By Ginger Livingston
Thursday, November 21, 2013
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy Jr. devastated the nation and broke the hearts of Greenville residents.
That’s because three years earlier Kennedy charmed Greenville and eastern North Carolina with an 87-minute campaign stop that featured a motorcade through the city, a stop at a tobacco warehouse and a speech at then East Carolina College.
“Folks felt like they knew him. They had shaken hands with him and had been around him for an hour or two. They had an attachment with him,” David J. Whichard II, editor of The Daily Reflector in 1963, said. “When you’ve met somebody and seen him close up you feel like he’s a part of you.”
Kennedy’s connection to the area is being remembered 50 years after an assassin’s bullet struck him at 1:30 p.m. eastern time Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, while he traveled in a motorcade through the city of Dallas.
Throughout that weekend Greenville mourned Kennedy as if he were a native son, gathering at memorial services held by churches, East Carolina College and even the tobacco warehouse he visited in 1960.
Blount-Harvey’s Department Store displayed a portrait of Kennedy, a Bible, flowers and black bunting in its window.
In his book “John F. Kennedy’s North Carolina Campaign,” East Carolina University Professor John Allen Tucker documents Kennedy’s campaign stop in Greenville and the rest of North Carolina. He also notes Greenville’s reaction to the president’s death.
“Kennedy’s North Carolina campaign then resulted in more than electoral victory,” Tucker wrote, “It created an unprecedented bond with a statesman, one that has not been matched since.”
Other presidential candidates had visited North Carolina but they went to the large cities, Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro.
Kennedy was having a difficult time in the South because he was a Massachusetts Catholic, Tucker said. Prominent southern religious leaders, such as Martin Luther King Sr., did not support him because of fears he would be a proxy of the pope.
Kennedy had struck up a friendship with North Carolina gubernatorial candidate Terry Sanford, who had broken from the state’s delegation at the Democratic Party National Convention to support Kennedy, Tucker said.
When Kennedy came to North Carolina, he knew he would be coming to the rural east and he would make it his first campaign stop.
He visited Farmers Warehouse where a tobacco auction was staged for him and he accepted a bouquet of tobacco leaves. He drove through town and then delivered a speech at East Carolina College.
Following his Greenville stop, Kennedy went on to campaign in Greensboro, Charlotte and Raleigh. A stop in Asheboro was canceled because of weather.
“I think the Kennedy visit made all the difference in the world,” Tucker said. He not only won the state, but between 60 percent to 80 percent of the votes in most eastern North Carolina counties.
“Without that visit, it would have been easy for people to be apathetic,” Tucker said.
Louis Gaylord was a Greenville attorney who served as master of ceremonies for the college speech and rode with Kennedy as his car looped around the speech site.
Gaylord said Kennedy amazed him because he took in details about the town while waving to the crowds.
“He was a much smarter man than I because I didn’t think he was paying attention but he remembered it all,” Gaylord said.
That November in 1963, Gaylord was sitting in traffic when he heard the announcement that the president was dead.
“I thought by golly, he’s the president,” he said. “That was my reaction, not that he came to Greenville or that I had been master of ceremonies during his campaign, but he was our president and had been assassinated and how horrible it was.”
Tucker is a Greenville native. He was 8 years old and a student at Elmhurst School when Kennedy was assassinated.
“I don’t think I quite understood what a funeral was and that this was a real person who died,” Tucker said.
The principal went to each class to make the announcement, he said. When the students left for the day they were told to go home quietly and promptly. Tucker said the tone of her voice let them know there should be no pranks or joking around.
While discussing the day, another memory stuck out for Tucker.
Ficklen Stadium was under construction and a worker had been killed in an accident. Tucker said as he walked by the site in later days he was struck by how inescapable death felt.
Down the street at J.H. Rose High School, which is now C.M. Eppes Middle School, sophomore Thomas “Tommy” Forrest also was in one of the classroom outbuildings that were called the shacks.
“Someone came into the classroom and said they heard the president had been shot,” Forrest said. “A little while later they made the announcement over the intercom that the president had been shot.” Forrest was completely stunned.
“I never thought in my lifetime a president would be assassinated. That was something that was supposed to never happen. It was something that happened in other parts of the world,” he said.
Forrest said his most vivid memories are of the following Monday when he and his classmates gathered around the school’s flagpole for a memorial service. The flag was raised, then lowered to half-mast.
Forrest had pursued photography from a young age. Local television reporter Roy Hardee had Forrest shoot film for the story.
“A lot of people were very emotional,” Forrest said. Later, a teacher allowed students to use her class to discuss their thoughts and feelings about the assassination.
Forrest became a photojournalist, covering events involving former president Jimmy Carter, former vice president Al Gore and a multitude of other dignitaries.
“It made me a little more cautious when I’m around dignities,” Forrest said. “I photographed Jimmy Carter and I remember having a thought in the back of my head, ‘What could happen?’ ‘What would happen’ if something went haywire,” he said.
Forrest said he always is cautious about his surroundings. “It really struck this nation and really changed the way people think.”
Across town, the staff of The Daily Reflector, then an afternoon newspaper, were finishing up Friday’s newspaper when the teletype went wild.
“From what I remember it was alert, the president had been shot or the president had been fired at, I don’t remember exactly,” Whichard said.
What he does remember is that despite the shock, everyone scrambled to redo the front page.
“It’s the reaction you have in a newsroom; we have to get it out, we can’t wait until tomorrow,” Whichard said.
Assembling a front page was no easy task in 1963.
The paper was produced using linotype, where lines of copy were cast in metal and then assembled on a plate.
Typesetters prepared The Associated Press stories and reporters got the reaction of community leaders.
“It had to be put together piece by piece, line by line,” Whichard said. “There was only so much you could do in that time.
“I’m pretty sure The Daily Reflectors that day weren’t deliver until after dark,” he said.
The community’s grief was intense,” Whichard said. So was his own grief.
“I did admire him. I had met him in Washington before. Shook hands with him, talked to him,” he said. “He was a different kind of president than what we had. He was the World War II generation, not the World War I generation. He represented something different than what we had.
“All the folks that fought in World War II they were the same age as him and that group just blossomed after the war,” Whichard said.
More than a president was lost on Nov. 22, 1963, according to most people.
“We lost something, something about respect for each other and we need to get it back,” Whichard said. “We lost our melding as a nation. We need to share our views in a civil manner.”
“I feel like Kennedy could have been one of our best presidents ever but he was taken away from us,” Forrest said. “But then again, we have to move on, we can’t dwell on tragedy. We have to make sure that it never happens again.”
Contact Ginger Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-329-9570.
via The Daily Reflector.