It was beyond belief! It happened 50 years ago, Nov. 22, 1963, but in my mind, the images are as vivid as though it happened just yesterday.
It was lunch hour at Sacred Heart Cathedral High School, a closed campus parochial school in Gallup, and the whole student body was assembled in the gym/cafeteria. As was our mode, all females sat at the south end tables, while the males sat across the gym floor at their stations. Our teachers, mostly Franciscan nuns and priests, circulated as we unpacked our lunch or brought our cafeteria trays to the tables where we socialized.
At my table, my fellow seniors were reminiscing about the National Honor Society installation the night before in the very same site. We were all seated, eating our lunch, when suddenly, Father Venard, our counselor and speech teacher, came bounding out of the kitchen area, carrying a plate on which was an ample slice of the celebratory cake we had been served at the installation the night before.
As he raced toward his office at the far end of the gym, we jokingly said, “He doesn’t want to share his cake with anyone.” A few minutes later, Father Venard exited his office, ashen-faced, and almost simultaneously came the booming voice of Father Owen, our principal, over the P.A. system: “All students are to report to their homerooms immediately!”
We had no idea what was going on, but we immediately followed the directive. A few minutes later, the main corridor of our school was emptied, as students filed to their homerooms, all abuzz with “What’s going on!”
The somber voice of the principal came over the intercom. “Students, we have just learned that President Kennedy was shot in the head in the Dallas motorcade. All homerooms are to pray the rosary.”
No questions asked, we were immediately led in praying the decades by our homeroom teacher. In short time, we heard Father Owen’s voice: “Students, school is suspended for the day.” That, in itself was a shock. Never, in our shared experience as students at CHS, had school been dismissed early.
In shock, we left our homerooms. Rumors were rife, as information regarding Lee Harvey Oswald’s role was divulged.
Some students, given the “Cold War” atmosphere of the time, were saying things such as, “The Russians are behind this.” Girls were teary-eyed, fearing their boyfriends would be drafted on the spot. We went to our lockers and deposited or gathered our books and headed for the exit.
Few of us owned vehicles, but our classmate and friend, Rosie Knight, had a Scout, and she invited a group of us to pile in. “Who lives the closest?” someone asked. Well, it just happened to be me, so I caught the drift and invited the others to my house, three blocks away, so that we could catch what the networks were providing as coverage of the tragedy.
The three-block drive felt like an eon, but before too long, we entered the driveway of my home, piled out and went into the front room, turning the TV on immediately.
The networks all had footage of the various stages of the tragedy. More sniffles from the girls. By then, my younger brothers, ages 8 and 10, had arrived from their dismissal from school and joined the group. Apparently, the gravity of the situation hadn’t hit them, in their innocence. I caught them snickering at the weeping girls gathered in our front room in front of the TV set.
Some girls called home to tell their parents where they were. I’ve got to say that we all wanted the feeling of security not only for ourselves, but also for our families. We wanted to regain that feeling of safety that we had lost during the unfolding of events we were watching. It was like the most horrible thing we could imagine. It was a loss of innocence.
On that day and in the days that followed, the relatively “new” but ubiquitous television coverage chronicled the series of events that followed — the swearing in of Lyndon B. Johnson, Lee Harvey Oswald’s arrest, his subsequent murder by Jack Ruby, the image of the horse-drawn caisson bearing the casket on its way to the Capitol, the images of the Kennedy family, and especially little “John-John” saluting the passing casket.
The American public was shocked into the reality of the times. From a 50-year perspective, I tend to believe that perhaps no other historical event, except the bombing of the twin towers, affected Americans and their sense of security so starkly. Nevertheless, then and today, our country has survived.
God Bless America!
Lupita Gonzales is an educator and member of the Optic Editorial Board. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.