By Elizabeth Keys
STILLWATER, Okla. —
On Nov. 21, 1963, President John F. Kennedy flew to Texas to give several political speeches. The next day, as his car drove slowly past cheering crowds in Dallas, shots rang out. Kennedy was seriously wounded and died a short time later. Within a few hours of the shooting, police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald and charged him with the murder.
The event and the days that followed gripped the nation as news spread via television. As the 50th anniversary of that fateful day approaches, many from Stillwater “remember when . . .”
Nina Provence, at 100 years old, still recalls vividly the day JFK was shot. She worked for Lee Harvey Oswald’s brother at the Acme Brick Co. in 1963 before moving to Stillwater shortly after the events that unfolded 50 years ago.
She said when the news came over the radio that the president had been shot, the entire office floor fell silent. Her boss, Bob Oswald, an Acme sales representative, turned white as a sheet when the radio announced Lee Harvey Oswald had been taken into custody for the assassination of the President. Provence said she could tell by Bob’s face something was wrong and she started crying.
“That’s my kid brother,” Provence said Bob Oswald whispered out loud to no one but the strained still air.
Provence’s work life turned upside down with Secret Service and FBI agents scurrying around the Acme Brick Co. for the next month interviewing employees and writing volumes about their activities.
“Bob was a good man,” Provence said and he hadn’t talked to his younger brother in a long time.
Provence had to write an account of what she had seen during the time leading up to and after the assassination. She had to document everything she did and saw with some of the reports flowing over to 10 pages and more even though no one at the company was involved. Shortly after the assassination, Bob Oswald moved into a sales manager job in another town for Acme Brick and Provence moved to Stillwater to be near her children.
“Unbelievable,” is how Stillwater High School graduate and retired Army Col. Herb Huser described the day of the assassination. He was just five days from his promotion to first lieutenant after accepting a commission in the military through the Oklahoma State University ROTC program.
“I saw President Kennedy just a year before when Fort Riley soldiers were motor-marched to Florida during the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Huser said.
Back at Fort Riley, “Needless to say, we were stunned, and the entire divisional post virtually came to a halt. Soon the official announcements started coming, and the flaky, black and white TV coverage began.”
He said it was like the world was frozen in place.
“Kennedy’s death cut him off just when he was getting his footing,” Huser said.
Later as a foreign area specialist in Latin America, Huser saw programs in action that were Kennedy’s initiative, such as the Alliance for Progress which helped improve standards of living and introduced democratic systems, a different approach as it was still the Cold War with an “Armageddon mentality between the Russians and the United States.”
He said Kennedy’s death caused enormous sadness and grief among all Americans.
“Most people still remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news,” Huser said. “Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Washington for the President’s funeral, and millions throughout the world watched it on television.”
At Stillwater High School, Vice Principal Ralph Gibson made the announcement over the intercom, Alice Williams said. She was in home economics class and it shocked everyone into silence.
“I don’t remember anyone speaking or doing anything for a long time. It was like we were all numb,” Williams said. “The principal, Mr. Sanders, eventually came on the intercom and announced that the president had died. Again, there was silence. It was shocking — such a young and vibrant president — who would do such a thing?”
In music class down the hall, Glen Epperly tried to carry on with the lesson. They sang “Oh, Captain, My Captain,” Carol Berry said. Epperly directed the vocalists strongly but “it was the first time I saw an adult cry,” Berry said.
“My family stayed close together all through the weekend and close to the TV. We felt as though we were a part of something important and we couldn’t miss any of it,” she said. “Of course, we saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald live on Sunday morning. Then, over and over again. We saw all the events over and over.”
The tragedy drew her family together as they grieved the loss of a president they loved.
“This is the only weekend of my life that I can describe in great detail. I remember what we ate and where we sat, consequently when someone asks, ‘What were you doing when Kennedy was shot?’ brings back strong family memories,” Berry said.
Janet Heath Thomas recalls the day as a fifth-grader at Westwood Elementary.
“It was the day before my 11th birthday,” Thomas said. “A sixth-grader came in and told our teacher and she cried. I remember it every year — unnerving to see my teacher cry.”
Lynn Milburn Lansford was home from school that day and her nanny, Elsie Thompson, was ironing clothes.
“When she heard it on the radio, her hand grasped her mouth and tears began to build in her eyes,” Lansford said. “She ran in my mom’s room crying, ‘Oh Lord, Oh Lord, no. President Kennedy was shot! Oh Mizz Milburn, tell me it ain’t so.’”
After Walter Cronkite said the president was dead, her parents were both visibly shaken. Lansford’s father, Dr. Judson Milburn, was a great admirer of President Kennedy and was very active in the civil rights movement.
“I was very young but knew I was living in a special time,” she said. “I was only 6 years old, but I knew something huge had changed America forever — it was the end of innocence in many ways.”