JFK death remembered

Nov. 22, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

When former local history teacher Justine Richardson walked into her eighth-grade classroom on Nov. 22, 1963, she didn’t expect her subject to abruptly change. 

“We thought maybe it was some sort of joke,” she said. “Someone was going to say a punchline. It was just so incredibly unbelievable, and then we realized it wasn’t. We were all in a great deal of shock.”

Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, while traveling with his wife, Jacqueline, in a presidential motorcade. The events that followed in the coming days gripped the nation, including residents in Lee County.

Sanford City Councilman Jimmy Haire was a student in Richardson’s class when his principal told him there’d be bad news in the paper.

“History was my favorite subject,” said Haire, a former Herald carrier and photographer. “[With our principal] coming into the room and telling us the president had been shot and died in Dallas. I’ve got my copy of the paper here in my office.”

Haire rushed to The Herald’s office, then an afternoon paper, and watched the United Press International reports file in. He delivered his papers throughout downtown and remembered people with their radios and televisions sets on, fixed on the broadcasts.

“In broad daylight, in a major metropolitan area, the president of the United States was murdered, and it seems incomprehensible that it can happen,” he said.

The nation was bound in time by that event, he said.

“I often wonder if he had not been shot, well, no one would have been paying attention to that trip,” Haire said. “It makes you wonder about Vietnam, Watergate, and it’s almost like the ‘60s came apart at that point.”

Former football coach and physical education teacher Paul B. Gay was in the gymnasium at Sanford Central High School and remembers the altered demeanor of the children he was teaching.

“They were usually wide open, and all of the sudden, it seemed somber,” Gay said. “They were still playing, but it got a whole lot quieter. It changed the entire tone of the entire crowd.”

Sanford native Betty Lawrence was also teaching in a classroom but was hundreds of miles north of Sanford in Fairfax County, Va.

“I only saw the grief,” she said. “Grief and disbelief. We lived right up there then, and you felt more in tune with the government because you were living right there with it.”

Lawrence didn’t attend the funeral proceedings in Washington, D.C., but witnessed the throngs of people who poured into the city with somber stillness.

“We went in right after [the funeral] happened,” Lawrence said. “Thousands of people were there, but I remember the silence, the quietness.” 

Former Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Hal Siler said he heard the news of the shooting while entering a North Carolina Department of Transportation office.

“It was just a sad time,” Siler said. “And it was a disturbing time to think something like that would occur in our country.”

Lee County Commissioner Chairman Charlie Parks, a native of Dallas, was leaving the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro near Irvine, Calif., on leave when Kennedy was shot and killed.

“It had a big impact on everybody,” Parks said. “We hadn’t had a president shot in a long, long time, and I think everybody was in shock over the thing for quite a while.”

Conspiracy theories have shrouded the death of Kennedy, and Parks said people have continued to question the government’s story.

“I think the question most of us had was ‘Was it a conspiracy?’” Parks said. “There were things going on with the mafia, with Russia, and so the question came to mind then, and it is still being debated today.”