Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK: 50 Years Later

Mr. Joe Donahue '63, Prep religion teacher and moderator of the golf and basketball teams, reflects on his experience on 11/22/63.

November 22nd, 1963 - On that day and in that moment, almost every American, alive and alert, stopped and cried and wondered what was happening to our world. For the first time in my life, I had no answer, not a clue as to why that weekend in November fifty years ago stopped the world and many wished to get off and start over again.

My lifelong friend, Vince Curran '63, and I were headed to Alumni Fieldhouse on the campus of then St. Joseph’s College, now the University. On Fridays, we had the afternoon off from classes and we wished to shoot some hoops prior to a freshmen basketball practice. It was a tad after one o’clock. As we entered Coach Jack Ramsay’s office, his secretary told us the President had been shot in Dallas, Texas, just moments before.

Media was comparatively slower and smaller fifty years ago. And, as the players filtered in to that small, cramped office, there was a sullen quiet pervading that space. Yes, for the first time, the world had apparently stopped and no one wished to speak; we just wanted to watch that small, 13-inch black and white screen. Stunned and shocked would best describe the mood in Rambo’s office. “Rambo” was our nickname for the venerable and future Hall of Famer, Dr. Jack Ramsay, Saint Joe’s head coach. This pre-dated the advent of the other, violent Rambo, decades later. Around 2 o’clock that afternoon we all heard the soothing tones of Walter Cronkite, America’s newsman par excellence, finally reveal what all had dreaded to hear … “President Kennedy died … at 2 PM, EST, just 38 minutes ago”.
Americans cried just as Cronkite cried. Coach Ramsay called off practice that weekend and I, dumbfounded, trudged back to Barry Hall, packed my few belongings in my satchel, and headed toward 54th and City Avenue.

In those days we traveled by the thumb. So, I began to exercise that digit on my right hand and headed east toward the river. Shortly, a beaten, old 1952, faded green pick-up stopped. The door was thrown open and I hopped in, not really thinking much more could go wrong on this day. How wrong I was. The only thing which looked and smelled worse than the truck was the driver. Ugh! Old newspapers, emptied coffee cups, rusted pipe and broken LP records abounded in this so called vehicle. I actually was able to blot it all out and just concentrate on the fallen, beloved President . After all, here I was – seventeen, a freshman in the Jesuit College, one year out of the Prep, very naive, and now heading for the Olney section of Philadelphia and my home, and quietly stunned and quite moved by the event of that afternoon.

All of a sudden, much to my shock, this wretch driving towards Bala Avenue, out of nowhere, utters a vulgar and profane slur against our fallen President. And then another, and another, until finally, I awoke from this nightmare in November, and commanded this person to “stop the truck … now”. He had wished JFK dead, and as if he had pulled the trigger from that mail order rifle, I just had to get out of that doomsday machine. This follow-up event to our world being shattered now wasted me. I just started walking and thinking. Why do people exist who do evil things, say evil things, and think evil things? And walk I did, and contemplate the answers to those puzzling questions. No answers, just onward towards WCAU, and then onto Monument Avenue and across the Falls River Bridge, the trek started. Through East Falls, Manayunk, Roxborough, West Germantown. Mount Airy, this sojourn continued a slow, deliberate pace going nowhere other than home, still searching for answers. Through East Germantown, Logan, Fern Rock, and finally, Olney, my home, my dad with some answers, I prayed.

As I entered our home at 325 West Godfrey Avenue at almost 9 p.m., six-and-a-half hours after leaving St. Joe’s, my Dad looked up from his usual stance of reading the now defunct Philadelphia Evening Bulletin and asked me not about the President’s death, nor about my own brush with a deadened spirit in a dreadful pick-up, but rather why was I home? This was atypical since usually after a practice I would stay at St. Joe’s for the weekend practice. Remember, there were no cell phones, in fact there were very few dimes in my possession that I could make a pay phone call. I did not call him to tell him anything probably due to shock. Now he was the shocked one, why was I home? After a long exposition, Dad told me that there were evil people in our world who just do the wrong thing. It woke me. It changed me and my world. I aged a lot that weekend and watched more TV than I would ever have the chance to again. Media was all  over this. It was the birth of constant news.

And many a reporter was introduced to the questing public who just wanted to know what was going on in our world. Names like Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Bob Schieffer, Dan Rather, and countless other young reporters now became the news media on which America thrived for answers. And this media has not lost a beat since that terrible day.

And answers we got but not, I do believe, the whole story. Hopefully, those answers will someday be found, though many miles will be tread again before their revelation. “And miles to go, before I sleep”, as the poet Robert Frost had written before that other New Englander, JFK, had arrived on the political scene. And Frost had been a part of that Kennedy infusion at his inauguration in the bitter cold of January of 1961. I am reminded of Frost’s words from the same poem, which earmarks for me that awful day with the phrase found at the end of an earlier quatrain:

Between the woods and frozen lake   

The darkest evening of the year.   

This blog post was written by Mr. Joe Donahue '63, Prep religion teacher.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo, Joe! I was also at SJC, headed from Wesern Civ (Dr. Burton) to freshman math (Vince Costello). Heard it on the late Lou Fante's transistor radio as we walked from Bellarmine to Barbelin. Wound up kneeling on Costello's classroom floor and saying the rosary. Hank L., SJP '63