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Memories of JFK: 'It seems like yesterday'

Senior Political Reporter

November 22. 2013 12:45AM
President and Mrs. Kennedy, along with Texas Gov. John Connally, prepare to leave Love Field in Dallas in the motorcade that ended in tragedy less than 40 minutes later on Nov. 22, 1963. (UPI FILE)

Cynthia Jeanne Bowers was in a high school health class. Lou D'Allesandro was teaching high school history.

Tom Rath was walking across the Dartmouth College Green.

John Broderick was in high school in Massachusetts, not far from where John F. Kennedy had served as a congressman. John H. Sununu was delivering a technical presentation, and Carol Shea was in elementary school.

All Granite Staters now, each went on to prominent careers in politics or the law, but their stories of where they were and how they felt when President Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago today are not unlike those of millions of Americans.

"It seems like yesterday and, frankly, it always has seemed like yesterday," said Hampton attorney Wilfred "Jack" Sanders.

Sanders, whose mentor was long-time Kennedy adviser William "Bill" Dunfey, was practicing law with Richard Dunfey in 1963.

"I was sitting in my office when I received a telephone call from someone I had planned to go to Boston with that evening," he remembered.

"We all spent several days in front of the television, grieving," Sanders said.

Sanders would be a key player in Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign, which also ended in tragedy, and later co-chaired Ted Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign in New Hampshire.

Sanders said JFK "was the first candidate to fully employ the primary system in New Hampshire and across the country. Folks running for President, the successful ones at least, still follow the JFK playbook of 1960."

"There is a certain sadness this week," Sanders said, "but I don't like to spend too much time on 'what ifs.' You've got to take things as they were and as they are today."

Broderick, dean of the UNH School of Law and former chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, is a friend of former President Bill Clinton.

In the summer of 1963, Clinton, then 15, famously met President Kennedy in the Rose Garden during a Boys Nation convention.

Broderick once talked with President Clinton in that Rose Garden and told him that Broderick, too, had met Kennedy and shaken his hand in the same garden.

Accompanying his sister's high school class, the 13-year-old Broderick remembered Kennedy emerging from the White House, tanned and looking very relaxed.

His mother told Broderick not to expect to see Kennedy that day in 1961 because it was the middle of the Bay of Pigs disaster in which U.S.-backed Cuban rebels were captured by Fidel Castro.

"But the French doors opened, and there he was," Broderick said. "He eventually came over to me and said, 'How are you, young man?' and I said to my mother, 'Did I speak?' I almost blacked out.

"It was probably the worst day of his presidency, but you would have thought that we were the most important event of his whole day," Broderick said.

Two years later, freshman Broderick was in history class when his teacher "became distraught" and the class was taken to a room with a television, where they watched news anchor Walter Cronkite report the President had died.

Broderick played basketball that night as a diversion but he also recalled "crying all the way home."

"I think for a lot of people my age, he was the first political figure they remember well," he said. "I was totally inspired by his life, more so than by his death."

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (then Cynthia Jeanne Bowers) was a 16-year-old attending a health class in Pennsylvania when the news came. "My classmates and I were shocked and heartbroken.

"It was a tremendous loss for our country and the world. But President Kennedy changed the country for the better and the generation he inspired continues to carry out his ideals," she said.

"His call to service appealed to my generation and encouraged my interest in public service," Shaheen said.

State Sen. D'Allesandro was 25 and teaching history at then-Bishop Bradley High School, when "Brother Brendan's voice came over the loud speaker... The world stood still."

As coach of the football team, "we cancelled practice and I went home and my wife and I sat in front of the television for the next four days. It was awful."

D'Allesandro had met Kennedy at UNH and keeps a photo of that day in his State House office.

"He was on the verge of greatness," he said. "His life, more than his death, made me determined to do something to make a difference."

U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster was in second grade, "but I remember the funeral as if it was yesterday.

"My whole family watched television for days. I was mesmerized watching Caroline and John-John, especially when he saluted his father," she said.

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas was at Smyth Road School in Manchester when he and classmates were called inside from a gym class, "and we watched it on television, and it was a very, very trying day, even at 13 years of age."

"We went home and it was difficult for anyone to leave the house for the next couple of days," he said.

Gatsas admired Kennedy not only as President but as the skipper of PT 109 in World War II.

Tom Rath, a former state Attorney General and longtime Republican activist prominent lawyer, was at Dartmouth when someone told him, "the President has been shot."

"I thought he meant the president of the college. But he told me it was the President of the United States."

"The campus shut down. It was stunning, absolutely stunning," Rath said.

John H. Sununu, then 22, was nearly 20 years away from becoming governor and more than 25 years away from becoming White House chief of staff.

He had recently graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was working at the Hamilton Standard aeronautics firm in Windsor Locks, Conn.

"I was making a presentation on a redesign we had done on a noxygen circulating fan and a pump for the astronauts' backpacks," he said. "The announcement came over the speaker," he said.

"Everybody waited about a minute, and without saying a word, everybody just folded up their materials and we literally walked in silence to our cars, and all the way home I listened to the radio," Sununu said.

"It was a realization to me that Presidents, who you think are not vulnerable, are truly vulnerable and it made me think the whole system was a little less invincible than I thought it was," he said.

U.S. Rep Carol Shea-Porter was sent home early from elementary school. "The nuns told us to ask our parents why. I was walking by a candy store on the way home and walked inside. Everyone was quiet or crying, and I asked what happened to the grown-ups. That's how I found out President Kennedy had been killed.

"Even though I was 10 years old, I watched television over the next few days, and I saw Lee Harvey Oswald shot, and I watched the President's funeral. I'll never forget the riderless horse and my dad explaining its meaning," Shea-Porter remembered.

She said that while Kennedy "never saw us go to the moon, or the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the enactment of his social programs to fight poverty, he gave this country the spirit of confidence and optimism that we could, together, do great things."

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