"It seemed like the whole world stopped."
It was 50 years ago this Friday that President John F. Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas. Several local public figures recalled their reaction to the assassination and its aftermath, including former East Chicago Mayor and longtime Democratic power-broker Robert Pastrick.
"I was in Chicago doing a little shopping," Pastrick, now 86, said of the moment he heard of the shooting. "Everybody around me was stunned. It seemed like the whole world stopped. I jumped in the car and came home, and I couldn't help but shed a few tears."
Pastrick ran for secretary of state in Indiana the year Kennedy ran for president and recalled how he heard the Kennedy-Nixon debates and other campaign goings-on as he drove around the state on his own campaign.
"He was my idol. No question," Pastrick said of Kennedy. "I met him on several occasions. In 1960 I was chairman of the Young Democrats of Indiana, and we ran a project for the party, a door-to-door kind of thing organizing people all over the state. We raised money."
Pastrick and two other Lake County political associates, Kevin Rochford and Bob Doyle, went to meet with Kennedy at the hotel next to the Merchandise Mart in Chicago to try to persuade him to come to Lake County to speak to the Young Democrats.
"He came to the door in his shorts and a cover on. We looked out the window, and I asked him how it felt to have a father who owns the Merchandise Mart. He laughed. He couldn't have been more gracious to us. All three of us were astonished to be there," Pastrick said.
Pastrick said he went to the White House to talk about state fundraisers with Kennedy, meeting Jackie on one occasion, and said, "I felt somewhat of a connection to him and admired him so much that I couldn't help but follow him and whatever happened in the papers."
Like most of the nation, he watched the television coverage all weekend and said, "I felt it was such a great loss to the country. He was such a good man and he had a wonderful family. It was really sad."
Coincidentally, Pastrick said he was in Chicago in 1945 when he first heard of the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A spring high school graduate, Pastrick said he was in the city to see a play when FDR's death was announced.
Others who shared their memories of Kennedy's killing include the following:
Valparaiso Clerk-Treasurer Sharon Swihart, who was attending business school in South Bend. She said the class was on a tour of Miles Laboratories in Elkhart "to get a look at a modern office atmosphere."
"While we were there, someone came up to the lady accompanying us and said the president was shot, and the tour ceased," Swihart said. "Five or six of us got into the car to go back to school, and the radio said he was dead. A girl next to me got her rosary out. It was just devastating. We couldn't imagine something like that happening. We were kids growing up in the '50s and '60s, and, other than the Cold War, we felt safe."
She said her parents hadn't supported Kennedy, "but it didn't matter. He was the president." She spent the weekend glued to the TV and said, "I remember it was just an amazingly shocking thing to me. I knew Abraham Lincoln had been killed, but (it was not something I expected to happen) in 1963."
State Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, was a teacher and had gone to see her mother, as she often did during her lunch hour.
"I remember walking in and seeing my mother very distraught and I became immediately concerned, and that's when she broke the news to me. I couldn't believe it, and I had to see and hear it myself," Rogers said. "All of us were Kennedy fans. He certainly represented to us what was going to be a brighter future for African-Americans. We thought he stood out as a warning to move forward with some of the problems being experienced at that time.
"I remember having to talk with the students about it. I taught first grade, and I had to deal with it on an elementary level. The teachers gathered to talk about it, and the principal was adamant that we all get back to our rooms and continue teaching. I remember sitting down with the first-graders to talk about the president. I didn't have a lot of the information, but we shared with the students."
The murder of Oswald by Jack Ruby happened as Rogers and her family were leaving church, and she said it raised concerns about what led up to it and who was involved.
"I still remain among those who believe there is more to the story than we have been privy to, and I am not generally a conspiracy theorist," she said. "I don't know if it was because it was so unbelievable. I had never heard the word 'knoll' before, and I looked it up in the dictionary to find out what a knoll was. I can remember as if it was yesterday."
Jim Murphy, former Porter County councilman, treasurer and auditor and now a Kouts councilman, was a freshman at St. Joseph College in Rensselaer hanging around the student union before going to a 2 p.m. economics class when someone came up and said Kennedy had been shot.
"There weren't TVs everywhere like there are now, and there were hardly any radios," Murphy said. "I went to class, and someone had a small transistor radio and put it in his ear. The professor was going on and on, and the guy raised his hand and said Kennedy was dead. The professor said, 'That's a terrible shame. I'm sorry to hear that. Now, getting back to the point I was trying to make ... .' And he finished his lecture as regular."
After class, some went to the chapel to pray. Saturday classes were canceled, but a memorial service was held before students were told they could go home through the Thanksgiving weekend. A condolence book was set up in the cafeteria for students to sign. Murphy said he attended the service and then hitchhiked home, where he watched the TV coverage.
Murphy said he visited Kennedy's grave at Arlington National Cemetery in September along with the graves of Kennedy's brothers.
"That brought back a lot of memories," he said
David Hollenbeck, attorney for many local public bodies over the years, was eating lunch in the cafeteria at Glenbard High School in Glen Ellyn, Ill., when the principal came on the public address system to say Kennedy had been shot.
"He asked for a moment of silent reflection and instructed us to go on with the rest of the day and an update would be provided," Hollenbeck said. "My first class after lunch was social studies, and about an hour later we got the second announcement that the high school would be closing and the president had been pronounced dead.
"We all went home. We had no idea what was to come, and we were all in a state of shock. We had grown up as the front end of the baby boomers, and there wasn't a lot to cry about. The country was prosperous and dominant in the world. We were on top of our game as a country, and it wasn't comprehensible to most of us, especially as young people.
"We went from awfully good and prosperous to significantly changing in terms of the world we were dealing with," Hollenbeck said. "The JFK assassination was the beginning of that evolutionary process. We certainly learned a lot about the process of government. We'd never seen a presidential funeral."
Lake County Commissioner Gerry Scheub was in Chicago on an errand and called his wife to tell her when he'd be home.
"She was crying so badly, and I thought something terrible had happened in the family," Scheub said. "When she told me Kennedy was assassinated, I didn't know what she was talking about because it was so unbelievable. She was still crying when I got home. It's still a tragedy to this day.
"I thought he was doing the right things and pulling the country in the right direction," Scheub said. "His inaugural speech was really a great speech and set the right attitude, and we didn't have anybody like that come along again until Ronald Reagan."
Lake County Surveyor George Van Til was in study hall at Illiana Christian Academy when someone told students of the shooting.
"I heard he was shot, and I remember thinking he's the president and they have incredible doctors around him and if anybody can survive a gunshot wound, it would be the president with all the modern technology," Van Til said. "That was me trying to persuade myself that the worst hadn't happened. Then we heard he was dead, and it was totally stunning."
His family didn't have a TV, so Van Til said he spent much of the next three days at a neighbor's house watching the coverage.
"The thing that never ever left me is the sound of the drums in the funeral parade," he said. "And the Navy hymn. It was an incredible time. I'm one of those idealists who believe things would have been different. I wonder if Johnson would have been as successful domestically. I think he used the death of Kennedy to pass civil rights and all sorts of wonderful things."
Valparaiso Councilman Mike Baird was a sophomore at Valparaiso High School (Now Ben Franklin Middle School) and was on his way back to school with his father after having lunch at home when the news came on the car radio.
"When we pulled up in front of the school, we both kind of sat there and listened to the rest of the story," Baird said. "I didn't learn he had died until later in the school. The whole weekend was kind of numbing. A stronger memory is watching TV and seeing Ruby shoot Oswald. All the family was watching the television, and we couldn't believe we had seen Oswald being shot. It was a very unusual time."
State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, was teaching at Carver Elementary School when "the word just circulated through the building with no announcement."
"For the first time in a while I think most African-Americans were comfortable with Kennedy. He seemed to help those who couldn't help themselves," Brown said. "They all viewed President Kennedy as a friend of the African-American community."
News of the shooting "brought the second floor of Carver to a halt," Brown said. "Most of the teachers were in the hall trading sentiments about the shooting, and it had a tremendous impact. It was a tremendous loss personally and for the United States. It was difficult to find someone who had the stature and believability of John F. Kennedy."
Brown said Kennedy's election helped open the door for people like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to rise from relative obscurity to the oval office.
"The thing that stands out most and endeared people to him the most was the family values," he said. "The whole family was a unit, and they stood together. It was something very charming and engaging."
Munster Town Manager Tom DeGiulio was in gym class in the eighth grade when he heard, and the funeral occurred on his birthday.
"I remember being mesmerized by watching all that stuff," DeGiulio said. "It began to sink in a lot more when we watched the stuff on TV. You do come to grips with it. I don't think about the conspiracy theories, but, at a young age, I felt the loss of somebody. We learned about Abraham Lincoln, but when you get this first hand, it's different."
The fact he followed the news coverage led him to a more idealistic philosophy, he said. Eventually, he was among those who protested the Vietnam War, and it helped him decide on a career in public service.