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Locals recall assassination of JFK

On 50th anniversary of event


by: MADRAS PIONEER - The Madras Pioneer newspaper from Nov. 28, 1963, memorializes President John F. Kennedy, less than a week after his assassination.Most U.S. residents who are at least 55 years old recall exactly where they were and what they were doing on Nov. 22, 1963 — the day the 35th president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was assassinated.

Whether they were in a classroom, at home or on the job, people have vivid memories of the day that Kennedy was shot and killed while he was riding with his wife, Jacqueline, and Texas Gov. John Connally in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.

"I was in third grade and I recall my teacher coming in crying and said, 'The president’s been shot and you need to go home to be with your families,'" said Dan Martinez, fire chief at Warm Springs Fire and Safety.

At the time, Martinez was in elementary school in Salinas, Calif., five or six years before his family moved to Warm Springs.

"I remember riding on the bus and seeing people stopped on the highway and listening to the radio," he said. "Our bus stopped and the bus driver got out and went to listen to a radio."

When Martinez got home, his dad had tears in his eyes, and he felt the sadness in everyone around him. "Nothing seemed to be normal. Everything just came to a complete stop in the communities; stores were shutting their doors and people were crying and hugging each other in the street."

The event cast a pall over Thanksgiving, six days later. "It still affects me to this day," he added.

Kennedy campaigner

When he was "young and very idealistic," retired Madras schoolteacher Walt Ponsford campaigned for JFK, so he was particularly impacted by the assassination.

"I don’t think anyone forgets that day," he said. "I was in a classroom and the principal came by and informed us the president had been shot and they didn’t know if he was going to survive or not."

Ponsford, who had started teaching English and social studies at the Madras junior high school (now Westside) just two years earlier, said that he and his students were shocked when Kennedy's death was announced over the intercom. Classes were dismissed and everyone went home.

Although he doesn't remember any of his students crying in the classroom, Ponsford himself became emotional when he listened to the news at his home. "I couldn’t believe someone would do that," he said of the killer, Lee Harvey Oswald. "I sat there and watched the television thing unfold and became weepy."

"It was one of those times in American history that everyone remembers," said Ponsford, who was in his first year as a teacher in Monmouth when JFK was running for office, and went door-to-door to campaign for him.

"He was more than a fresh face; he seemed to be really concerned about people," he said. "We thought we needed a change. President Eisenhower was certainly an honest man, but we thought we needed some youth. It was easy to support someone who was basically the youngest president ever elected."

At the time of the election, Ponsford was attending a church with a preacher who said, "You’re not going to heaven if you vote for a Catholic," he recalled. "That cooked me; I didn’t go back (to the church). The protester in me said how dare you say that; it was an awful hateful time."

The bigotry against Kennedy, which reminds Ponsford of the way some people view President Obama today, "made me more determined than ever to support him," he said.

Catholic perspective

Longtime Madras resident Alicia Bauer was a junior in the nursing program at the University of Portland, working in the orthopedic section at the old St. Vincent’s Hospital in Portland when she and co-workers heard the news on television.

"The whole atmosphere of everything just changed," she said. "When I could, I went out and stood on the fire escape, just to get myself together. When I came back in, there was not a peep down that long hallway; it was like a tomb."

Bauer, who graduated and married Floyd Bauer the following year, and moved to Madras in 1965, has clear memories of that fateful day.

The hospital, which has since been torn down, was a Catholic hospital, so before Bauer left for the day, she went up to the chapel, which she estimated would hold 100-125 people.

"On a normal day you might see one or two (people)," she recalled. "It was a good three-quarters full."

As Catholics attending a Catholic university, Bauer said that she and her classmates paid close attention to the news.

"When I first found out, people weren’t crying; it was just like a change in your world had come about and it was a little too soon," she said, noting that every single person seemed to feel the change.

"He was a real leader and young people loved him because he was different," she said. "He was a good example of a Catholic and he stood by his religion."

Crime of the century

Jim Gilbertson, of Culver, called JFK's assassination "the crime of the century."

On that November day, Gilbertson, who lived in the Valley at the time, was on his way home from a duck-hunting trip, when he was listening to the radio and heard that Kennedy had been shot.

"I turned the radio up, kept driving and I got into Lebanon and pulled over," he said. "I had to hear if there was any chance of him coming out of it. I sat there for maybe a half-hour and then went home."

When he got home, Gilbertson, who was 28 at the time, with a wife and two young children, turned on the television to watch and listen. "I was completely flabbergasted," he said. "I think I cried."

His wife, Althea, felt terrible, too, he said. "It was like the wind was kicked out of us."

Gilbertson had been very optimistic about the country's prospects under Kennedy. "To me, he was the hope and the future that would get this country going in a straight and fair manner."

Kennedy had survived the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis, but the civil rights movement was growing, and the country faced international issues from the Cold War and the looming problems with Vietnam.

"He came through the Bay of Pigs; he accepted complete blame for it," said Gilbertson, who found Kennedy's openness refreshing, and looked forward to a second term.

Around the time of the assassination, Kennedy had sent John Kenneth Galbraith, a trusted advisor and the ambassador to India, to Vietnam to check out the situation, Gilbertson said.

"When Galbraith went in there and sized it up, he was on his way back with the message, 'JFK, you need to get out of there,'" said Gilbertson, who believes Kennedy would have taken Galbraith's advice and averted the Vietnam War. "JFK was smart enough to see that was not the thing to do."

Instead, he continued, "Johnson took over and he went into Vietnam and made a hell of a mess of it."

Gilbertson will never forget that awful day. "I'll remember that till the day I die," he said.



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