At 1:30, Kilkenny native Colm Bowden turned onto 14th street in Lower Manhattan. John Bohan, who’s from Leitrim, was on a building site in Yonkers with about 60 other workers.
Aughnacliffe, Co. Longford immigrant and young housewife Mary Murphy was home in the Bronx with her two toddlers. She tuned into a favorite soap opera, “As the World Turns,” on CBS.
Bostonian David Donovan had just left a class on sacred scripture at his Jesuit seminary.
One time zone and a thousand miles away, the wife of the governor of Texas, Nellie Connally, turned to the Kennedys sitting behind her in the Lincoln convertible and said: “You sure can’t say the people of Dallas don’t love you, Mr. President.” They were words of relief. The Dallas Morning News had a full-page ad on page 14 attacking the chief executive, paid for by local far-rightists. Its sentiments weren’t much different from the editorial viewpoint of the respected paper that contained it, just less subtly expressed.
The city was a center of the radical right and was run by a group of reactionary merchants. The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson, was assaulted there a few weeks before. In 1960, during the election campaign, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson were spat upon by a mob of women. When the newly elected JFK visited Dallas in 1961 for the funeral of House Speaker Sam Rayburn, the chief of police turned out to greet him. But no other dignitary did. In the fall of 1963, Sen. William Fulbright of neighboring Arkansas, and several others, begged him not to go back.
On Nov. 22, 1963 scrawled messages of hate were visible, but generally the crowds on the route from the airport were encouraging and enthusiastic. The motorcade turned into Elm Street. One spectator was New York native Abe Zapruder, a dress manufacturer. When he got to work that morning, his secretary insisted that he go home again to get his 8-millimeter camera. It wasn’t every day, she said, that you had a chance to film the president in color. So he went.
A short man, Zapruder would never have gotten a good view if he’d been closer to the Trade Mart downtown, where the president was due to speak at a luncheon. Huge throngs waited in the streets to catch a glimpse of the motorcade.
At 1:34 on the East Coast, 4 minutes after the fact, the United Press International ticker machines rattled. The news agency flashed that three shots had been fired at the presidential motorcade.
Bowden drove up 14th Street. When he immigrated to America in 1958, he got work in a department store. Then he became a truck driver, which he much preferred. But earlier in 1963, he found a job he really liked. Near Union Square, a passenger got onto the cross-town bus he was driving. “They sure take their politics seriously down in Texas,” Bowden recalled him saying. “I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
At 1:40, “As the World Turns” was interrupted. Walter Conkrite appeared on screen: “In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade,” he said. “First reports say that the president was seriously wounded.”
“I’ve never experienced anything like it, before or since,” Murphy said of that moment and the hour that followed.
What Zapruder caught on film that Friday on his lunch break was not shown publicly as a moving image for a decade and a half. By then, new technology had enhanced it. Countless generations into the future will see, in the course of a few silent seconds, the 1963 murder of the world’s most famous and most powerful man.
For those who lived it as young adults, who are now retired or near retirement age, it will be forever in black and white. They remember sirens, shaky TV images, radio voices betraying bewilderment and panic. Most reports came from somewhere called Parkland Hospital. The phrase “head wound” was infinitely more distressing to them than any graphic image could be to others years later.
Transistor radios, which some workplaces banned, appeared from nowhere. Con Edison workers huddled around one on 14th Street; one of the group shouted the news to Bowden in his driver’s seat.
Word spread at Bohan’s building site: “At first nobody believed it,” he said. “It was absolute shock. I can still feel that moment to this day.”
Cork native Margaret Aherne certainly didn’t believe it. She was a nurse, working in a locked ward for drug addicts. She thought an employee was repeating something a patient had said. When it was confirmed, she recalled, “An African American orderly said to me: ‘Well it’s been done before.’ ” Aherne took this to be a flippant comment, meaning people get shot all the time.
Dubliner Sarah Jones had just served a customer at the Georgia restaurant at Lexington Avenue and 48th Street when someone shouted the president had been shot. “The young man pushed his meal away. A cloud just came over everything,” she remembered. People stumbled onto the street, some sobbing, others dazed.
“The traffic stopped on Lexington Avenue,” Jones said. “The impact on ordinary people was incredible. It was a tremendous bolt for everyone.”
The tenor of the reports was grave. In just its second report, UPI said that the president had been hit, “perhaps fatally.”
“It was very negative from the beginning,” said Bohan, who came to America in 1957 and was drafted into the army a couple of years later.
The president is dead
In fact, John Kennedy was dead on arrival, at 37 minutes past the hour. Because he was the president, doctors went through the motions. At 2 p.m. EST, they gave up. A couple of minutes later, the media reported the earlier arrival of two priests. By then, two thirds of all adult Americans, 75 million, knew that Kennedy had been shot. At 2:23, they heard that the last rites had been administered.
As the 70-year-old Rev. Oscar Huber got into his car outside Parkland, a reporter asked him if Kennedy was dead. The priest said: “Yes, he’s dead alright.” At 2:32, his comments were flashed around the world. It was confirmation enough for most. A couple of minutes later, a distraught Mac Kilduff, the president’s assistant press secretary, made it official for newsmen at the hospital.
“I remember him taking off his glasses,” Murphy said about Cronkite relaying the news to millions of viewers. “He was crying.”
The president of the United States had been assassinated. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the youngest ever elected to that office, was dead — cut down in broad daylight. There had been icons before, living legends. Giants like FDR and Churchill, most recently, strode the world’s stage. But here was the first political superstar. He was hugely popular, as were his wife, Jacqueline, 6-year-old, Caroline, and John Jr., who was turning 3.
“Oh, he was adored,” Jones remembered.
“He was like the god Apollo,” Donovan said.
“People felt they were in the presence of a great man,” said John Thornton, editor Irish Echo at the time. Thornton, a former UPI reporter who’d been in the same room as the president on several occasions, attested to his extraordinary charisma and magnetism. “That’s something you’re born with,” he said.
“They were always in the news, they were interesting,” said Aherne, who nowadays favors Republican candidates. “They really were like royalty, there’s nothing to compare with it now. He was young, good looking and the whole shebang, And he did alright as president.”
Aherne continued in the ward until her shift finished at 4 p.m. It was getting dark. Others had stopped working. “Everybody just knocked off work,” Bohan said.
A nation devastated
Thornton had to come to an understanding with the union printers at the back of the Irish Echo’s East Harlem offices that writers whose columns were set could change their copy. It was agreed that two of the printing staff would come in on Saturday.
Despite the blanket media coverage of the assassination, the Echo got calls from people asking if it was true, remembered Thornton, who’d joined the paper in August.
At about 6 p.m., he drove to his neighborhood, Kingsbridge in the Bronx, with the paper’s general manager, John Grimes. “We went into St. John’s church. It was all lit up; people coming and going,” he said. “We said a prayer and went across to Sweeny’s bar. There were blue-collar workers and white collar. There were quite a few tears. People were devastated.
“You felt that this was a changing point in American history.”
Bowden drove his bus into the night. His shift ended at 8 p.m. “It was a very strange atmosphere,” he said. “It’s hard to describe now.”
“It was like the bottom fell out,” Donovan said.
“It was a horrible, sorry time,” Murphy said. Nobody wanted to do anything or go anywhere for days, she recalled.
Donovan remembered that in those stricter days, seminarians got to see no more than one or two TV shows a month. “But I don’t believe it was shut off for those four days,” he said.
Murphy, who was in Manhattan on Sept. 11, said that later events never had the same impact. “Everybody was a fan of the president. It was a different time,” she said. “Nothing fazes us now. We get used to these things.”
After Mass on Sunday, Thornton went back to Sweeny’s bar. Patrons saw the man charged with the president’s murder shot live on camera. “People just went crazy,” he said. They’d already suspected a conservative plot. However, Lee Oswald is still seen as the disaffected leftist crank he was revealed to be before his death. Nonetheless, some members of the 1964 Warren Commission on the assassination believed that he was a lone nut pushed over the edge by Dallas’ hothouse atmosphere.
In that year following the president’s murder, one poll found that 50 percent of adults wept over the president’s death. “Guys broke down reporting the story,” Thornton said. “You may criticize that, but that was the feeling.”
Many also told pollsters they felt the death as keenly as if it was that of a close family member. This was certainly the case with the Irish who “claimed him, more or less, as one of their own,” Thornton said.
“For the older Irish, they felt they’d lost a son. For younger people, it was like a brother or an uncle. And this wasn’t orchestrated. It wasn’t the media,” he said.
They’d watched his rise with a certain pride and not a little trepidation. In November 2003, there are nine declared hopefuls vying to be the standard-bearer in the Democratic Party’s struggle to take the White House from the GOP. At the same stage in 1959, Kennedy was the one to beat.
“He was Irish and he was Catholic. We followed his progress all along,” said Aherne, who spent time in Canada and England before getting her U.S. immigration papers.
The older generation remembered the 1928 defeat of Al Smith, the first Catholic to make a major bid for the White House. But they were different times and different men, Thornton said, something that was epitomized by their contrasting accents. America loved Kennedy’s educated New England intonations as much as it found Smith’s working-class drawl grating.
“We knew his father had a checkered past. Every Irishman knew that when Prohibition ended, he brought scotch in over the border with the Mafia,” Thornton said.
But the son was different.
“The sense of optimism, of development, of change in the world and in the church, it was just alive, it was electric, knowing he was going to be president,” Donovan said.
He’d seen JFK on Cape Cod a few days after the Democratic convention. Thousands turned out to greet him and his wife at the airport. “The place went crazy, just the excitement of these people, the Kennedys,” he said.
“We didn’t know how ill he was; how much pain he was in. It certainly wasn’t in evidence when you saw him,” he said, referring to most recent revelations about the president’s health.
“Everybody was delighted when he was elected,” said Bohan, who at that time was ready to leave the army. “The inaugural speech had something for everybody.”
Life goes on
After the assassination, life had to go on. John Bohan got married in 1964. He joined the phone company as a carpenter and then became an installer. He and his wife had two boys, one of whom from early childhood would dream of becoming a firefighter.
Colm Bowden got married also. He became the father of two daughters. He continued to drive a bus.
Bohan and Bowden, however, both young Irish immigrants from rural Ireland in the late 1950s, would take opposing positions on the Kennedy family legacy.
A middle group generally is undecided about whether JFK would have made a difference in Vietnam and has mixed feelings both about Teddy Kennedy’s role in politics and his character. That group of Irish voters tend to opt for presidential candidates of both parties.
President Kennedy was involved in clandestine operations in Vietnam, plotting to overthrow the government, said Thornton, “yet there’s the feeling that he wouldn’t have let it go as far as it did.”
Nor was he in awe of the generals. “When Johnson saw a guy in uniform, he thought it was Sam Houston,” he added.
“Sometimes I think Teddy is the worst guy in the world, and at other periods, he’s the guy who’s stayed the course,” Thornton said. He’s an admirer of Reagan and added that Harry Truman is near the top of list of his favorite presidents.
Sarah Jones is another who tends to admire presidents of both parties. “I don’t agree with Clinton’s politics, but he’s flamboyant. You need that. A good speaker. When Kennedy spoke you listened,” she said. George Bush, in her view, doesn’t seem in control and is not a good communicator.
Margaret Aherne is one of those Irish voters who over the years began to identify with the Republican Party. “I didn’t like Carter,” she said. “The Clintons are opportunists.
“The Kennedys aren’t on the pedestal anymore,” she said. “The women were alright, but there’s always some scandal attached to the men.” But like most, Aherne blames the family’s patriarch for the family’s bad behavior.
“That was just the Kennedys following the father,” said Thornton of the family’s much-documented sexual indiscretions.
During the Reagan years, Bowden became an admirer of Vice President Bush.
Personally, though, they were difficult years for him. In the 1980s, his wife was diagnosed with cancer and was given 6 months to live. “Our girls were 13 and 12,” he said. She battled the illness for a further five years, succumbing finally in November 1986 when her daughters were in their late teens.
Bowden’s mother had passed away earlier in the year in Kilkenny, and he had to return to second funeral when his brother died, in June 1987. “It was a tough 18 months,” he said. Eventually, he moved to New City, in Rockland County. He drove a bus there for 10 years. After retirement he returned. He still drives part-time.
Bowden looked back over four decades. “I was really happy with Kennedy as president,” he said. “But I don’t think his death changed anything.”
Bohan holds the opposite view. “We would have had less war,” he said. “Kennedy believed in cooperation with the whole world. Everybody as one. You can’t tell people what to do. You have to use power wisely.”
Bohan’s younger son was accepted into the New York Fire Department and in early 1998 he joined an elite rescue unit. On the evening of Dec. 18 of that year, he and two colleagues died in a fire on the 10th floor of a Brooklyn apartment building. James Bohan was given a hero’s funeral at his home parish in Middle Village, Queens. He was 27.
Bohan Sr. still looks to the family that set the bar when it came to public service and martyrdom. However, in his view, none of the younger generation has shown real potential yet. And JFK Jr. didn’t have what it took to be a politician. “But I admire Teddy Kennedy for what he’s done since,” Bohan said.
Most conservative voters said the country has survived the traumas of the 1960s and ’70s and thrived. “People still want to come to America,” Bowden said.
“This is still America,” Jones said. “People aren’t going to look down on you here.”
For Mary Murphy, who had a third child and went to work for the phone company, “America hasn’t been the same since [the assassination].” Only Clinton comes in stature to JFK as a president, she believes.
“Then we had the assassination of Martin Luther King, and Bobby. I was an even bigger fan of Bobby,” she said.
“Integration would have been more advanced if Kennedy had lived,” Bohan said. “We are still two separate races in this country.”
Donovan said: “When I look back, the assassination was the beginning of the darkest part of the 1960s. We went from idealism to a very real realism, overnight — in the twinkling of an eye.
“The whole civil rights issue and the whole war issue uncovered something in us that’s not very savory to look at,” the Jesuit priest added.
“And that’s true here in Boston. We Irish Americans were some of the worst offenders in civil rights issues. We thought it was only those Southern people, but it wasn’t at all.
“These issues are still there. We have to work very hard,” he said.
“The final legacy? The torch, to pick it up, to run with it. And I don’t think it’s just Teddy or the Kennedy family that has to do that. I think there’s part of that for all of us, that we can make the United States a better country and a better place, and not go to war with every country, which we seem to be doing at the moment.
“From my room here at the Boston College High School, a Jesuit school, I can see the John F. Kennedy Library,” Donovan said. “And despite anything that’s been said about his life, he’s still my hero.”
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.