A region in mourning: The death of JFK

Merchants replaced their planned Sunday newspaper ads with notes of condolence, and Center City stores dressed display windows in black.
Merchants replaced their planned Sunday newspaper ads with notes of condolence, and Center City stores dressed display windows in black.
Posted: November 23, 2013

The terrible tumult of that weekend 50 years ago, one that repelled, riveted, and ultimately reshaped a nation, began in Philadelphia with an ominous hush.

Just past 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, Fred Donaldson, a 22-year-old rewrite man at the Evening Bulletin, checked the newsroom's bank of 11 teletype machines.

Strangely, that formidable wall of noise, typically clattering with news reports, had gone eerily silent.

"It was something I'd never seen before," Donaldson recalled last week.

The silence, it would soon become clear, was the world pausing to steel itself.

About to alert an editor, Donaldson suddenly heard the United Press International machine rattle to life with a tinny bell's toll. The 11-word sentence that followed was the opening act to a national tragedy:

"THREE SHOTS WERE FIRED AT PRESIDENT KENNEDY'S MOTORCADE IN DOWNTOWN DALLAS."

Within seconds, the other teletypes loudly chimed in. Over the next 72 hours, in a ceaseless cacophony, they would chronicle one unthinkable event after another. Their seismic updates, like aftershocks to an earthquake, arrived with a devastating regularity:

JFK Dead. Texas Governor Critically Wounded. LBJ Sworn In. Dallas Policeman Murdered. Suspected Assassin Arrested. Nation Grieves. World Reacts. Kennedy Lies in State. Oswald Slain. Nightclub Owner Charged. President Laid to Rest.

In Philadelphia, which had provided John F. Kennedy with a 331,000-vote plurality in 1960, the reactions were spasmodic, wide-ranging, unforgettable.

The assassination would touch everyone that weekend. It would devastate the Irish Catholic mayor who had hosted Kennedy three weeks earlier; frustrate an Eagles owner forced to stage a game that Sunday; animate a sophisticated English composer to eliminate a song from a musical then running at the Shubert Theater; compel the Philadelphia Orchestra's conductor to halt a Mendelssohn nocturne in mid-movement; move a West Oak Lane rabbi to toss aside religious convention; stun a clerk at John Wanamaker who a year earlier had caught JFK's Opening Day pitch; and connect millions of average citizens to the device that during that weekend became America's primary source of news, the TV.

On the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, a look back at its indelible aftermath reveals a city not only transfixed by the tragedy but on the cusp of great change.

Many of the familiar Philadelphia institutions at the heart of the story - Market Street's department stores, giant-circulation evening newspapers, vibrant Catholic and mainstream Protestant churches - were about to be altered forever, some by forces unleashed in the assassination's wake.

Like people everywhere that weekend, Philadelphians were moved to tears, to generosity, to greed, and, especially, to prayer.

Immediately after Friday afternoon's shock, churches and synagogues filled with the religious and those who didn't know where else to turn. By Sunday morning, worshipers lined up outside locked churches hours before scheduled services.

Yet Kennedy's death so unnerved one Navy veteran in Bustleton that he armed and barricaded himself in his apartment, threatening to kill his 2-year-old son and himself.

Many schools dismissed immediately. Merchants, fearful of being seen as insensitive, scrambled to replace planned Sunday newspaper ads with messages of condolence. Center City stores dressed display windows in black.

Some saw opportunity in the tragedy. Within an hour, Market Street vendors were hawking Kennedy memorabilia. Police had to rescue one from a crowd angered that he was selling - for $1 apiece - leftover JFK campaign buttons adorned with black ribbons.

Though 1963 was long before social media and 24/7 cable news, word spread rapidly in offices, on street corners, in Wanamakers' Grand Court, at the subway entrances to Gimbel Bros. and Strawbridge & Clothier.

"I've never seen news travel so fast," a Wanamakers saleswoman told The Inquirer. "It went from customer to customer, and then there was silence."

That silence intensified as the weekend moved toward Kennedy's solemn state funeral in Washington on Monday.

Normally busy people became passive voyeurs that weekend, glued to their televisions. Typical pastimes shut down. Theaters went dark. Restaurants and stores closed. Many sporting events were canceled. The heart of the nation's fourth-largest city was virtually deserted.

At suburban shopping centers, then beginning to erode Center City's commercial dominance, windswept carts rolled through empty parking lots like wheeled ghosts.

"The most obvious signs of mourning," a Page One story in Saturday's Bulletin noted, "were the quiet, the flags flying at half-mast, and the rain."

There had been no rain Friday, a late-autumn day that dawned brisk and sunny.

Philadelphia's three major dailies were filled with news that readers in 2013 would find eerily familiar.

The American Medical Association condemned Kennedy's national health-care plan (Medicare) as "unnecessary and dangerous." Sen. Joe Clark (D., Pa.) complained of congressional gridlock. Republicans objected to a proposal to raise the debt ceiling by $6 billion. And there was turmoil in the Middle East.

Inconspicuous on Page 3 of that morning's Inquirer was a seemingly innocuous headline: "Texas Welcomes Kennedy Warmly."

In Philadelphia, whose census-measured population had declined for the first time in 1960 - down 69,000 from 1950, to 2,002,582 - the region's business went on as usual.

Mayor James H.J. Tate, elected to a first full term just 17 days earlier, met with Temple University's trustees to discuss the college's expansion plans. At City Hall, lawyers marched in and out of Judge J. Sydney Hoffman's courtroom. Campbell Soup Co. shareholders assembled in Camden.

Less than a week before the Christmas season's traditional Thanksgiving start, Center City's shopping and business district was abuzz.

At lunchtime, workers and shoppers jammed that era's version of fast-food restaurants, Linton's and Horn & Hardart. Some Catholics, the Friday prohibition on meat still in place, opted for Kelly's Seafood House or Chinatown.

Not yet a major workforce presence, most area women were at home. And at 1:30, many turned to the popular soap opera As the World Turns on WCAU-TV, Channel 10.

Ten minutes in, just as a character said, "I gave it a great deal of thought, Grandpa -," the show was interrupted. A CBS News bulletin logo appeared and from off-camera came the familiar voice of Walter Cronkite:

"Here is a bulletin from CBS News. . . ."

Minutes later, in a Wanamakers stockroom, Marty Kutyna, a Philadelphian whose major-league baseball career had ended in 1962, overheard a fellow worker say Kennedy had been shot.

Nineteen months earlier, Kutyna, then a Washington Senators pitcher, had met JFK. On Opening Day, he'd outwrestled Rocky Colavito of the visiting Detroit Tigers for the ball Kennedy had tossed to inaugurate the season. The president would sign it for him.

"When they said Kennedy had been shot," said Kutyna, now 80 and retired in Delray Beach, Fla., "I thought they were joking."

Just past 2 p.m. at the Academy of Music, conductor Eugene Ormandy, responding to an offstage signal, halted the Philadelphia Orchestra's afternoon performance of Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

"It is with sincere regret," orchestra manager Harry Peltier told the baffled audience, "that I announce President Kennedy just died."

Musicians left the stage. Hours later they would reassemble to rehearse for a nationally televised memorial concert Saturday night.

Not far away in a Bellevue Stratford hotel elevator, Florence Henderson, the future Brady Bunch mom who then was appearing in a Shubert musical, was joined by another passenger.

"[He] said, 'It's just awful he's been shot,' " Henderson wrote in her 2011 autobiography, Life Is Not a Stage.

When she asked who, the man replied, "The president."

Stunned, the actress, a devout Catholic, drifted from the hotel in search of a nearby church, ending up at tiny St. John's on South 13th Street.

Mayor Tate got the news at Temple and returned immediately to City Hall, where he met with reporters. Later he, too, would go to St. John's, for a packed 5:15 Requiem Mass.

"He was in shock," Tate's son, Frank, 68, of Boston, recalled. "My father strongly identified with Kennedy. Both were Catholic. Both were Irish. Both were Democrats. Dad took Kennedy as a model for how government should be run. He was really hurting."

On Oct. 30, Kennedy and Tate had shared a dais at a $100-a-plate Democratic fund-raiser in Convention Hall. During a 23-minute speech, interrupted often by cheers, the president endorsed Tate in the coming election.

A day later, the mayor wrote him a thank-you. "I look forward to seeing you again," it concluded, "at the Army-Navy Game."

In West Philadelphia, a young community activist, W. Wilson Goode, learned of the shooting in a luncheonette. He rose immediately, his meal half-finished, and paid the bill.

"I had no further thought of eating that day," the future two-term mayor recalled.

The tragic news scuttled the Campbell shareholders meeting. Company president William B. Murphy informed the 300 attendees, then, before their dispersal, had them stand for a moment of silence.

By 4 p.m., a suspect in Kennedy's slaying, a "leftist" named Lee Harvey Oswald, was in custody. Arthur Young of Paoli, a noted helicopter designer, would learn later that he had an unusually close connection to the alleged assassin.

The night before JFK was shot, Oswald had slept at the Dallas-area home of Young's stepson, Michael Paine.

Paine, who had been briefly a Swarthmore College student, was then separated from his wife, Ruth, a fellow Quaker who before their 1959 move to Texas taught folk dance at Germantown Friends.

A Russian speaker, Ruth Paine had befriended Oswald's wife, Marina, born in Minsk. When the Oswalds also separated, Marina moved in with Ruth. On Nov. 21, Lee Oswald visited her there. He would spend the night, ominously leaving his wedding ring behind.

Television news was in its infancy in 1963. NBC and CBS had expanded their evening newscasts from 15 to 30 minutes only two months earlier. Philadelphia stations, ill-equipped for a story of this magnitude, yielded quickly to nonstop network coverage.

On WCAU-AM, though, Taylor Grant's Evening Edition became an electronic in-box for the reactions of local political and spiritual leaders. Reporters joined Grant - who was later spelled by Channel 10 anchorman John Facenda - to add their observations.

"City Hall secretaries," one noted, "were openly weeping. . . . Walking through the streets, you could hear a pin drop."

Local real estate mogul Albert M. Greenfield phoned Grant, saying Kennedy's death was "as much a catastrophe for the free world as nuclear war."

Grant's cancellation list grew rapidly: An appearance by Miss Sepia at City Hall. The American Jewish Congress' convention at the Warwick Hotel. A 100th anniversary ball at Convention Hall for La Salle College, which had presented JFK with an honorary degree in 1958.

While most movie and legitimate theaters shut their doors that weekend, the Shubert remained open Friday night. The Girl Who Came to Supper had sold out that night and, while its stars objected, the show went on.

"It was gut-wrenching to perform," noted Henderson, its female lead.

The musical, based on the same play as the Marilyn Monroe film The Prince and the Showgirl, did require one quick change. Its opening song had to be cut.

Noël Coward, the English playwright and composer, had written a tune called "Long Live the King, If He Can." It mused on how a ruler might be safeguarded from assassination.

"Having to write a new number," Coward wrote a friend in England that weekend, "on account of the lyric . . . not being VERY tactful."

Many school administrators, as stunned as their students, instituted early dismissals. At Cardinal O'Hara, a new high school in Delaware County, nearly 1,800 students, led by a priest on the P.A. system, prayed the rosary in unison.

At St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Frank Tate was a first-year student.

"We had one teacher who was very, very funny," recalled Tate, who left the seminary in 1967. "We were literally laughing our sides off in his class as the assassination was happening. I didn't know, of course, until afterward, when somebody told me. Then we went to the radio."

In a State College lab, Pennsylvania State University chemistry student Karen Kendler, 22, also learned of the shooting from a radio. She immediately returned to the apartment that she and her graduate-student husband rented.

Inspired by Kennedy, the couple were then awaiting news on Peace Corps applications.

"I was in shock," Kendler, now Karen Camara, remembered recently from New York City. "Before I went in I checked the mailbox. There were two letters, for me and my then-husband. We'd both been accepted into the Peace Corps. Then, inside, I heard the president was dead. It was so ironic."

During past crises, Philadelphians, like most Americans, had turned to radio and newspapers. Initially at least, they would do the same after the Kennedy shooting.

Rumbling presses poured out extra editions. Readers lined up for them. That Friday afternoon, the Bulletin printed 11/2 million copies of its One-Star edition alone.

"At corner newsstands, people pressed forward," an Inquirer account described, "coins ready to buy the latest editions."

But on this weekend, television would emerge as America's news medium of choice. Viewers were mesmerized by the stark visual images, the instant updates, the shifts in focus.

At Roman Catholic High, students lingered in the building at Broad and Vine Streets hours after dismissal, captivated by the accounts emanating from the school's lone TV.

Elsewhere, crowds formed along windows, like those at Nate Ben's Reliable at 21st and Market Streets, in which TVs were displayed.

This paradigm shift was evident even at the Bulletin, the city's dominant daily with a circulation in excess of 725,000. There were more journalists at the newsroom television, Donaldson, the young rewrite man, recalled, than at the wire-service tickers.

"The [nation's] biggest evening newspaper, and we had to drag out a TV to find out what was going on," said Donaldson.

Stiff and formal at first, TV gradually found its voice amid the tumult. The Bulletin's Robert Williams would later write, seemingly with a touch of surprise, that the medium's work on the "assassination and subsequent events showed considerable skill."

Once Philadelphians endured the initial shock, they immediately began speculating on who might be responsible. Before Oswald's arrest, most assumed a right-winger or segregationist, since the shooting had occurred in ultraconservative Dallas.

"Some people never get out of the cowboy stage," a high school student, John Keller, told an Inquirer reporter.

Mayor Tate was not alone in suggesting that, like Lincoln, Kennedy had "paid the penalty for his tolerance."

The Bell System reported a tremendous surge in telephone use. Newspaper switchboards, in particular, were swamped with calls from those seeking information or a chance to vent.

Telephones at the NAACP's local offices on South 15th Street were also overwhelmed, in part because many African Americans initially believed the killing must be linked to Kennedy's relatively benign civil rights views.

"This is the second president who was killed because he stood up for the rights of all Americans," said Thomas McIntosh, a black city councilman.

A WCAU radio reporter noted that in West Philadelphia he had seen "Negroes on the street with tears running down their faces such as I have not seen since the day Franklin Roosevelt died."

In Bustleton, the shock was too much for Leland Cummings. The 27-year-old Navy veteran took one of his toddler son's red crayons and, on the walls of his Murray Street apartment, scrawled "Kennedy!" and "God will punish the tyrants!"

Then he gathered the boy, a rifle, and a shotgun, and barricaded himself inside. His wife summoned police and the standoff lasted until 8:10 p.m., when a priest talked him into surrendering.

That evening, police also were called to 17th and Market, where a crowd of perhaps 100 had surrounded vendor Sam Klein, 23. They were incensed that he was exploiting the tragedy, selling old JFK campaign buttons draped in black ribbon.

Police hustled the 22-year-old South Philadelphian to the station house at 20th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, and booked him for vending without a license.

Friday night sporting events - a 76ers-Celtics meeting, a Philadelphia Ramblers hockey game, most high school and college contests - were postponed.

Since Kennedy had planned to attend the Nov. 30 Army-Navy Game here, the fate of that annual service showcase was cast in doubt. Eventually, the secretary of defense postponed it for a week.

Controversially, despite the rival American Football League's postponement of its Sunday games and pleas from both teams, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle insisted that Sunday's Eagles game - like the rest of the league's schedule - be played.

Eagles owner Frank McNamee, then concluding the negotiations that soon resulted in Jerry Wolman's $5.5 million purchase of the team, begged Rozelle to change his mind. So did many outraged fans.

"It's disgraceful," future Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, then a police captain, told the Bulletin. "[Rozelle] should hang his head in shame."

Eagles players, quarterback Sonny Jurgensen recalled, heard the news after practice "at a food truck near Franklin Field." They later met and, despite widespread displeasure, concluded that they had no choice but to play.

Bernard Fineman, who held five Eagles season tickets, vowed that if the game were played, he'd "never buy another ticket."

Saturday passed in a rainy, gloomy haze.

As funeral plans were made public and new details emerged on Oswald and the crime, Philadelphians searched for ways to cope.

Sol Stellenberg, a West Philadelphia grocer, telephoned the mayor's office to suggest that Broad Street be renamed in Kennedy's honor. (The following year, Pennsylvania Boulevard became John F. Kennedy Boulevard, and Municipal Stadium also was renamed.) Fred Kaplan, a Northeast High School sophomore, called The Inquirer with a poem he'd written. Ed Van Dyke of Haverford, a classmate of JFK's at Choate, began a letter to the president's widow.

At the Arch Street Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Galbraith Hall Todd closed his study door that morning. He tore up his Sunday sermon - "Do Things Happen for the Best in Your Life?" - and began a new one, "The Death of the President."

Though it was a Saturday, residents sought spiritual solace. More than 1,200 attended a televised 10 a.m. memorial Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.

At the West Oak Lane Jewish Community Center, tradition was shattered in Kennedy's honor. The entire congregation stood and sang the mournful Kaddish, a rite then typically reserved for sons on the deaths of their fathers.

"On Friday," the rabbi explained, "we all lost a father."

A 9-year-old bootblack named Gerald Townsend, his box slung over one shoulder, walked into a North Philadelphia Baptist church to say a prayer. "He was a good man," the boy said.

Sunday morning saw more of the same. In Center City, long lines waited for the doors to open at Holy Trinity Episcopal and St. Patrick's.

So large were the churchgoing crowds, in fact, that the Philadelphia Archdiocese got permission from Rome to conduct Sunday evening Masses.

With Cardinal John Krol away, Bishop Joseph Yuen, a Chinese exile, celebrated an ornate 5:30 p.m. Pontifical Requiem Mass at a packed cathedral.

The weekend's grandest local tribute was a 2 p.m. Sunday memorial service at Independence Mall, just across the street from where a Bourse wax museum was already displaying a JFK likeness.

The service drew more than 10,000 people, including 29 diplomatic consuls. They heard hymns from the Singing City Choir; speeches by Tate, Clark, Pennsylvania Gov. William W. Scranton and New Jersey Gov. Richard J. Hughes; poems read by Eva Le Gallienne and fellow actor Jose Ferrer, the latter also appearing in The Girl Who Came to Supper.

Attendees returned home in time to see TV replays of Oswald, handcuffed to a detective, gunned down by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby.

A Bulletin reporter in Texas, John G. McCullough, recognized Ruby as a man he'd seen in police headquarters Saturday.

"He was carrying a box," McCullough recalled, adding to the growing intrigue, "with 'Alpacuna' written on it." Alpacuna was a men's clothing brand, made in Philadelphia.

Though owner McNamee stayed away, Franklin Field was surprisingly full at 1:05 p.m. when the Eagles kicked off. The weekend's aura added to the meaningless game's listlessness.

One of those in the stands was Ed Taggart, a 40-year-old Philadelphian who was a reporter for the Reading Times. During a timeout, he remembered, the public address announcer informed spectators of Oswald's shooting.

"Whether the Eagles won or lost, or who the opponent was, I don't remember," Taggart recalled. "But the buzz that went through that crowd, I'll never forget." The Eagles lost, 13-10, to Washington.

Perhaps to assuage their guilt over playing, each Eagle donated $50 to the widow of Dallas policeman J.D. Tippit, slain by Oswald. Afterward, the game ball was sent to the White House.

On Monday, the region took a deep breath. Virtually everything shut down for Kennedy's funeral, the area seemingly paralyzed by the mournful cadence of the procession's drumbeat.

Wherever its reporters went Monday, The Inquirer noted, they found Philadelphians weeping, particularly at the sight of Kennedy's toddler son, John-John, saluting his father's passing casket.

Among the few at work was a Philadelphia Transportation Co. crew at 21st and Market. At noon, when the Funeral Mass in Washington began, the workers stopped, removed their hats, and said a silent prayer.

A day later, life in the Philadelphia area began to return to normal. But it would never be exactly the same.

Changing habits and increased competition from the morning Inquirer would erode the mighty Bulletin's circulation until in 1982, after 135 years, its presses were stilled.

The department-store giants that ruled Market Street - Wanamakers, Strawbridge & Clothier, Lit Bros., and Gimbels - would all be gone by early in the 21st century.

Horn & Hardart and Linton's succumbed to fast food. The Shubert morphed into the Merriam. The Bellevue became a Hyatt.

Young, the helicopter designer, died in 1995. Mayor Tate would squeak by Arlen Specter, a lawyer who helped investigate the assassination for the Warren Commission, to win another term in 1967. He died at 73 in 1983. Michael and Ruth Paine are still alive. Grant went off the air in 1972 and died in 1998.

The Girl Who Came to Supper, including Coward's new lyric, would move to Broadway on Dec. 8 and, after mixed reviews, run for 112 performances.

That traumatic weekend may have marked high-water attendance for the area's churches. Many people, Frank Tate among them, attribute the subsequent declines in part to a cynicism born of the assassination.

Tate's seminary, teeming with students in 1963, turns out very few priests today.

"The church's best and brightest used to be there," he said. "That weekend Kennedy died was, I think, both an end and a beginning. The mood changed. We got more cynical, more skeptical.

"For a short time there, it was a golden age. Then, on that day, everything changed."


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com@philafitz

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