Even though a half-century has passed, memories of those who shared in absorbing the nightmarish Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, persist.
Many feel that America’s innocence was shattered forever by the incident and related events that followed.
Jefferson County and the rest of the nation were in a different era then. Schools here were still segregated, but Southern influences dictated that youngsters were to respect their elders, and all people — black or white — were to practice common courtesy toward one another.
Computers and cell phones and cable or satellite television did not exist. Many people who had home telephones split usage with others on party lines. Most people relied chiefly on newspapers for staying abreast of happenings as a number of radio and television stations weren’t always capable of providing rapid, live coverage.
Communication was anything but instant in many settings.
The nation was experiencing challenges with old and emerging civil rights issues, growing military involvement in Vietnam, and a continuing cold war with communist Russia and its ally Cuba.
Some opposed Kennedy because of his Catholic religion and zest for advancing human rights. But he was appreciated — even by many who disliked him — for his tough stances against the perceived Communist threat that prompted establishment of community and private fallout shelters that supposedly would help Americans survive a nuclear attack.
Across the U.S., children were prepared for such assaults with regular safety drills at schools.
Naturally, some fear that the assassination might have been the work of Communist infiltrators existed for some time afterward.
Several county residents this week related their memories of the assassination and its immediate aftermath. Some also commented on their fondness for the young, personable and charismatic president, his attractive and fashionable wife, and their two children who combined to charm and energize the nation.
A retired Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, Eubank was a 22-year-old Air Force lieutenant attending a supply school at Amarillo, Texas, Air Force Base when he learned that the president had been shot at 12:30 p.m.
Eubank, now a White Hall resident, admits that he wasn’t enjoying the day’s activities and the isolation of the base, but the blandness was short-lived.
The assassination attempt resulted in the military being placed on alert, and six Strategic Air Command B-52 jet-powered bombers took off in 15-second intervals, creating a storm of noise.
“We were bored,” Eubank said, ”just a bunch of green-as-grass lieutenants with no families there.”
The Pine Bluff native, who eventually became an Air Force pilot,said he and his colleagues “knew something was going on” when the B-52s ascended in such fast order.
When news of Kennedy’s death reached Eubank and his fellow students, “We felt awful,” he said.
After leaving the Air Force, Eubank joined the FBI in 1971. He returned to Pine Bluff with the agency eight years later, serving until 1998.
Eubank said that when underworld figure Jack Ruby shot accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald two days after Kennedy’s slaying, “everyone had an opinion” on possible conspiracies.
“It changed the way the FBI did business with the Secret Service,” Eubank said. “Notification procedures were changed for the purpose of improving communications. And I’m sure there might have been some other changes that occurred before I joined the FBI, which was eight years after the assassination.”
When the then 18-year-old freshman at Joplin, Mo., Junior College (now Missouri Southern State College) learned that the president had been shot, he dashed from his rented room to his job at the nearby daily Joplin Globe newspaper, where Fugate was a rookie reporter.
Fugate, who would work as a Commercial writer for about 14 months from 1965-66, was promptly dispatched by his editor to the streets for random, spot interviews. He encountered mixed reactions from his subjects in the pre-politically correct era.
“Some were crying,” said Fugate, who served as The Commercial ‘s editor from 2005-08 and finally retired as a contributing reporter in April after a heart attack. “Some were numb. But I can’t say that fear had settled in yet. It was too soon.”
Fugate admits that he was taken aback by some comments he received.
“I saw a nun,” he said. “She was crying and told me, ‘This is what happens when you elect a Catholic president.’”
A man Fugate knew as a staunch Republican said Kennedy, a Democrat, “got what he deserved.”
Fugate said he purposely didn’t give himself any time to digest the depth of the developments.
“I had enough of the journalism bug in me to tell myself, ‘Hey, you’ve got to go to work,’” he said. “As a journalist, you have to be objective and unemotional, do your job, put the paper to bed and go on home.”
In recent years, Fugate has served as an adjunct journalism professor at several area colleges and universities and discovered he has a passion for teaching. He wants students to learn about Kennedy and his administration, but is concerned that history, civics and government aren’t fully taught in most high schools today.
A one-time Readers Digest American Hero in Education Award winner and an honoree in a national secondary administrators organization’s listing of the country’s top 50 secondary principals, Goss has long been hailed for his achievements in a 38-year education career from which he retired as Pine Bluff High School’s principal in 1993.
Also remembered for his successes as a local basketball coach, Goss — who will celebrate his 86th birthday on Nov. 27 — said he’s disturbed by a memory of how several students reacted to the shooting of Kennedy.
Some junior high students in a health class taught by coach Allen Howard applauded when told of the assassination attempt. Goss, whose office was adjacent to Howard’s classroom, heard the exchange.
“Mr. Howard silenced them immediately,” Goss said. “That incident has stuck with me, how anyone could react like that to such a crime, especially with how we praise (Kennedy) now.
“He was for everyone,” Goss said in noting his admiration of Kennedy. “Most people were saddened to hear of the assassination.”
Troubled by the offending students’ behavior, Goss said he has thought about their conduct through the years and believes it was probably based on opposition to Kennedy they had heard from their parents.
Even with the passage of five decades, Goss believes there’s a lesson to be learned from the unfortunate display.
“I think it can serve as a reminder that parents need to be thoughtful and careful with what they say and represent, because their children will pick up their attitudes,” Goss said, adding that he hopes the cheering students grew to regret their actions.
The then 21-year-old vividly recalls the moment she learned of Kennedy’s shooting.
Holcomb — who 25 years later would be elected as Pine Bluff’s first African-American alderwoman — was listening to Memphis radio station WDIA while driving to pick up a lunch while on break from her first teaching job at all-black Harrison High School in Blytheville.
The radio music was suddenly halted and a local female announcer frantically began relating the Dallas news.
“She was literally screaming the bulletin,” said Holcomb, who retired as an educator in 2004 and stepped away from the council in 2012. “She was so upset that she was mispronouncing some of her words as she read.”
Knowing that the president could die, Holcomb said she found herself suddenly draped in “grief, sadness, disappointment and shock.”
“President Kennedy represented hope to me, to all African-Americans and people of color and everyone who supported equality,” she said. “He had a freshness and energy about him, and you knew he was working for the rights of all. He lifted and inspired people, and people put their trust in him.”
The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff graduate has been a Pine Bluff resident since 1967 and last worked in the Little Rock School District.
Holcomb, who ranks Kennedy as one of America’s “better” presidents, said she made it a point in her social studies classes to make certain her students were aware of Kennedy’s championing of civil rights.
Kennedy’s legacy, Holcomb told her students, is, “There is always hope if you play by the rules and get an education.”
A 1945 graduate of Pine Bluff High School, the 86-year-old Wallis has long been respected for her work with the Jefferson County Historical Society and knowledge of the area’s past.
Last year, she shared with Billie Robinson a Pine Bluff Historic Commission Award for Preservation Reporting in recognition for the ladies’ long-time efforts with the society’s quarterly magazine.
A long-time partner with her late husband — former Pine Bluff Mayor Dave Wallis — in an advertising and public relations firm, “Ernie” Wallis said she learned from a radio broadcast that the president had been shot.
“I was a homemaker at the time and was listening to the radio at our house,” she said. “I heard the news and couldn’t believe it.
“I stayed by the radio, hoping that he would be OK,” she continued. “When the bulletin that he had died was reported, I was in total disbelief. I think everyone in America was in shock. It didn’t seem possible that out president could be shot and killed like he had been.”
Wallis said she held Kennedy in high regard for a variety of reasons.
“I saw him as a good man who was devoted to making sure the rights of all people were recognized and respected,” Wallis said. “I liked Mrs. Kennedy, too, and their children.
“When I think of President Kennedy now, I see him as a good man who did the best he could for our country,” she continued.
Despite various theories on the assassination and Ruby’s slaying of Oswald, Wallis doesn’t see any evidence of an organized plot.
“I doubt there was a conspiracy,” she said.
At the time of the assassination, Welch — now a deputy superintendent in the White Hall School District — was a student at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. She was at her home there with her young son when she heard a radio bulletin on the incident.
“They announced that he was dead,” she said. “It was such a shock. I remember thinking about how he was so well-liked and how terrible a tragedy his death was, especially with his and his family being so young.”
Welch said she was excited when Kennedy defeated Republican Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential race, in part because the election was the first in which she could vote.
A Tennessee native, Welch said she was a proud Democrat and happy that Arkansas had had a long tradition of supporting Democratic candidates. She said Kennedy earned her support with his progressive attitude and dynamic personality, traits that were magnified by his image as a proud family man.
“He was a people’s president,” said Welch. “He was a trendsetter as a Catholic. He appealed to me, too, because I saw him as the first president to show the family side of a presidency.
“I was young and he was a young person’s president,” she continued.
Welch said she viewed Mrs. Kennedy as a role model for first ladies, wives and mothers. Welch also had affection for the Kennedy’s two children — son John Jr. and daughter Caroline.
Today’s youth need to be taught about Kennedy’s dedication to stressing the importance of individuals’ service to one another and their country, Welch said.
“I worry that we’ve stopped teaching the kind of history our nation was built on,” she said.