We Remember When  “A Dark Day in Dallas Descends on Gratiot County”: The Kennedy Assassination, November 1963

The setting out of flags by the Alma Jaycees, weekend of November 23-25, 1963. Gratiot County responded to the death of President Kennedy. View east from Superior Street toward the old water tower.

Front page of the Alma Record, Thursday, November 28, 1963 – one week after the assassination.

A family’s collection of state newspapers from the weekend of events in late November 1963. The events came so fast that the county – and the nation – gasped.

On November 22, 1963, 59 years ago today, Gratiot County opened with cold weather mixed with rain and snow. Overall, it was a dreary Friday as people in the county went to work or shopped. The weekend was coming, and many hoped for quitting time so that they could start their weekend plans.

 The holiday season also beckoned to Gratiot County, with Thanksgiving only a week away.

Friday, November 23: An Absolute Shock

A St. Louis woman, pregnant with her second child and already tired from shopping, sat down to rest on the swing next to the Strand Theatre in Alma. It was sometime before 2:00 pm. The swing was known as a place for the local bus stop, and people sometimes went there to watch life on Superior Street. As she sat there that November day,  a crowd began forming in front of one set of store windows on the south side of the street. In the 1960s, it was customary for stores to place television sets in the front windows to catch the eyes of would-be shoppers. The crowd in front of this store grew as the minutes passed. As she wondered about the crowd, a passerby told the woman in the swing, “Someone just shot President Kennedy.”

Howard Goodspeed of Breckenridge was busy unloading a load of beans at the Ithaca elevator. The old bean truck still had a working radio, and Goodspeed, who was not an avid radio listener, just happened to have the radio turned on. The broadcast had been interrupted to tell the audience that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. Howard Goodspeed climbed out of the truck, walked to the back of the elevator worker who oversaw dumping his beans, and told the worker, “They just shot that Kennedy.”

Working at another elevator in Middleton, David McManus of Alma heard similar news from office workers. All the men in his crew then went and got a radio, turned it on, and tried to follow news reports for the rest of the day.

At St. Louis High School, news came in about President Kennedy. Principal Levant Cazatt announced to the school student body over the public address system that President Kennedy had been shot and was dead. One student, Mike Walker, who was only thirteen years old, happened to be looking out the window and saw a janitor lowering the school’s flag to half mast. In another  SLHS classroom,  teacher Keith Wing taught government to his seniors at the time of the announcement. The group quickly became distracted by the news. In response, Wing kept calm and told his students, “We need to finish the lesson because that is what President Kennedy would want us to do.”

President John F. Kennedy’s death shocked the nation and the world. Although Kennedy was not the first President to be killed in office, it had been the first time in roughly sixty years that a  President had been assassinated. The President was young, well-liked, and prepared to seek a second term in office. A column in the Gratiot County Herald reflected Kennedy’s connection with people. “Never, never have Americans had such identity with a president. Utilizing television or radio, President Kennedy was a regular companion in the nation’s living rooms. He was a great advocate of live radio and television broadcasts of his frequent news conferences; it wasn’t unusual to see the President live on TV.”

For many in Gratiot County, as in other parts of the country, Kennedy’s time in office had been the age of Camelot. This young President, his wife, and their two children represented a new generation of Americans. And now, suddenly, Camelot came crashing down. People in Gratiot County on that Friday now asked what had happened in Dallas. Who would kill the President? What was known about the assassin(s), and what should the United States do next?

It was Friday, November 22, 1963. Thanksgiving was only a week away, and Gratiot County was not only preparing for that holiday, but Christmas was around the corner.

The effect of the President’s assassination seemed to stop many in Gratiot County almost in their tracks. Kenneth Foote, President of the Alma Chamber of Commerce, quickly noticed on that Friday many shoppers became quiet when the news came out and also headed home. There seemed to be little desire to shop as a national tragedy occurred.

The Weekend, November 24-25: Gratiot Slows Down

In many places, people called off gatherings. They huddled near their televisions and radios to catch the most recent news in Washington about President Kennedy’s death. Employees brought portable television sets to work in places like Alma, and an “overall quiet” descended as people seemed to curtail only the most necessary functions.

Area Jaycees put up flags in downtown Alma, and then city officials lowered what flags they could to half-mast, and they remained reduced for the next thirty days. The Sunday traffic was the lightest police officers had seen in recent memory, as people did not seem to be traveling very much that weekend. At Sunday services around the county, pastors changed their sermons to talk to their congregations during the crisis. Over at Ithaca, a High Mass occurred at St. Paul’s Catholic Church at 11:00 am. In some areas, special services took place in reaction to Kennedy’s death because of the county’s state of mourning.

Several county residents began to share their views and feelings about what was happening in the wake of President Kennedy’s death. One farmer remarked that weekend that “We call ourselves a civilized society. What a dastardly crime. What a sad day for this country.” Another resident stated, “You hear it and you know it, but you can’t believe it is true. Is this actually happening in America?” Another county resident asked, “How does a person respond to such a tragedy? Grief, surprise, remorse, and bitterness are all mixed together. It is difficult to express yourself on such an occurrence.”

That weekend, everyone seemed to be grasping for answers as to why a young President died the way he did.

The Monday, November 25: A National Day of Mourning

On Monday, November 25, 1963, President Kennedy’s funeral ended with his burial in Arlington National Cemetery. In contrast to Friday, this Monday in Gratiot County was bright and brisk – in some ways, the opposite of the terrible Friday that preceded it.

All schools in Gratiot County closed for the day. The Gratiot County courthouse in Ithaca closed from 11:00 am to 2:00 pm. Postal delivery stopped in the county, and factories closed. Michigan Governor George Romney asked people statewide to pause for one minute at noon to pray for the Kennedys and the nation.

Many businesses in the county closed. In St. Louis, Mayor Max Sias asked all businesses to close between noon and 2:00 pm, but many closed for the day. Sias also asked for the city’s church bells to toll from 12:55 to 1:00 pm. In different places in the county, many churches held services before, during, or after the Kennedy funeral.

After that long Monday, like the rest of the nation, Gratiot County found its way through the Kennedy funeral. However, the memory of the Kennedy assassination remained in Gratiot.

Looking Back, Gratiot County Recalls JFK’s Death

Many residents did not forget that terrible day in Dallas in November 1963. However, as the decades have passed, local memories of the event seemed to fade, according to county newspaper coverage. Over time, the fading of JFK’s death covered two generations: the World War II generation and the aging of the Baby Boomers.

Several people in Gratiot County in 1973 clearly remembered where they were ten years earlier when President Kennedy was killed. Local newspapers covered the anniversary and interviewed several people who were asked to recount where they were and what they were doing at the time. However, starting with the twentieth anniversary in 1983, newspapers seldom covered the event from a county perspective. National columnists and coverage seemed to replace the personal attachment that people in Gratiot County had to Kennedy’s death. The change probably resulted from the passing of the generation(s) that most clearly remembered the tragedy.

I still possess the cardboard box labeled “Kennedy Assassination” that my mother kept that contained LIFE Magazine and newspapers. Like many of her generation who were then younger Americans and identified with JFK, the memories of that time in November 1963 never faded. For many Gratiot County residents, the end of November 1963 and the following Thanksgiving was a terrible time in our nation’s history and a dark time in Gratiot County.

Copyright 2022 James M Goodspeed

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