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Road trip made three Manchester teens witnesses to history at JFK's funeral

New Hampshire Sunday News

November 17. 2013 12:23AM
The caisson carrying President John F. Kennedy's casket turns onto the Arlington Memorial Bridge en route to the burial site at Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 25, 1963. (FILE)

America was about to bury its young President, slain by an assassin's bullet in Dallas. And three boys from Manchester decided they had to be there.

It was late November 1963. Wayne Hoitt, John Murray and David Fitzpatrick were seniors at Manchester Memorial High School, part of the first full graduating class at the new school.

In a somber announcement over the intercom, Principal Joe Bronstein told students that John F. Kennedy had been shot. Later came news that the President had died.

"The girls started crying. Guys like me were kind of in shock," recalled Murray.

Kennedy had come to Manchester during the 1960 presidential primary, and Murray had been in the crowd watching the motorcade go down Elm Street.

Fitzpatrick was in the band room when the announcement came. "None of us could believe it, of course," he said. "Everything stopped; it was like we were all in suspended animation."

The next night, at a gathering of classmates, the upcoming funeral in Washington, D.C., was all they could talk about.

It was Hoitt who had the idea: "We have to go."

His parents, he said, were "yellow dog Democrats," and John Kennedy was their hero. "As kids in high school, this guy was just golden."

Hoitt told his friends he'd be at a certain corner early the next morning in his 1958 Ford station wagon to take whoever wanted to go. "The only two people who showed up were David and John."

Murray brought peanut butter crackers; Hoitt had his Kodak Brownie camera. They had about 30 bucks and not a plan among them.

Only Fitzpatrick had told his parents what they were doing; the other two called home after they got to D.C. "This was an escape," Hoitt recalled.

"It would be an adventure," said Murray, who stuffed a pillow and blankets under the covers to hide his getaway. "If I told my parents, they would say no."

The three drove straight through to Washington and joined the long line waiting to get into the Capitol Rotunda, where the slain President lay in state.

They never got inside, but they got to talking with a kindly soldier from nearby Fort Myer, who invited them to bunk with him at his apartment in Virginia.

The day of the funeral, they drove first to Arlington National Cemetery, where Murray remembers looking into the open grave.

"I guess I thought it was kind of strange," he said. "He's the President of the United States and he's just going to be buried normally."

Fitzpatrick was a stringer for the Manchester Union Leader, covering high school sports. He called the White House press office to ask for a press pass and was told it was possible - but only if he could get to the White House by a certain time.

They tried to drive to the White House, but Pennsylvania Avenue was blocked off. So Murray dropped off the others and went to find a parking space.

At the White House gate, Fitzpatrick showed the guards his New Hampshire driver's license. "And they said, 'OK, you're on the list.' And I walked to the White House driveway."

"It was a surreal experience," he said. "People were still in shock. People were walking around dazed."

Hoitt also managed to persuade a guard that he was a reporter, for his school paper. (It was a lie.) "Got a camera?" the guard asked.

"I reached into my pocket and pulled out my Brownie Starflash," Hoitt recalled. "He said, 'Alright.'"

So he found himself inside the White House press office getting a pass that allowed him inside the gates, with a close-up view of the funeral cortege.

Standing beside him were Barbara Walters and Sander Vanocur.

"I remember being so excited I was beside myself," he recalled.

When Jacqueline Kennedy came outside, flanked by Ted and Bobby Kennedy, the murmurs of the crowd turned to absolute silence.

"She was dressed in black with this black veil, and behind the veil was the reddest lipstick I have ever seen," Hoitt said. "It was all I could see of her face."

"I'll remember that forever."

Hoitt had time to take just one photograph of the trio. And while the image is blurry, it captured the shadows on the ground of the three Kennedys.

The funeral procession passed right in front of the two Manchester boys.

"Think of everybody you've seen on television: reporters, famous people, prime ministers, Presidents, kings, queens," Hoitt said. "Think of everybody you've ever seen walk right past you. Everyone."

He still chokes up thinking about it today.

Fitzpatrick remembers French President Charles de Gaulle, a towering figure, walking alongside the diminutive emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie.

"It was all somber," he recalled. "It was the pound, pound, pound of that funeral music playing. And they walked right in front of us, feet from us.

"Looking back, it's astonishing to even get within 20 miles of the White House, let alone inside the barricades."

What struck Hoitt most is the memory of the three Kennedys standing there, waiting for the procession to begin. "They were like statues. But they were just people. They were just people at a funeral."

After the cortege passed, Hoitt and Fitzgerald found each other on the White House grounds. Neither remembers how they met up with Murray.

But Murray does. After he finally parked, he couldn't get back to the White House, so the 6-foot-2 teen found a spot on the street to watch the funeral procession. "I did see the caisson go by. I did see John-John, I did see Mrs. Kennedy and Caroline."

When it was over, he started calling police precincts to see whether they'd heard of two guys from Manchester, N.H., looking for their friend.

When he reached the 6th Precinct, he lucked out. "They said, 'We got two guys here that match that description.'"

Murray met up with his classmates, and they started home in a heavy rainstorm in Hoitt's car, which had no windshield wipers and a failing clutch.

The trio arrived home to admiration from their classmates - and trouble from parents and school officials.

It was Fitzpatrick who saved them from serious punishment, writing a front-page, first-person story for the New Hampshire Sunday News that ran Dec. 1, 1963. (Reprinted on Page A1)

They got one day of detention for skipping school.

"Joe Bronstein wanted to bust us badly, but with the newspaper article, he really couldn't," Hoitt recalled. "We were heroes on some level."

Murray said it was years before he understood how truly significant the trip was.

"It was a big event in my life to be able to do that, but at the time I didn't realize it," he said. "It turned out to be something that you had to witness. You had to do something right then and there."

Murray was a rural mail carrier for 20 years in Maine and then worked in retail for a decade before retiring. He and his wife live in Maine.

For Fitzpatrick, the trip was the start of a journalism career that has taken him around the world at some of the pivotal moments in history. He was in Iran during the hostage crisis, Poland for the Solidarity movement, Bejing for Tiananmen Square and Berlin when the wall fell.

He previously worked for CBS News and is now a senior producer at CNN.

Hoitt enlisted in the Army after high school, trained as a radio operator and went to Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne, the first Army ground combat unit to go there.

"We were all doing something for the country, more or less," he said.

He went on to a career in facilities management, retiring three years ago from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy.

For Hoitt, Kennedy's brief presidency was "the spiritual and ethical and moral height of this country."

"And, basically, it's been downhill ever since."

Fitzpatrick sees the assassination as the beginning of changes in this country.

Americans have become more cynical, more set in their ways and less open to the viewpoints of others, he said. "And that may have started in those awful events of those terrible days back in 1963."

Hoitt used to keep his photo of the three Kennedys tucked safely in a drawer. "Right around the last week in November, I would take it out and put it on my desk... Then I would take it and put it back in the drawer. It's just too painful."

The memory of that time 50 years ago is still traumatic, he said.

"It burns into the brain. And it never, ever goes away."

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