JFK: Nothing was amiss as day unfolded
MARQUETTE – The weather that Friday morning in Marquette was unseasonably and unpredictably pleasant, belying the shock and horror that was to forever change the nation within a few hours.
Instead of a forecasted cold snap, the city was greeted with near record temperatures reading in the 50s. The loaded 690-foot ore carrier Wilfred Sykes was steaming out of the Lower Harbor for Illinois that day, closing out the shipping season at the Soo Line Railroad Co. dock.
In the surrounding forests, deer hunters were winding up the last days of their season too, unaware that 1,300 miles away, a sniper with a $21 military rifle was planning to fix his crosshairs on the 35th President of the United States.
Thanksgiving was less than a week away and young tom turkeys were selling for 35 cents a pound at the A&P. Santa Claus was making preparations to greet children downtown in the lobby of the First National Bank.
At noon, state officials opened the new $1.7 million U.S. 41 bypass around the city. The 1.9-mile, four-lane divided highway was expected to save drivers 20 minutes travel time.
Meanwhile, the sniper – a one-time Marine who’d earned a marksman’s medal and a dishonorable discharge – would soon take to his roost. Hiding behind some stacked boxes on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository he waited near a low windowsill with four bullets in his gun.
President John F. Kennedy’s glittering motorcade was making its way from Love Field through downtown Dallas. With clearing skies, after morning rains, the bubble top of the car had been removed.
That week, Kennedy had gone to the south in pursuit of reelection in 1964, visiting the two most populous states of Florida and Texas.
In the Sunshine State, Kennedy said the pioneering spirit was still burning bright in Florida and the nation, and that America was ready to head down a path “through the dark unknown that lies ahead.”
That Thursday, Kennedy began his three-day trip to Texas, which took him to San Antonio, Houston and Fort Worth before reaching Dallas.
Kennedy was accompanied by his 34-year-old wife, Jacqueline, in a move that would ensure doubling the size of the crowds for the president’s appearances. A quarter million people came out in Dallas.
In her pink Chanel suit and matching pillbox hat, Jackie waved and smiled from the motorcade as people screamed for her to look their way. Hundreds of people hung out of windows, sat on rooftops, or stood holding signs, waving and snapping pictures.
Alongside her in the convertible sat her 46-year-old husband, the war hero of PT-109, the youngest president the country had ever elected.
The Kennedys, thrilled with the reception, were seated in the car behind Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife, Nellie, who said, “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.”
The Lincoln Continental moved past the reflective pools and columns of Dealey Plaza along Houston Street, set for a crooked left turn onto Elm Street.
The sniper – who some people had seen in the window with his gun – could have shot the president head-on. Instead, he waited for the car to turn.
At 1:30 p.m., many television viewers in Marquette began watching the Channel 6 broadcast of “As the World Turns.”
In Dallas, spectators first thought they heard firecrackers or something else, certainly not rifle shots. Soon they were screaming, “Duck.” Pigeons circled in the sky above the book depository.
Some saw the rifle being pulled back into the window.
Gov. Connally had been hit.
He screamed, “My God, they’re going to kill us all.”
The president had also been shot and slumped face-down toward his wife. A bullet had come through his back and out his throat. The final bullet ripped a massive hole in the back of his skull.
The limousine sped under a triple overpass to the Stemmons Freeway.
Mrs. Kennedy had tried to climb out on the trunk of the moving limousine, but was pushed back into the car by a secret service agent.
“They have shot his head off,” she shouted.
The shooting had lasted less than 30 seconds.
Three minutes later, the sniper – briefly detained by a police officer, his boss and an NBC newsman – had discarded the rifle and left the book depository.
On Channel 6, the soap opera melodrama from Oakdale was abruptly interrupted when anchorman Walter Cronkite’s voice crackled over a CBS News Bulletin.
“In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas,” Cronkite said. “The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting.”
This began the first live television news coverage of a rapidly unfolding national tragedy. Cronkite got a camera running and was back on the air.
“There has been an attempt, as perhaps you know now, on the life of President Kennedy,” Cronkite said. “He was wounded in an automobile driving from Dallas airport into downtown Dallas along with Governor Connally of Texas. They’ve been taken to Parkland Hospital there, where their condition is as yet unknown.”
At The Mining Journal, a reporter’s wife had called the newsroom to say she’d heard about the shooting over television. Quickly, work began to reset the type for the top of the front page before the paper went to press.
“President Kennedy Shot,” the headline read.
News developments were coming in piece-by-piece from the wire service.
Cronkite was soon on television, choked with emotion.
“From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 o’clock eastern time, some 38 minutes ago,” he said.
The newspaper headline was changed to “Kennedy Assassinated.”
“Stunned townspeople were speechless on learning of the tragedy,” the newspaper would later say. “Some wept openly.”
Church bells rang throughout downtown Marquette.
“Many persons felt they ‘knew’ President Kennedy, whose pleasant smiles and gentlemanly appearances on television made him extremely popular,” the newspaper said.
A little more than a year before the shooting, Kennedy had been in Michigan campaigning for Democrats with stops in Detroit, Flint and Muskegon.
Kennedy had been to the Upper Peninsula a few times.
He’d been photographed on the Mackinac Bridge with Gov. G. Mennen Williams soon after the opening of the five-mile span Williams had championed. Bridge traffic would stop for two minutes to honor President Kennedy’s burial.
While campaigning for president in March 1960, Senator Kennedy’s plane landed in Menominee. The Massachusetts Democrat went across the river to Marinette, Wis., to deliver a stump speech about improving the country’s farm credit policies.
Three months later, Kennedy rode from the Pellston Airport to St. Ignace before taking a ferry to Mackinac Island to meet Governor Williams, hoping for his endorsement.
Williams and Michigan’s delegation backed Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles the following month. Williams was later named Kennedy’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
In October 1960, Kennedy’s sister, Eunice Maria Shriver, visited Marquette with Williams and stayed at the Hotel Northland.
Campaigning for her brother, Shriver shook hands at a packed public reception for nearly two hours.
In his election victory over Richard Nixon the next month, Kennedy carried Michigan, winning nine U.P. counties, including Marquette County.
With news of the assassination, Marquette Mayor Fred Rydholm, Ishpeming Mayor Theodore Mattson and Negaunee Mayor Earl Makela issued a statement deploring “this terrible tragedy,” expressing “heartfelt sorrow” for President Kennedy and his family.
At the Messiah Lutheran Church, college students had come to pray.
“We always encourage students, and others, to come to church any time,” the Rev. J. Otto Magnuson told the newspaper. “But this was entirely spontaneous.”
At 2:15 p.m., the shooter from Dealey Plaza shot a Dallas policeman to death with his pistol. Patrolman J.D. Tippet stopped a man matching a description broadcast over his radio of a worker missing from the book depository. Tippet was killed getting out of his car.
Marquette City Police would later collect donations for Tippet’s widow.
At 2:50 p.m., 24-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald, was arrested in the Texas Theatre in the Dallas suburb of Oak Cliff. Confronted by police, he yelled, “This is it,” pulling a pistol from his pocket that misfired.
At 3:38 p.m., Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn-in as president aboard Air Force One at Love Field. Mrs. Kennedy was at his side, still wearing her blood-spattered skirt and gloves. She had refused to change.
“I want them to see what they’ve done to Jack,” she said.
The plane soon left Texas, climbing over a storm, the dead president’s body onboard. After arriving at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, Johnson addressed the country live on television in his first statement as president.
“This is a sad time for all people. We have suffered a loss that cannot be weighed. For me, it is a deep personal tragedy,” Johnson said. “I know that the world shares the sorrow that Mrs. Kennedy and her family bear. I will do my best. That is all I can do. I ask for your help and God’s.”
In Marquette, the sun had gone down. Darkness covered the leaf-strewn streets. Overnight, those predicted frigid temperatures would now arrive.
After Friday’s sorrowful events, the weatherman’s morning forecast hit hard: “Spoiled by an unseasonably warm fall, Marquette area residents woke up this morning to cold reality and braced themselves for the winter ahead.”
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.