Updated: December 23, 2013 3:01PM
The searing and heartbreaking news that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed during a motorcade in Dallas broke a few moments after 12:30 p.m. in Chicago 50 years ago today.
Here are some recollections of Southland residents of that terrible day, one that, in just six seconds, changed the history of the nation.
Dee O’Leary, 67, of Chicago’s Mount Greenwood community, was in her social studies class during her senior year at Mother McAuley High School when the principal announced over the intercom that the president had been shot.
“She said we should pray. A little while later, they came on and said he had passed away. That’s firmly implanted in my head,” O’Leary said. “It was unbelievable. The policeman being shot, (Lee Harvey) Oswald, Jack Ruby. It’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years. It doesn’t seem that long.
“It was one of our country’s biggest losses. He was a great man. I would have loved to have seen what President Kennedy could have done in a second term,” she said.
O’Leary, who went on to become a school teacher at Our Lady of the Ridge School, thinks Oswald was the lone shooter but said his motive will never be known.
“I have no idea why he did it. Maybe he didn’t like what the president stood for? Why do so many people do the things they do?” she said. “They shoot little kids to get back at gang members. It’s just unbelievable.”
Like O’Leary, Bill White, 64, of Worth, was in school that November day.
“They just told us ‘go home.’ We were looking at each other, saying ‘what’s going on?’ I was shocked,” he said. “I went home. My parents were crying. I watched TV with my mom, my dad, my sister and my brother. The mood was so somber. Nobody talked.”
White was watching TV the morning of Nov. 24 when Oswald was shot by Ruby at Dallas police headquarters.
“How the hell did Ruby get in there to shoot him? Back then, I thought Oswald did it alone, but now, no. Like with Bobby Kennedy, too. There was something there, too. Somebody didn’t want the family in the White House,” White said. “I don’t think someone could take three shots in six seconds. Whoever fired the shot at him had to be damn good. He had to be good because if he wasn’t, he would’ve taken out the First Lady, too.”
Screams in school
Tinley Park Mayor Ed Zabrocki was in his first year of teaching at Bishop Noll in Hammond, in a classroom of students studying American literature when over the intercom the principal delivered the news.
“You could hear the screams” from around the building, Zabrocki said. “After, everybody kind of walked around in a daze.”
Jim Garrett was a high school freshman in Houston and got the news over a loudspeaker in his classroom.
“There was an incident with the president, a shooting in Dallas, something to that effect,” said Garrett, president and chief executive of the Chicago Southland Convention & Visitors Bureau. “There were no other details.”
Even before learning that the president had died, Garrett said he and other students were in shock.
“We were thinking, ‘is this a dream? This can’t be right,’” he said.
Tom Maloney was a freshman at Mount Carmel High School in Chicago when the announcement was made about the shooting. He said he didn’t learn until he got home from school that Kennedy had died.
“My mom and grandmother were in front of the TV in tears,” Maloney, president of the Tinley Park Chamber of Commerce, said. “I didn’t need to be told what happened.”
He said that for someone his age, it was “incomprehensible” that such an assassination could occur.
Chicago Ridge Mayor Chuck Tokar’s family owned Tokar’s Supper Club on 111th Street at the time. TV sets were tuned into the coverage. He was in grade school at Our Lady of the Ridge.
“It was a crazy day, boy. I was 10 years old. I knew some history. I knew about Lincoln. Here’s this vibrant, practically brand-new president with little kids and somebody shot him,” Tokar said. “It was a nightmare. I was watching TV when Oswald got shot. It was the most incredible thing I had experienced in my life..”
He also recalled watching CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite compose himself, removing his glasses and pausing, when delivering the news that Kennedy had died.
“I don’t know how he got through that,” Tokar said.
‘Everything fell apart’
Like every American old enough at the time to realize the tragedy, residents of Peace Village senior community in Palos Park remember where they were when they heard the awful news.
Dolores Trezise, 91, was a stay-at-home mom in Oak Lawn.
“That’s a day I will never forget. I had the radio on in the kitchen and all of sudden they flashed … big report. So I ran to the front room, turned the TV on and I couldn’t believe what I saw,” she said.
Her husband, Harold, 91, was at work as a supervisor at a bus garage in Chicago, where workers were installing a new TV that day, Dolores said. The first thing they saw on the screen was a news flash that the president’s motorcade had been shot at.
“Everything fell apart after that,” she said. “It just seemed like it wasn’t the same, wasn’t the same country after that. Things were scary.”
Lorraine Grant, 83, was studying biochemistry in graduate school at the University of Chicago when she got a message to call her mother. She knew right away something was wrong. News of the assassination immediately impacted the nation’s mood, she said.
“Suddenly there was an air of instability in our country,” Grant said, comparing it to how people felt after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The rash of conspiracy theories that surrounded Kennedy’s death exaggerated the aura of mistrust, she said.
“(Abraham) Lincoln was assassinated, but everyone just accepted that John Wilkes Booth did it and moved on,” she said, but Kennedy’s assassination made people start questioning everything.
Bob Dumke, 88, was working as a deliveryman on that day and had taken a break to have lunch with his mother when the news came over the radio.
“I remember thinking, ‘Who would want to kill John Kennedy?’ ” he said.
Afterward, there was a lot of confusion and all kinds of conspiracy theories, but “I still believe he was killed by one man, Oswald,” Dumke said.
Lines of communication
As the killing of Kennedy and its aftermath played out, people were riveted to the television for days for the latest news — including Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as president and Oswald’s death two days later that occurred on live coverage.
“I was having a terrible time trying to prepare Thanksgiving dinner because I could not stop watching the TV,” New Lenox resident Wanda Jones said. “It’s like Sept. 11. We all remember where we were.”
Jones was on the phone with a friend when her friend’s husband interrupted with the news.
“The phone lines were so busy, you couldn’t make a call,” she said, recalling the days of party lines.
“We were all devastated at the time. In that day and age, it was the worst thing we could imagine happening,” said Rose Paun, another resident of the Guy Sell Senior Housing Center. “That was the first one in our lifetime. The whole nation was traumatized, even those who didn’t vote for him.”
Conspiracy theories abounded then, as now. Jones said she first wondered if Johnson was part of the assassination plot.
“My son always said Oswald could not have been the only shooter,” she said.
Contributing: Susan DeMar Lafferty, Steve Metsch, Mike Nolan and Donna Vickroy