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JFK assassination: Bridging tragedy and tomorrow for 72 hours in Cincinnati

Posted at 8:41 AM, Nov 22, 2013
and last updated 2018-11-22 13:21:49-05 published this story on the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, Nov. 22, 2013. We're reposting it for the 55th anniversary.

CINCINNATI - When dawn came on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963,  Greater Cincinnati awoke with excitement.

The weekend was almost here and the holidays were just around the corner.  The newspapers – the morning Enquirer and afternoon Post & Times-Star - were already filled with Christmas sale ads, even though Thanksgiving was still a week away.

The long-awaited opening of the Brent Spence Bridge across the Ohio River and the new sections of Mill Creek Expressway and Fort Washington Way was coming up Monday. A big celebration was planned with the governors of both states crossing the bridge in simultaneous passing motorcades – one north, one south – along with fireworks.

In preparation, the newspapers printed maps, diagrams and photos to explain to overly cautious area drivers – in sometimes remedial terms -  how to get on and off, what to do and what not to do. One Enquirer story headlined “Study X-Way Rules” included a warning about stopping on the expressway, saying it “not only can cause pile-ups of traffic but also increases the danger of collisions.”

Another article headlined “Whose Jurisdiction: Int. 75 Bridge Holds Problems” explained how Cincinnati and Covington police would handle accidents.

Big events in sports and entertainment were scheduled:

The University of Cincinnati and Miami University football teams would mark the diamond anniversary of their rivalry on Saturday at Nippert Stadium. The NBA Cincinnati Royals – the original Big Red & Blue Machine featuring future Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas and  Jack Twyman – had home games Friday and Sunday at Cincinnati Gardens.

In a couple of days, the National League would announce its Rookie of the Year and college football would hand out its Heisman Trophy to the best player in the land. Cincinnati-born heroes were favored to win both awards.

There was considerable buzz about the national tour opening of  “A Man For All Seasons” at the Shubert Theater on Monday, and teen heartthrob Troy Donahue was in town to open his new movie,  “Palm Springs Weekend,” about college students romancing on spring break, at the Albee.

Mostly unnoticed was a new exotic dancer in town from Dallas, by way of a strip club run by a certain Jack Ruby.

Meanwhile, other events in and outside Cincinnati were shaping the course of history.

Parents of 44 black school children (local newspapers still used the terms Negro and colored) were preparing to file suit Monday against the Cincinnati School Board, alleging that it promoted racial segregation in the way it set up school districts.

Archbishop Karl Alter was in Rome attending the Second Vatican Council, which opened the way for Mass to be said in English and revolutionized the way Catholics practice their faith still today.

Somewhere in Southeast Asia, in some place called Vietnam, Communist guerillas shot down a B-25 bomber, killing two U.S. Air Force pilots. The plane was on a strafing and bombing mission against guerilla positions, military sources said.

On Friday morning, Page 1 stories in the first edition of the Post & Times-Star reported about two scandals involving kickbacks to Cincinnati city employees. Inside were three political stories:

“Labor Hopes to Swing Ohio to JFK in 1964” detailed Democrats’ plan to build support in a state where Richard Nixon had defeated President Kennedy in 1960.

The young, charming Kennedy had lost the vote in very, very Republican Hamilton County despite making a campaign trip here just 30 days before the election. Before speaking downtown, then Sen. John F. Kennedy had visited three homes on Park Avenue in Newport. He wanted to meet Gold Star Mothers – women who had lost sons in World War II, as his mother had. Kennedy had tea with Ethel Steil and her family in their living room, then kissed and hugged her and her granddaughter when he left.

Greeted by a huge throng on Government Square, Kennedy mispronounced the city’s name, calling it “Cincin-notty,” then made fun of himself.  The crowd responded with laughter and applause, as noted in the text published by the American Presidency Project:

RELATED: See the video and read Kennedy’s remarks.

“Cincin-notty has voted - it is called Cincin-notty in Boston, and I am from Boston (laughter and applause)," Kennedy said. "We are going to explain to you how to pronounce it (laughter). This city (laughter) - this city has supported the Republican candidate for the office of the Presidency ever since 1936. I think it is time you changed.”

In “Taft Lashes at Dems for Poor Leadership,” Rep. Robert Taft Jr., freshman Republican from Cincinnati and great-grandson of President Taft, blamed Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and a collapse of Democratic leadership for the “miserable record” being set by Congress.

The third story, headlined “President Playing Double Role in Texas,” explained that Kennedy and his wife Jackie were touring Texas’ major cities to mend rifts in the state’s Democratic Party as well as campaign against 1964 Republican favorite Barry Goldwater. A photo showed the Kennedys with big smiles after the First Lady spoke in Spanish to a Mexican-American group attending a rally in Houston Thursday night.

The Kennedys were headed to Fort Worth and Dallas on Friday.

As workers arrived at Hess & Eisenhardt in Blue Ash Friday morning, they might or might not have known where the Kennedys were. But Willard C. Hess probably did.

Two years earlier, Hess’ company had armored and customized a Lincoln Continental for the White House to be the presidential limousine. That’s what the Kennedys were riding in in Texas.

“We had worked on that car. We had a personal pride in it,” Hess told the Enquirer in 1991.

The dark-blue limo had fur carpeting, lap robes embroidered with gold thread, built-in flood lights and 5,000 feet of communications wiring.

It also had a removable bubbletop designed to withstand .50-caliber rifle bullets. 

“It was probably the most fabulous automobile built in this decade,” Hess told the Cincinnati Rotary Club in 1964.

On Fountain Square, crews were putting up the city’s Christmas tree Friday morning. Downtown workers were in a festive mood. Restaurants were jammed for lunch.

Shortly after 1:30 p.m., teletypes began to clang the alarm in the AT&T office in the Kroger Building and in newspaper and TV newsrooms downtown.


Word spread quickly. People gathered around radios and TVs. Vine Street merchants placed sets outside in the mild November air, the Post & Times-Star reported.

Shoppers stopped in their tracks to watch in stores.

According to the Enquirer, a crowd formed outside a Fourth Street investments and securities firm to read teletype updates  in the window.

“Watching their faces from inside the window, I think they just kind of have chills,” an employee said. “They can’t believe it.”

The bells atop the Union Central Building began to ring solemnly, and stunned men and women walked into St. Louis Church at Eighth and Walnut to pray.

City and religious leaders expressed their anguish on the news.

“I’m just sick,” Cincinnati police Lt. Col. Henry Sandman told the Enquirer. Sandman had an autographed photo of Kennedy in his office.

By 3 p.m., when the final edition of the Post & Times-Star hit the streets, there was a big headline in bold, capital letters across the top of the front page screaming JFK SHOT BY ASSASSIN.

A generation of Americans remember where they were and what they were doing on that day, at the moment they learned the president had been shot. Younger Americans who watched the Challenger explode or  9/11 can relate.

Most of today’s 60-somethings were still in school. John Boehner, now Speaker of the House, was one of them.

“I was sitting in my eighth-grade class at St. Peter & Paul School (in Reading),” said Boehner.

In contrast to today’s politics, Boehner said he was a Kennedy fan.

“Ours was a family of Kennedy Democrats. Not politically – we were conservative – but personally.  People liked Kennedy, World War II guy, young family, optimistic. Had gotten us through the Cuban Missile Crisis. So that’s how people took the loss: personally, like a death in the family,” Boehner said.

Gwen Robinson-Benning, president and CEO of the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency, remembers coming home from school in Rockford, Ill.

“Coming in the door, my mother was looking at the TV and crying,” said Robinson-Benning. “I was 16 and very much in love with him. We girls all had a crush on him.”

WCPO anchor Clyde Gray was in the third grade in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“The principal announced it over the P.A. system, and I remember some of us crying,” Gray said. “I remember being terribly afraid and unsure of what was going to happen next. I wasn’t thinking about nuclear war or anything, just that fear of the uncertain after hearing about this. School let out early and I got home before my parents did. I remember being basically scared all the time I was there.”

Jack Brennan, Bengals public relations director, grew up in Dallas and was 11 when he and some sixth-grade classmates went downtown to see the Kennedys drive by.

“We saw the motorcade about 10 minutes before he got shot,” Brennan recalls.

RELATED: Remembrances from David Mann, Carol Williams, Tom Luken, Rob Portman and more.  

For 72 hours after the assassination, until Monday’s funeral,  Greater Cincinnati mourned with the rest of the country. People stayed home and watched the drama unfold on TV, which canceled regular programs for Kennedy coverage, or went to church and prayed.

Schools and businesses were closed. So were many movie houses. Most sports events were called off.

The UC athletic director, George Smith, had announced Friday night that the UC-Miami football game would go on Saturday afternoon.

“It would be the thing President Kennedy would have wanted. We feel he would have wanted us to play,” Smith said.

But Smith was overruled by UC president Walter C. Langsam and the game was postponed 2 ½ hours before kickoff. It was rescheduled for Thanksgiving.

The NBA postponed its Friday night games but the Royals played as scheduled Saturday and Sunday.

The NFL played on, taking Smith’s attitude but regretting it later. TV refused to telecast the games. The fledgling American Football League, which the Bengals would join in 1968 before the NFL and AFL merger in 1970, didn't play.

Christmas sales would have to wait. A glance at the Shillito’s newspaper ads showed some good deals:

> Men’s dress shirts and sports shirts: $2
> Men’s wool slacks: $7.96
> Men’s wool topcoats: $48.69
> Women’s shoes: $6
> Women’s coats: $33

For Thanksgiving dinner, Kroger offered turkey for 33 cents per pound, 10 pounds of potatoes for 59 cents and 22-ounce pies for 29 cents.

It was, after all, 50 years ago.

People who watched their grainy black and white TVs that weekend shared a nation’s sorrow and saw TV come of age, bringing raw images of Jackie’s blood-stained pink suit and Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald into living rooms, as well as heartbreaking images of Jackie, draped in black, walking at the front of the funeral procession, the riderless horse and John, on his third birthday, saluting his father’s casket.

“I just remember spending the whole weekend around the TV,” said Sylvia Burke of Union, Ky. Burke was at her grandmother Ethel Stiel’s house in Newport when Kennedy visited there in 1960.

Burke remembers giving Kennedy a hug and a kiss when he left.

“I don’t think anybody can forget the terrible picture of Jackie’s pink suit with blood on it. That made it so personal. Even if you weren’t a Kennedy fan, for any wife to have that happen in front of her, for citizens to see that, was heartbreaking,” Burke said.

WCPO anchor Carol Williams remembers watching intently in Williamsburg, Va.

“The thing that strikes me now, that I had no appreciation for then, is how young Jackie Kennedy was (34), and what remarkable grace and presence of mind she had at that moment in time. What a sense and knowledge of history she had and how she helped create the images we'll always remember, and helped shape the way Americans viewed the Kennedy years as Camelot.

“Remarkable,” Williams said.

Boehner also watched and wondered.

“It was quiet around the house for days, mostly because we were all glued to the television watching the news and then the funeral, which I remember was on a Monday,” Boehner said.  “Having the day off from school for the funeral, that’s when it really hit home that this was a national tragedy.”

By the time the funeral ended Monday afternoon, stores reopened and the Thanksgiving and Christmas shopping blitz was back on.

The bridge was scheduled to open at 3:30 p.m., without a formal dedication, which was postponed until the following week. But there was a new issue to resolve first.

Some people were pushing to have it renamed for Kennedy. Even Brent Spence, the retired 31-year Northern Kentucky congressman, agreed to it.

But Kentucky Gov. Bert Combs, who had naming authority, said no and put Kennedy’s name on the new I-65 bridge over the river in Louisville instead.

At the last minute, Cincinnati and Covington officials decided to add some formality to the bridge opening with passing motorcades. But drivers waiting to be the first across moved around barriers and jumped the gun.

By the time the official motorcades moved out on the bridge, traffic was already whizzing by.

If people were ready to go back to their normal lives, that would go double for Pete Rose, the Reds rookie second baseman, who was in his third week of basic training at Fort Knox. He was on KP duty, waxing a kitchen floor, when he found out he had been voted National League Rookie of the Year.

As expected, Roger Staubach, the great Navy quarterback from Purcell High School, won the Heisman.

As for the exotic dancer from Dallas, an Enquirer reporter caught up with Pepper Payne at the Gayety Burlesque Theater downtown.

Payne said she had worked in one of Ruby’s joints for six months that year.

“He was psycho … a very peculiar man. You could never tell what he would do next,” she told the Enquirer.

“When we heard about that terrible thing (Ruby killing Oswald), I was shocked. But then I got to think about it and I figured if anybody would do such a thing, it would be Jack.”