate and apart.”

That’s why everybody remembers where they were. The experience of that long weekend shattered the nation, and all of the turmoil of the years that followed seemed to stem from it.

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