Our Family Stories: JFK – Memories from the Webber Branch

I asked all of the branches of my family to send me their memories of President Kennedy and of his death. I shared my memories in a previous post. Here are the memories I received from the Webber (my paternal grandmother) side of the family – in the order in which I received them. (I have added photos and video clips.)

Bea Webber Haskins: 
university-of-marylandI was in a large lecture hall, one of those tiered rooms, at the University of Maryland, College Park. I don’t remember what class. All of a sudden, there was a gasp from someone way up high in the back. The professor stopped and asked very sarcastically if he was interrupting someone. A girl’s voice said, very haltingly and seriously, “Oh, my God. The President. The President. He’s been shot.” In the stunned silence that followed, the professor said something like, “How do you know?” or “What are you talking about,” something like that. She held up a transistor radio and said she was sorry, but she had been listening to it during the lecture and this news Zenith_8-transistor_radio.agrwas just announced. The professor, to his credit, realized the student was not fooling around and asked her to bring her radio to the front, where he turned it up as loud as he could so we could all hear it. I don’t know if he dismissed us or if an announcement came over the P.A. system, or what, but eventually we left. Classes were cancelled and it was almost time for the Thanksgiving break. My then boyfriend, later husband, picked me up. He was not a Kennedy fan, but he was as saddened by the assassination as I was.

Photo credit: By ArnoldReinhold (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tom Kessler:

Tom's parents - Woodrow Wilson Webber and Orville Kessler

Tom’s parents – Woodrow Wilson Webber and Orville Kessler

The election of 1960 when JFK was elected was the first one I remember.  I would have been 6 at that time, and Dad took me with him when he went to vote after work.  I have dim memories of a long voting line and feeling very excited about getting to go along. I was 9 years old and in the 4th grade in November 1963 and can remember learning about President Kennedy being killed from my teacher in school that day after lunch.  I don’t remember much about the discussion except for one boy saying that when he first heard about it he thought it was a bad joke.

riderless horse JFKcapitolNov25'63I had forgotten that the assassination was on a Friday, but that would explain why I have a sense of time sort of standing still and not going back to school until after the funeral which was on the following Monday when school was cancelled.  By that time we had a TV in the house, and I watched all the funeral coverage – including of course the iconic images of the funeral procession with the riderless horse, the flag draped casket and the Kennedy family with JFK, Jr. saluting the casket.

Wilda Morris:

Wilda's "Vava" - Myron D. Webber and Dorinda Webber (my ggrandparents)

Wilda’s “Vava” – Myron D. Webber and Dorinda Webber (my ggrandparents)

I graduated from high school in 1957 and went to American University in Washington DC to study political science. I grew up under the influence of Vava (Grandfather Webber), so of course I joined the Young Democrats (Vava named his youngest daughter Woodrow Wilson Webber; that is pretty strong evidence of his political proclivities).

In the fall of 1960, the Young Democrats succeeded in arranging for John F. Kennedy to speak briefly on campus on October 7, the same day as his second televised debate with Richard Nixon.  I was, of course, in the crowd of excited students listening to and cheering Kennedy. I was also among a small group of American U students who headed up Nebraska Avenue to WRC-TV, the NBC station where the Kennedy-Nixon debate took place. We stood along the

WRC-TV © by James G. Howes, 1962

WRC-TV © by James G. Howes, 1962

street by the driveway into the station and eagerly awaited the arrival of both candidates. Security wasn’t nearly as strict in those days as it is now. I could have reached out and touched Kennedy’s and Nixon’s cars when they arrived (though of course I didn’t). After the candidates went into the station, we returned to campus and watched the debate on the TV in the lounge of a dorm (In those days students did not have TV sets in their dorm rooms.).

The 1960 election was the first presidential election in which I was eligible to vote. After I received my absentee ballot from Johnson County, Iowa, I went with a Republican friend to vote and have our ballots notarized. If my memory is correct, we did that at the Registrar’s Office. We joked about cancelling each other out, though we were voting in different states.

There were evidently not many Iowans vying for tickets to the Kennedy inauguration. At any rate, my Congressman responded favorably to my request for a ticket. I had to pick it up at his office the day before the inauguration. On that day, eight inches of snow fell in D.C., more that DC knows how to handle! A lot of cars were abandoned, and traffic was a mess. It took longer than I expected to get to the Capitol Office Building, but I succeeded in getting my ticket. Standing on a street corner, waiting for a bus that would take me back to campus, I got very cold. I decided it would be better to walk than just stand there. I hiked the bus route, so I could catch the next bus, but it was a long time before one got through.

My roommate had two reserved-seat tickets to the inaugural parade. The temperature had dropped drastically so she decided she did not want to go. A friend (whose name I cannot recall) and I were happy to receive the tickets. My friend did not have a ticket to the inauguration itself, but she stuck close to me. Whenever I had to show my ticket to go through a gate, she just followed me in. No one stopped her. My ticket was for a standing-room section—we had to stand through the whole ceremony, including the new president’s speech. But we were so happy to be there that we didn’t complain. The standing room area was pretty crowded, which helped keep us warm.

After the ceremony, my friend and I walked up Pennsylvania to find our seats. We were quite fortunate, for the seats were in front of the US Treasury Building, just east of the White House. As the parade approached our seats, every act came alive. The bands began to play their best songs. Everything designed for the delight of the new president and his family happened within our view. With our coats buttoned up, our scarves tied tightly, gloved hands in our pockets, and our legs wrapped in blankets, we stayed through the entire parade.

I graduated from American University in 1961, but stayed in DC for the summer, working fulltime in the Registrar’s Office. I met Edgar Morris briefly on the last Monday evening of the summer—shortly before we both started graduate school at the University of Illinois. After we were married on August 31, 1963, we moved to College Park, Maryland, because Ed had a job at the National Bureau of Standards. As a result, we were back in the Washington area at the time of the assassination of President Kennedy. I was at home, straightening up the apartment and listening to the radio when I heard the terrible news. I called Ed at work to tell him, but I think he had heard the news there. I remember the radio playing mournful music between updates. The Bureau of Standards closed and Ed came home early. This was the first big shared sorrow of our married life.

caisson_bearing_the_flag-draped_casket_of_President_John_F._Kennedy_leaving_the_White_House..._-_NARA_-_200455Ed and I went to DC to watch the procession that transferred the President’s body from the White House to the Capitol Building. We had the sense that we were witnessing a tragic piece of history as the riderless horse passed by.

Howard and Sue Rees who worked with Baptist students in the DC area knew we were pretty distraught by the president’s death. They also knew we didn’t own a TV, so they invited us to their home to watch the funeral with their family. Had it been just me, I might have gone downtown in hopes of seeing some of the world leaders who came for the funeral. Some of our friends from Calvary Baptist Church did go to the vicinity of Saint Matthew’s Roman Catholic Church, and saw Charles de Gaulle and Haile Selassie, as well as others who attended the service. We only saw them on TV.

I lost some of my naiveté and some of my optimism when Kennedy was assassinated. Before the assassination, I don’t think I believed things like that still happened—they were part of history but not the present. Would that it were so!

Yvonne Addis:
Yvonne's Grandmother n- Dorinda Webber

Yvonne’s Grandmother Dorinda Webber

On that November 22, I was at my sorority house in Iowa City eating lunch in the dining room downstairs when our house mother came into the doorway and said, “Girls, the president has been shot.”  It is a freeze-frame moment for me.  We all went up to her apartment and huddled around the TV. Another memory I have is that soon after he was killed, I took my Grandmother Webber for a ride in our car.  I remember her weeping and saying, “It’s like losing a member of the family.”
P.S. It’s not too late to share your memories, Webber (or any other branch) family. I’ll just add them on.
And any other readers – please share your memories too!
2013.11W.11I’m linking this to Sepia Saturday as it fits the prompt theme for today.
Please feel free to read my personal memories of JFK here and my memories of the space shuttle Challenger disaster here.
But, my all means, see what others are sharing at Sepia Saturday!

Our Family Stories: JFK – I’ll Go First

I thought collecting family memories of President Kennedy would be fitting on this 50th anniversary of his death. I will begin with my own memories and post recollections of other family members in the coming days.

Kathy's 3rd grade class copyAs a young girl attending E. E. Morrison Grade School in Great Bend, Kansas in the early 1960s, most of my recollections of the Kennedy administration have to do with the push for physical fitness and space exploration. My “emotional memory” of the time is that our young president brought a sense of vigor and energy to the country, and a striving to reach for the stars – or at least the moon.

physical_fitness_kennedy-2Even before taking office, JFK made the President’s Council on Youth Fitness one of his priorities. Although authorized by President Eisenhower, it was Kennedy who asked us school children to increase our strength and speed and endurance. I remember not liking this very much as I was not athletic and suddenly, it seemed, we were asked to do a number of physical fitness tests. And we did lots of running (the first time I remember getting a “stitch” in my side), jumping jacks, sit ups and other exercises and we had to climb those darn ropes hanging from the ceiling. I never could do that! Yet – I did feel a sense of participation in making our country stronger by being stronger. I was running because the President wanted me to run. It was my civic duty.

chickenfatWhen I was looking for information about this, I rediscovered the Chicken Fat song. The name didn’t sound familiar at first, but when I listened to the song, I remembered it. Once you’ve heard it, how could you forget it? The JFK lIbrary website says this about the Chicken Fat song:

The oddest contribution to the effort may have been the “Chicken Fat” song. Meredith Willson, creator of The Music Man, wrote the song. It was sung by Robert Preston, the star of the musical. “Chicken Fat” was produced in a three-minute, radio-friendly version and a six-minute version to accompany schoolchildren during workout routines. The song didn’t get much airplay, but the chorus of “go, you chicken fat, go!” was ingrained in the memories of tens of thousands of children doing sit-ups in school gyms around the country.

I’m not sure if my teachers played this or why I know it, but I assume I learned it at school. I asked my Facebook friends if anyone remembered the Chicken Fat song and got these responses:
* Remember it well from my days @ Bowie Elementary in Corsicana. (Texas)
* I remember “Go, you chicken fat, go!” That’s about my only recollection. (Kansas)
* I remember this from my elementary school days in Daly City, Californa. I think we all really liked to exercise to it! Go, you chicken fat, go!
* I used this song endlessly when I was teaching kindergarten 1965-68. “Go you chicken fat, go! I had my own record, and played it in the classroom. (Iowa)
* I remember exercising to it on a daily basis at school and “go chicken fat, go”! (Texas)
* Can still sing along every word of Chicken Fat. My mom bought me the 45 because I loved it at school so. Music Man was one of my favorite movies so I loved that Robert Preston sang it. There was a shorter version that didn’t involve getting down on the floor. It was on the flip side of the 45. The shorter version was what we usually did at school. This was at Highland Park Elementary here in Austin in 1963-64. (Texas)

Space exploration also played a big part in our national consciousness during the early 1960s. I’m not sure, but our teachers may have brought their own portable black and white televisions from home and we watched every launch and re-entry in our dimly-lit classrooms. It was the first time I think we were ever allowed to watch television at school and this imparted a great sense of the significance of space travel and exploration.

It is often said that everyone remembers where they were or what they were doing when an event of great historical significance or tragedy occurs. My own memories of the day President Kennedy was assassinated are vague. I had just turned 10 about a month before. I have learned from school mates that we were sent home from school due to a furnace malfunction. So, unlike most school children around the nation, we did not hear the news at school.

House 2535 20th St.I remember being in my bedroom in our little house in Great Bend, Kansas with my best friend – those windows on the left side of the house were my room. My friend Cathy and I think I turned on the radio for us to listen to music and instead we learned that the president had been shot. We must have gone to tell my mother and then watched the live coverage on television in the living room.

We watched the television more than usual for the next few days – the replay of the shooting, the long lines of people waiting to pay their respects, the funeral procession, the President’s children …. just as every one remembers from those days. It was a sad time and the first in a series of assassinations that chipped away at the innocence and optimism of a generation.

Did you exercise to the Chicken Fat song? Were you inspired by the space program? Where were you when you heard the news about President Kennedy?

Memories shared by other family members coming soon!

2013.11W.11I wrote this before I decided to link up with the Sepia Saturday prompt for this week, but it fits the bill.

JFK is remembered by the Webber branch of my family here.

My memories of the space shuttle Challenger disaster are here.

And please pay your respects by visiting the historical accounts of other Sepia Saturday participants here.