55 years since John F Kennedy’s assassination - we ask where were you when JFK was shot?
PUBLISHED: 14:02 21 November 2018 | UPDATED: 16:04 21 November 2018
The famous saying goes that everyone knows where they were then they heard John F. Kennedy was shot. On the 55th anniversary of the US President’s assassination, Nick Richards puts that to the test by asking some of our regular writers what they remember from November 22 1963.
• Mum wrote to Jackie Kennedy to tell her about dad’s death and we got a reply - Derek James
“When I think of the assassination of John F Kennedy my mind recalls a time the year before...when a knock on the door changed my life forever. It was a Saturday afternoon towards the end of 1962. I was 13 and sitting in our front room at Diss watching Mister Ed, the talking horse, on the television.
“Then I saw a policeman walking towards the house. My first reaction was to think “what have I done wrong.” I rushed to get to the door before my mother did.
“He looked very sad: I still remember what he said. “Hello son. Is your mum in? Best put the kettle on.”
I showed him into the room and went into the kitchen to do just that.
Then I heard her scream....
“Two neighbours then arrived on the doorstep to comfort her. They rushed in to see my mother and I was left on my own to hear the news through the hatch that my father had collapsed and died while playing golf in Norwich. He was 53.
I remember sitting on the floor, crying.
“My father, Harold James, had been the captain of Diss Golf Club and the South Norfolk secretary of the National Farmers Union, was well known.
There were hundreds of people at his funeral. My mother was too upset to go. I was an only child so I walked behind the coffin with an uncle I had only met a couple of times.
I grew up very quickly. I admit now my mum had a tough job bringing me up on her own.
“A year later I was at away at school where I was a weekly boarder, Earsham Hall, near Bungay. We were woken up in our dormitory by a teacher saying that President Kennedy had been shot dead. My first thoughts were for his family.
“A few months on my mother wrote to Jacqueline Kennedy offering her deepest sympathy and telling her how she had lost her own husband in very different circumstances. A while later a letter, with a black border, arrived from the USA thanking her.
“A small gesture which meant so much.”
• I have better memories of Dr Who starting the next day - Mary Dorrell, Norfolk WI
“I was 12 and living in Surrey. I don’t recall anything from that Friday ... but then a quick Google reveals that the news broke in the Granada TV area and the BBC and ITN newsflashes came later, and maybe by the time I was in bed.
“In any case, this was well before the days of rolling news coverage and at 12 my parents, having had an eventful war, were still shielding their children from the news. But I do very, very clearly remember what was on TV the next day - the first episode of Doctor Who!
“I discussed it with a friend, who was at sixth form college at the time and she does have clear daytime memories of being in floods of tears with friends, at the time. But this may have been on the Monday, when the funeral took place.
“If you were to ask me the same question about Aberfan, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the first moon landing, I have clear and graphic memories. Not only was I older, but technology had developed hugely and pictures could be beamed around the world much more easily.”
• There was numbed silence in the cafe I was in - Keith Skipper
“I was a 19-year-old trainee reporter at the Dereham office ploughing enthusiastic furrows on my home mid-Norfolk patch. I took an afternoon bus into Norwich for a local government lecture at City College and walked back towards the bus station to get my return lift to Dereham.
“I popped into a café nearby while waiting. A chap rushed in to announce President Kennedy had been shot. At first, we thought he was kidding – but after a while several others came in with the same dramatic news picked up from radio. There was numbed silence and people seemed frightened to move as if some strange evil force could be lurking outside. One of my first reactions was to reflect on the number of big events claiming headlines that year – The Great Train Robbery, The Profumo Affair and Henry Cooper dumping Cassius Clay on his backside among them. Now the president of the USA had been struck by an assassin’s bullet. My bus trip back to Dereham caused me to wonder what else might shake our world before I got there.”
• We were scared that the world would never be the same again - Helen McDermott
“I was nine at the time and I remember hearing the news on my dad’s radio in his old van. Dad had a hardware shop called McDermott’s in Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire and I think I was helping him and mum deliver wood and paint to a customer. We lived in a very small flat above the shop. I remember mum and dad being completely shocked by the news.
“I went to a stage school called Arts Educational School in Tring five miles away. At school we didn’t have computers or TVs so they brought one in especially for us to watch the news coverage. We didn’t understand why this had happened and were scared when the adults said that life would never be quite the same again.”
• I rushed into to work to help bring out a special edition of the paper - David Henshall
“I was 34 in 1963 and deputy chief sub of the Evening Standard. I was at home playing with my children when the phone rang and my boss Charles Wintour, editor of the Standard, told me JFK had been shot. Along with other members of staff I was called back for an immediate London meeting to prepare the next day’s newspaper. With the co-operation of all departments our special edition was on the streets more than an hour earlier than usual, meeting a sad, shocked public on their way to work. In the days of hot metal with the unions virtually running Fleet Street, getting people to work through the night for an evening newspaper special occasion was nothing short of a one-off miracle and testimony to the shock value of the tragic news.”
• There was stunned silence in the cinema - Charlie Haylock “I was in the cinema somewhere in London and the B film was about to start (in those days the A film, which was the main film, followed the B film, a few cartoons and Pathe News) when a notice came across the screen that JFK has been assassinated. That’s all I can remember other than the great gasp that came from the audience…and then silence.”
• The Beatles took away the pain - Martin Newell “I was 10-years-old and lived in Chester. It was a Friday in late November. A very dull time for a schoolboy - November 5 being long gone, Christmas still miles away. When the monochrome TV was turned on, only serious classical music was being played. I asked my mother the reason for this. She explained to me that President Kennedy had been shot. Much as this may seem a cliche, I remember the whole period: early winter, the north of England and the president’s death completely in monochrome. It was, as they say nowadays, ‘a thing’.
“Days later, I went to the library, and borrowed a big hardback biography of John F Kennedy. I still remember reading that in WW2 he’d served on a patrol boat, that he came from a big Irish family and that his mother (I think) was called Rose. But mostly, I remember the strange solemnity of that time 55 years ago.
“Oddly enough, though, The Beatles sort of lit it up, about two weeks later, when the four of them appeared on Juke Box Jury ....as the jury. Never been done before – and I Wanna Hold Your Hand came out around about then and promptly went to Number One on both sides of the pond.
“It was all part of a series of events which declared tacitly, the real end of the 50s and the beginning of the 60s, I reckon. Kennedy is thought of as the 60s nowadays. He was actually made by the 1950s.”
• I was covering a speech by a young Tony Benn - Michael Cole
“I was a 20-year-old reporter covering a speech by rising Labour star Tony Benn in Acton. Arriving at 7pm, Benn was told Kennedy had been shot but decided to go ahead with his speech. Thirty minutes later, a party worker scurried forward to whisper that Kennedy was dead. Benn announced this and then said: “I am going to continue because if John Kennedy had been British, he would have been a socialist, and I’ll tell you why…”
“Benn had recently renounced his peerage as Lord Stansgate. Another reluctant peer, Quentin Hogg, formerly Lord Hailsham, was addressing a Tory meeting elsewhere in Acton. Hearing the news from Dallas, he burst into tears, led his audience in prayers and abandoned the meeting. Whenever I met Tony Benn in the years that followed, he always said: “You were there with me on the night Kennedy was killed”.