November 22, 2013 10:16:10 AM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
The afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963 wasn't all that different from any other day in Columbus.
Nancy Johnson, a stay-at-home mom and part-time student at Mississippi State College for Women (now MUW) had one eye on her ironing, the other on her favorite soap opera, "As The World Turns."
Rufus Ward was thinking of his uncle's funeral. The eighth-grader at Cook Junior High would be serving as a pallbearer for John Lucien Ward, that afternoon's Dispatch noted in a front-page story.
Farther from home than he had ever been, Rust College freshman Thomas Lee milled about with other football players outside his dormitory, killing time before practice.
George Irby, a senior at Hunt High, was looking forward to the big event that night, the school recital.
On the campus of Mississippi State University, Frank Davis was on his way to the cafeteria for lunch. By the time he arrived, he had lost his appetite.
On any other day, the mundane details of that afternoon would have been quickly forgotten.
At 12:30 p.m. (CST), those moments, insignificant as they might have been, became frozen in time. At that moment, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas, and those ordinary activities bonded with that great tragedy. Everybody seems to know exactly what they were doing when they heard the news.
"I wasn't doing anything interesting," recalled Johnson, who was a 21-year-old mother of two boys, ages 4 and 2 at the time. "I had gotten the boys down for their nap and I was ironing, watching "As The World Turns," when they broke in with a news bulletin and Walter Cronkite was saying the president had been shot. A few minutes later, he came back on and I remember seeing him taking off his glasses and looking up at the clock, telling us the time that President Kennedy had died."
For Johnson, the staggering impact of the news of the president's death was something she had to absorb alone.
"We didn't have a phone," she said. "I remember just putting the iron down and sitting down. I was in total shock."
For Lee, the approaching weekend meant another weekend away from his home in Columbus, a transition he was still making in his first semester at Rust College. He had finished class and was hanging around outside his dormitory with some of the other football players when someone came along and told them the president had been shot.
At first, Lee was suspicious of the news.
"That just didn't seem right, you know?" he said. "I mean, somebody shooting the president, that can't be. Then, we saw Walter Cronkite talking about it on TV and we knew it was true. I tell you, that's changed my thinking a whole lot: If somebody can shoot the president, anything can happen."
Like Lee, Frank Davis was also a student. He was walking across campus at Mississippi State to the cafeteria when another student, someone he didn't know, broke the news of the shooting.
"Incredible as it was, I didn't doubt it," Davis said. "It hit me right away. I didn't really know what to do, how to react, so I just went on to the cafeteria and had my meal. Nobody in the cafeteria had much of an appetite, though. Nobody was talking much, either. It was just very, very quiet. You could just feel the sadness all over the campus."
George Irby, a high school senior, was looking forward to that night's school recital. The news, he said, produced in him something like the sensation you might get when riding a roller-coaster.
"My stomach just turned inside out,"he said. "We were just kids, and when you are a teenager like that, so much of what's going in the world doesn't seem to have any real effect on you. But this was different. It hit us hard. We were sad, so sad. That night, that recital was a lot more like a visitation or a wake or funeral. It had that feel to it."
That day, Ward had a funeral on his mind. His uncle, affectionately known as "Big Lucien" had died. A prominent Clay County farmer, his obituary was printed near the top of the paper in that day's edition of The Dispatch. Rufus was to be one of the pall-bearers at the Saturday funeral, but it was another funeral on Monday, one held at Arlington National Cemetery that would become a fixed image in the nation's collective memory.
When word of the assassination first arrived, Ward said most of the students at Cook Junior High couldn't grasp it.
"I remember initially people kind of laughing, you know, thinking it was a joke," Ward said. "Then it sunk in: This is for real. I remember a few people saying, 'Well, the country will be better off.' But not many. For most people, it was just a total shock."
Shock, sadness, confusion were common emotions felt by those who remember the moment they heard the tragic news from Dallas.
But for the black community, the loss seemed far more personal.
"I guess it was just that for many black people during that era, we were looking for good things to happen with Kennedy as the president," Irby said. "He had done some things that were visible, real for us, and it gave us hope that we had a president who could make a difference. When he was shot, so many of us were thinking, 'Well, maybe things are going to be like the way they were before.'"
In the first hours after the assassination, Lee assumed Kennedy had been shot because of his stance on Civil Rights.
"That was my first thought," Lee said. "So many things were happening in the area of Civil Rights at the time and people had a lot of hope because here we had a president who stood up and said something. When he died, there was this hopeless feeling."
Life, of course, would go on. Nancy Johnson and her husband, Tommy, own Johnson's Carpet Center and have been married 55 years. Rufus Ward, went on to become an attorney and is now a well-known historian and author in Columbus. Lee returned to Columbus and is the owner of Lee-Sykes Funeral Home. Irby has been a civic leaders, active in a broad range of programs, serving in a variety of capacities. Frank Davis stayed at Mississippi State, where he earned his PhD. and taught in the university's entomology department for almost 30 years.
Still, the events of Nov. 22, 1963 remain a fixed point in their life journeys.
"Oh, I was just so sad," Johnson said. "I just thought (Kennedy) was wonderful. I was young. He was handsome and his wife was wonderful. Their children were the same age as my children. Maybe that's why it all seemed so personal. I remember seeing Jackie at the funeral with her two little children. I couldn't imagine."
For Lee, the JFK assassination was an awakening.
"It did change the way I looked at the world in a way," Lee said. "I had never imagined that kind of thing. Did this really happen in the United States? In Dallas?
"I just kept thinking, 'How in the world?'"
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]