50 years later, Baltimoreans remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy

Nov. 22 brings back memories of a different time

November 16, 2013|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

At the federal courthouse, a judge was swearing in 102 new citizens. In a downtown hotel, the Santa Claus Anonymous charity was having a luncheon. Races were underway at Pimlico, and a shift of Bethlehem Steel workers would soon clock out at Sparrows Point, with another filing in to take its place.

It was cool and cloudy in Baltimore on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963.

Shortly after 1:30 p.m., by radio, television or frantic word of mouth, the news from Dallas made its way here: President John F. Kennedy had been shot. A half-hour later, his death was confirmed, setting off an extraordinary cascade of events, captured unblinkingly in real time on TV: the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, nightclub owner Jack Ruby's killing of Oswald, the funeral of JFK.

Fifty years later, those who lived through those emotion-fraught days can still see their teachers or parents weeping. They can still hear the cadence of drums and the horses' hoofbeats as JFK's casket was borne by caisson to lie in state in the Capitol. They can still feel the utter sense of disbelief.

"It was like a hammer dropping," recalls Robert Ahlstrom, then a 15-year-old at Perry Hall High School. "It was like you weren't in the real world."

There was no template, no precedent for what to think or do next.

"Assassination," says former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke "that was something from the 19th century, something we studied in history."

The now 63-year-old Schmoke actually was in a history class at City College when students were told that Kennedy had been shot and killed.

"The teacher wasn't sure what we should do. So he sat. And we just sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity," Schmoke says. "Everybody was stunned."

It is hard now to remember a time when news wasn't instantaeous and updates a click away. Even TVs weren't ubiquitous, especially outside the home.

"Everyone was trying to get information from everyone else," recalls Gary Sapperstein, 74, then a deputy clerk of the federal court. From his office on the fifth floor of what is now known as Courthouse East on Calvert Street, he headed down a flight to the U.S. attorney's office, where he learned that Kennedy had died.

The Baltimore Sun's coverage at the time describes a chaotic courthouse, with people crowding around a few radios in the clerk's office, and a deputy marshal interuping the swearing-in ceremony of new citizens to alert Judge R. Dorsey Watkins.

"I cannot go on," the judge told the new citizens. "President Kennedy has just died." People in the courtroom sobbed, and one woman could barely see through her tears when it was her turn to sign a registry in the clerk's office, the newspaper reported.

Sapperstein remembers going to his contracts class at the University of Baltimore School of Law that evening, where after a listless half-hour, the instructor couldn't go on. "Just leave," Sapperstein remembers him saying.

Churches hurriedly organized services. Newspapers printed extra editions. Some businesses sent their employees home. Even the owners of the strip clubs on The Block voted to close for the night. And yet other events, including Sunday's Colts game in Los Angeles against the Rams, went on, even as a sorrowful haze enveloped the country.

It just seemed wrong, Thomas Caplan, then in his last year at Gilman School, remembers thinking as his school's football game against rival McDonogh went on as planned. Now 67 and an author who now lives on Tilghman Island, Caplan remembers either not going to the game or leaving early to return to Gilman.

There, he lowered the flag to half-staff.

"I was highly upset," says Caplan, who had met Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign. Caplan had written to all the candidates, seeking interviews for his school newspaper, but only JFK had responded, noting a campaign event in Baltimore and suggesting Caplan stop by.

After Kennedy's election, his administration agreed to Caplan's proposal for a sort of junior Peace Corps, in which schoolchildren would correspond with their counterparts around the globe. Through that, Caplan frequently went to a White House less burdened by security than now, meeting aides who, after the assassination, would invite him back to view JFK's casket in the East Room.

Coincidentally, the following year, on his first day at Georgetown University, he would meet and eventually room with a fellow JFK loyalist — the future president, Bill Clinton.

A sense of loss

Kennedy had a particular appeal to teens and young people. Some of that was his own youthful style — in his Ray-Bans, on a sailboat, with his chic wife and the frolicking young children, he looked like no other president before him. But he also tapped into their idealism, their urge to break with the past and follow him to a New Frontier.

"I watched his inaugural address and kind of bought into it," says Ahlstrom, the Perry Hall student, who now is an attorney in Columbia.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.