News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

November 22, 2013

Day remembered: Valley residents recall assassination of President Kennedy 50 years ago today

TERRE HAUTE — Mike McCormick still gets emotional as he recites part of the eulogy delivered by Sen. Mike Mansfield after the assassination of President John Kennedy 50 years ago.

“There was a sound of laughter; in a moment, it was no more. And so, she took a ring from her finger, and placed it in his hands. … ”

McCormick, then an Indiana University law student, was so moved by Mansfield’s eulogy that he memorized it.

Mansfield, majority leader of the U.S. Senate, had delivered the eulogy at the bier of the president in the Capitol Rotunda on Nov. 24, 1963, two days after the president’s assassination.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas, and people across the country are honoring the memory of the slain president.

McCormick and others readily recall that dark period in U.S. history. He remembers watching several days of television coverage, including the funeral march and 3-year-old John-John (Kennedy’s son) saluting his father’s casket the day of the funeral. He watched as Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s assassin, on live television that Sunday.

But it was Mansfield’s eulogy that especially had an impact on McCormick. “I thought it was one of the greatest eulogies I had ever heard,” he said.

Another paragraph of that eulogy read:

“There was a father with a little boy, a little girl, and a joy of each in the other. In a moment, it was no more. And so, she took a ring from her finger, and placed it in his hands.”

On Nov. 22, 1963, the IU law student had just got out of class around lunch time. He walked to a restaurant across the street, saw Walter Cronkite on a black and white television and someone told him, “The president’s been shot.”

McCormick was “glued” to television for the next several days.

In 1960, when he was running against Richard Nixon, Sen. Kennedy visited Terre Haute twice in his bid for the U.S. presidency, and McCormick had an opportunity to meet him at the Terre Haute House.

“He shook my hand and gave me eye contact,” McCormick recalled. “He had great charisma and a disarming smile. … You felt you were meeting someone glad to meet you.”

The Kennedys “were indeed Camelot,” McCormick said. “They were beautiful people, wealthy,” but nevertheless, able to relate to those who weren’t.

Kennedy visited Terre Haute in February 1960, when he spoke on the ISU campus, and he returned in October, when he spoke outside the Vigo County Courthouse.

‘People were just numb’

Phil Garrigus was 12 years old and an eighth-grade student at Rockville Junior High when Kennedy died.

It was right around lunch time at school when students and staff started hearing about the shooting. The school had recently been renovated and for the first time had a new, school-wide intercom.

The school administration turned on a CBS radio station and the whole school heard the news. Dan Rather, a rookie broadcaster in Dallas, fell into being its main correspondent throughout the afternoon, Garrigus remembers.

“You could hear several classmates crying in my and other rooms,” Garrigus said.

That evening, Rockville had a basketball game with State High School, and he rode to Terre Haute with his sister and her friends.

Before the game, they walked down Seventh Street to Wabash Avenue to spend some spare time. Normally bustling on a Friday night — especially before Christmas —  “Wabash Avenue was literally vacant. Nobody was out,” Garrigus said.

Before the game, State offered a prayer in the gymnasium for the slain president.   

That Sunday, live on TV, Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald inside the Dallas police station.

“Everyone felt we were in the middle of a bad dream; people were just numb,” Garrigus said. “The rumor mill already started about a possible Soviet connection to the assassination and subsequent silencing of Oswald, so everyone was very scared and apprehensive about the future.”

That Sunday was a beautiful, but cold day. Garrigus and a good friend, Jerry Gould, played basketball outside for a while, “not necessarily because we wanted to, but because it was the only thing that resembled normalcy that weekend.”

Garrigus was a big Kennedy fan. “I knew nothing about politics or national issues but was pulled onto the Kennedy bandwagon by his charisma,” he said. “He seemed to have a presence about him that showed there was promise for our country, and he was the guy that would get it done.”

Garrigus, who is vice president for retail product sales with First Financial Bank, wonders how history would have regarded additional years of his presidency, had Kennedy lived.

“The assassination weekend is one of those events I have and will always remember the rest of my life,” said Garrigus, who saved and still has the Nov. 22, 1963, edition of the Terre Haute Tribune, with a front-page article about the death of the president.

An inside article, written before the assassination, described how the president’s wife, Jackie, appeared to “enjoy every minute” of her Texas visit.

‘Everyone sat silent’

Terre Haute resident Judy Dukes was a teacher at Clayton High School in Hendricks County the day of the assassination. As the news was breaking, she was in a study hall with about 90 students, including one, “Jane,” known for her tardiness and “telling whoppers.”

Once again, Jane was late, and she rushed into the study hall, saying, “They’ve shot him — they’ve shot President Kennedy.”

Dukes initially viewed it as another tall tale. But when she stepped into the hallway, she saw the principal and guidance counselor (both male) standing in the middle of the hall, crying.

She had just turned 23. At that time, “It was actually the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I was young enough that I hadn’t had a lot of bad personal tragedy.”

It was a tragedy for the country as well. “We thought we were so invulnerable, riding high after World War II in this big boom” economy, she said.

After word was out about the shooting of the president, the study hall became very quiet. “We sat silent. Everyone sat silent.”

When the bell rang to go to the next class, many people were crying, she recalled.

She stopped one of her students on the stairs and asked him, “Is it true?” the student responded, “Yes, ma’am, he’s dead.”

School dismissed early that day.

People were in a state of shock. “The idea that someone could bring down the world leader, the leader of the greatest country in the world, it was just not something we could grasp.”

‘A personal loss’

In 1960, Jerry Kearns also met then-Sen. Kennedy during one of his campaign stops in Terre Haute. Kearns recalls standing in a lobby at the Terre Haute House when he told the late John Hanley Jr., “I’m going to shake his hand.”

Hanley was skeptical.

“I said, just watch me.” And Kearns made his way to where Kennedy stood in front of an elevator, extended his hand and said, “Welcome to Terre Haute, Sen. Kennedy.”

Kennedy replied, “Thank you.”

Security was much different and much more lax then, he said.

The future president was friendly, and he looked “well rested and confident,” said Kearns, who was about 24 at the time and an Indiana State University student.

On Nov. 22, 1963, Kearns remembers driving his car in Terre Haute when he heard on the radio that President Kennedy had been shot. “It was a shock; it was terrible,” he said.

Kennedy, killed in the third year of his first term, “had the potential to be a great president,” Kearns said. He faced a lot of challenges during that three years, including the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“I think he was developing into a very strong commander in chief,” said Kearns, who later served as a Democratic state representative in the Indiana Legislature and also as a Vigo County Court Div. 4 judge.

The assassination and funeral and continuous live television coverage over several days gripped the nation. For many, regardless of their income or background, Kennedy’s death “was like the loss of a very close, well-loved family member,” Kearns said. “They felt a personal loss.”

Kearns also met Robert Kennedy, who visited Terre Haute in 1968 during his campaign for the presidency.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or


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