November 19, 2013 03:38PM
By Jesse Buchanan
On Nov. 22, 1963, Jack Clancy was in the Southern New England Telephone Co. building in Hartford installing automated long-distance devices in the switchboard room. Electromechanical switches flipped when a call connected and throughout the day there was a steady click-clack of calls being made.
“All of a sudden it just cranked up to a drone that was unbelievable,” Clancy said. “The experienced guys said, ‘Something big is happening.’”
Clancy and his coworkers tapped into some of the phone calls to learn that President Kennedy had been shot.
They also heard a variety of stories that included an assassin with a machine gun wiping out the entire cabinet along with the president and vice president.
“The rest of the day it was rumors, rumors, rumors,” said Clancy, of Meriden.
For some who can remember 50 years ago, it was the day the country lost a measure of its optimism and faith in government along with an iconic national leader. The death preceded other assassinations and years of war, but Kennedy’s memory also provided motivation for those who joined the Peace Corps or became teachers.
The Kennedys were symbols of hope and youth as well as fashion plates for those in their early 20s such as Carole Milano, a Southington resident.
“We related to Caroline Kennedy and Jackie,” she said. “We all wore pillboxes and suits. We all emulated her.”
While eating dinner with her husband and daughter, Milano had the television on and learned of Kennedy’s death. A phone call came in shortly after from her husband’s uncle who said he had news, but not about the president.
Milano’s father-in-law, who admired the president, was so upset after hearing of the assassination that he’d had a heart attack and died.
“He was so distraught,” she said. “He loved President Kennedy. He was so enamored of him.”
“We can’t remember the president’s death without remembering the loss of my father-in-law,” Milano said.
Milano and her husband turned down an invitation to a fundraiser this year scheduled for Nov. 22. She said they like to keep a quiet day in remembrance of both her father-in-law and the president.
The assassination was devastating to those like Milano who had identified so closely with the Kennedys.
“When the late president Kennedy was shot, a lot of hope died within people. There was so much hope, there were so many thoughts for the future,” she said.
“You just want to cry even so many years later,” Milano said.
Meriden came to a halt following the news on Nov. 22.
“Practically every activity of a social nature scheduled for the weekend was cancelled or postponed as the assassination of the young chief executive of the nation made it impossible for anyone to attend any joyous event,” said a Record-Journal article from Nov. 23, 1963.
Masses and church services were held throughout Meriden on Nov. 25 coinciding with the president’s funeral. A mass at St. Rose Church on Center Street included city, Southington and state police officers along with Meriden firefighters.
Tom Yankus, an English teacher at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, was at the Yale-Harvard football game in New Haven when others in the bleachers stopped watching the game and started crowding around handheld radios.
Yankus, 29 at the time, left the game to return to Choate.
“I remember driving back and I was just staring at the road. I was so distraught about it,” he said.
On the Friday of the assassination and in the following days the campus was quiet as students were watching events on television.
In 1963 there were still teachers who remembered Kennedy as a student when he attended Choate in the 1930s. Yankus said the young Kennedy and his friends were called “muckers” by the headmaster at the time and were known for their antics.
“The headmaster had threatened to throw him out a few times,” Yankus said. “They would just do stuff to make the faculty upset.”
“Luckily Kennedy’s father came through with a gift and the headmaster changed his tune,” he said.
Yankus, now 79, still teaches at Choate. The school is holding events in honor of Kennedy surrounding the anniversary of his death.
Shortly after the assassination, many weren’t sure what to believe about the news that was coming in. Even five decades later there’s still doubt in the minds of some about exactly how or why the Kennedy assassination transpired. Stephen Hoag, 13 at the time of Kennedy’s death, said he doesn’t believe that the president’s death was the work “of some crackpot” and speculates that there was some design behind it that keeps the government from releasing more information.
Opposition to the Vietnam War might have sprung in part from the distrust in authority that began after Kennedy’s death.
“It had no chance in the public eye because you didn’t know what the motive was,” Hoag said. “It seemed every man for himself.”
The first time Stephen Hoag heard rock and roll at Dag Hammarskjold Junior High School was the day Kennedy died.
Principal Philip D’Agostino thought the popular music had no place in school. Hoag and his fellow students were shocked on Nov. 22, 1963 to hear rock in their classroom.
“Over the intercom came the number one song in the country at the time, Sugar Shack,” he said. “I don’t know if it was on purpose, I don’t know if it was just on the radio station.”
The song played for about a minute before D’Agostino came on. Hoag said he’s still not sure why that song came on but now can’t hear it without remembering that day.
“He said, ‘I want you all to quietly go home now. The president has been shot,” Hoag said.
“It turned into absolute dead silence,” he said. “You couldn’t hear a locker door closing, everyone just left.
In 1960 Kennedy spoke in Wallingford while on the campaign trail. Hoag’s mother brought him to Main Street to see the future president. The closeness Hoag felt with the president made the assassination all the more jarring.
“Nothing was ever the same about things. It changed how you listened to music. You were a little skeptical, you were a little hesitant to let your heart go in different directions,” Hoag said.
He credits Kennedy with his career in teaching and for many years a portrait of Kennedy hung over Hoag’s desk at the state Department of Education.
“It seems like you’re always surrounded by that moment, Nov. 22,” he said. “How would my life have been different if Jack had lived?”
Brian Maloney, a high school senior in Milford when Kennedy died, believes he wouldn’t have spent 1967-68 in Vietnam had Kennedy remained president. In interviews with Walter Cronkite, Kennedy said that he supported sending materiel but not soldiers to aid South Vietnam, Maloney said.
“(Thousands) of us wouldn’t have gone to Vietnam if he hadn’t died,” he said. “He was going to send no more American troops.”
When asked how his life might have been different had Nov. 22, 1963 come and gone without incident, Maloney didn’t speculate.