50 years later, JFK’s death remains seared in memory

A stab of sadness. A shroud of grief. A nation changed.

When an assassin’s bullets struck down President John F. Kennedy a half-century ago, it was a loss of global magnitude. For Americans mourning a vibrant 46-year-old leader, it was also personal.

“It’s hard to put it in today’s context, and very hard to explain it to people who didn’t experience it,” William Prochnau said.

On Nov. 22, 1963, the former Everett man was a 26-year-old newspaper correspondent in Washington, D.C. He spent part of that darkest day with U.S. Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, another son of Everett.

“It’s not going to go away. Camelot will remain a legend — even though it’s pure myth — for a millennium. With endless speculations about the assassination, it’s Shakespearean,” said Prochnau, 76, from his home in the nation’s capital.

Dr. Sidney Schwab, 69, was inspired when President Kennedy visited his college shortly before the assassination in Dallas. A retired surgeon who lives in Everett, Schwab was at Amherst College in Massachusetts on Oct. 26, 1963.

That’s the day Kennedy came for the groundbreaking of Amherst’s Robert Frost Library. Frost, who had taught at Amherst, recited his poem “The Gift Outright” at Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration.

Remembering Kennedy’s campus visit, Schwab said, “There was that whole aura. He was young. He expressed big, big ideas.”

Schwab watched as a Marine helicopter carrying Kennedy landed on the college athletic field. He heard the president speak at the convocation. Those were heady times for an idealistic college kid.

“That airy feeling of affirmation lasted well beyond his visit,” Schwab said. “A couple weeks later, he was gone. It felt deeply personal, painful down to the soul, as if we’d lost a best friend and part of ourselves.”

Prochnau, a 1955 Everett High School graduate, had been in Washington, D.C., less than a year on Nov. 22, 1963. He was a correspondent for The Seattle Times. A former Herald writer, he would go on to cover the Vietnam War, author the acclaimed book “Once Upon a Distant War,” join The Washington Post staff, and become a contributing editor for Vanity Fair.

That day, Prochnau said, “I was with Scoop.”

The U.S. House and Senate had adjourned. “It was the quietest I’d ever seen Washington. Everybody headed for home,” Prochnau said. “Scoop didn’t go home, and didn’t close his office. His wife was in Everett.”

Jackson, a Democrat, had served many years in the Senate and before that in the House with Kennedy. According to Prochnau, Jackson had been strongly considered as a vice presidential candidate in 1960.

Yet on that Friday, Jackson had little to say to a young reporter about the fallen president. “He was like all of us, a little dazed,” Prochnau said. Instead, they went for a walk.

Jackson, he said, “spurned politely” any questions about what had just happened in Dallas. Prochnau remembers walking with Jackson to the Senate payroll office “to correct a small mistake in his paycheck.”

Toward evening of that Nov. 22, Prochnau said, he had an experience that is stunning in retrospect. “I went down to the White House — it shows how much easier things were to do back then. I just walked in,” he said.

President Lyndon B. Johnson had been sworn in as president on Air Force One before it left Dallas. The plane returned to Andrews Air Force Base later in the day. “All the press was out at Andrews,” Prochnau said.

In a story he also told in Vanity Fair in 2008, Prochnau said he instead went to the White House. He saw newspapers, extra editions reporting the assassination, strewn on the floor.

“There wasn’t a soul there, not even an attendant. I heard a rustle in the East Room area. I figured it was probably the press. I turned the corner and walked in. There was this huge man walking straight toward me,” he said.

It was Johnson, he said. The new president had a startled look and was accompanied by “no more than four Secret Service men.” Prochnau remembers mumbling, “Mr. President.”

“They brushed by me — no strong-arm stuff,” said Prochnau, who recalls Johnson being quickly hustled behind closed doors.

Prochnau’s work took him to the Capitol rotunda that Sunday, Nov. 24, as Kennedy’s body lay in state in a flag-draped casket. He was there for Kennedy’s funeral Nov. 25, and took a bus with other reporters to Arlington National Cemetery, where Kennedy is buried.

“It was a very, very dramatic scene. And it was very cold,” he said. “The guy playing taps missed a note. He probably hadn’t missed a note in 20 years.”

At 43, Everett Community College history instructor Jason Ripper is too young to remember any of it. A scholar of American history, he will talk about the Kennedy assassination and its far-reaching effects in a program at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Everett Public Library.

Ripper agrees with those who do remember that the country’s loss was felt personally. The tragedy, he said, was heightened by the president’s youth and energy, and “his beautiful wife and children.”

In a country that rejected a monarchy, Ripper said, there is still “the cult of the presidency.” With Kennedy that was “magnified by youth and mystique, and by an unbelievably tragic murder,” he said.

For Ripper, the public’s never-ending interest in the Kennedys is a two-part phenomenon. First is the fascination with the Camelot image. There is also a perpetual “sense that something strange and dangerous must be behind all of this,” Ripper said. He doubts a definitive answer will ever surface to quench the curiosity of conspiracy theorists.

Ripper believes the assassination itself warped reality. “Kennedy was barely elected. His policies were not popular with a lot of people. Most of that was washed away in the grief,” he said.

The assassination clearly altered history far beyond Nov. 22, 1963, both Prochnau and Ripper said. They pointed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as one change that came when it did because of Johnson’s presidency.

“I’m not sure Kennedy would have gotten the Civil Rights Act passed. Johnson was a real man of the Congress,” said Prochnau, who believes civil rights legislation would have eventually come, but likely not in Kennedy’s time.

As for the Vietnam War, Prochnau doesn’t think its course would have been vastly different had Kennedy lived. South Vietnam’s president, Ngo Dinh Diem, was assassinated Nov. 2, 1963. “Vietnam was going to fall apart,” Prochnau said.

Ripper said President Johnson “did escalate things” in Vietnam. “The Nixon presidency grew out of the ashes of Vietnam. In that sense, the big picture, it certainly made for a changed America,” said Ripper, author of the two-volume “American Stories: Living American History,” published in 2008.

In Everett on Nov. 22, 1963, Art Ruben was working at The Everett Herald as a “copy boy,” mostly helping in the advertising department. He was also an Everett Junior College student.

“When word came about Kennedy’s death, some members of the staff were stunned and crying,” said Ruben, now 71. The news staff went to work. By the end of the day, about five editions of the paper were published, he said.

The next morning, Ruben went to the pressroom to get page mats used to create metal plates for the printing press. That was part of his job, which included retrieving ads to be reused for some clients. Those page mats — a mix of paper and asbestos — are relics of the hot-metal era of typesetting.

Ruben had the presence of mind to save two pieces of history — mats impressed with the day’s news used to create Page 1 editions on Nov. 22, 1963. He framed one for himself and gave the other to Larry Hanson, now a retired Herald publisher.

“It’s a unique piece of history,” Ruben said.

History has its shocking days. On Sept. 11, 2001, Prochnau was teaching a college class. The students, he said, “could not believe Pearl Harbor could possibly have been as big as 9/11.” The impact of World War II was lost on them, he said.

“I think 9/11 was a terrible shock,” Prochnau said. Yet as an emotional wallop, he thinks the Kennedy assassination “was bigger.” It was personal.

“Maybe it’s just my age then,” Prochnau said. “The Kennedy assassination — I just cried a lot.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

JFK program at library

Everett Community College history instructor Jason Ripper will explore how the assassination of President John F. Kennedy changed our world during a free program at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Everett Public Library Auditorium, 2702 Hoyt Ave., Everett.

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