The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963 ranks with the sudden death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 12, 1945 -- less than a month before the end of World War II -- in the annals of pepic mourning for older New Yorkers. Kennedy was shot around 12:30 p.m. central time that day, with the official announcement of his death about an hour later. Adults alive then have an unscrubbable memory of where they were when they first found out their president had died.
Kennedy's murder, at the dawn of the television age, marked "the first time in a major event that people relied on television news for updates instead of newspapers," allowing people a more direct experience in tragedy, observed Brooklyn Borough historian Ron Schweiger. While people gathered around the Times Square ticker for updates and, later, watched Kennedy's funeral en masse on a giant screen in Grand Central Station, most New Yorkers stayed fixated on theetube, where they remained transfixed for days.
Congressman Charles Rangel, 83, Harlem
Rangel had stepped out for coffee from his law office at Broadway and John St. in lower Manhattan. "Everybody heard it on the street. All the electronic stores downtown had their TVs on and everyone was stopping at the stores, looking in the windows," Rangel recalled.
"Kennedy brought so much hope -- not just for the country, but especially for black folks who wanted the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act," passed, Rangel recalled. "He was our vision of hope -- for our country and for the world. Whatever magic he had -- it was just so hard to believe it was so short-lived."
Ron Schweiger, 68, Brooklyn Borough Historian, Flatlands, Brooklyn
Schweiger, who had seen Kennedy campaigning at the Kings Highway subway station in 1960, was walking home from the same station in 1963 when "I saw small groups of people on the sidewalk, talking. That's not unusual, but then I saw them block after block after block." A housekeeper was at the sink of his Gravesend home, her face stained with fresh tears. "What's the matter?" he asked.
"Your mom is in the bedroom watching TV," she said quietly.
The assassination was on a Friday and on Sunday, "my father and I were watching television when Lee Harvey Oswald was being escorted out of the Dallas police station and you can see Jack Ruby going through the crowd and shoots Oswald -- live! On TV! It was history right there! We were all really upset about it because we wanted to know why Oswald did it. To this day, we don't know why. If it was a conspiracy, we'll never know. Then, five years later Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed," and any innocence left in the U.S. was gone.
Monsignor Thomas Leonard, 85, Holy Trinity Church, Upper West Side
"I was in St. Paul's Church on Staten Island giving a mission and upstairs, a pastor who had poor hearing said, 'I don't know if I'm hearing this correctly, but I think I heard the president was shot.' We all went to turn on the TV." On the screen, Leonard discovered, "we had all lost a friend. The dream was shattered. As a people, we had lost our elected leader, so it was an attack upon the people, in a sense."
As the first and only Catholic elected president of the U.S., Kennedy's election made New York Catholics proud. But their pride wasn't solely derived by the erosion of the WASP-dominated "old boy's club" of elected leaders, Leonard explained: Kennedy also made Catholics proud because he oozed intelligence, charisma and wit. "Someone asked him if he thought Martin Luther King could be elected president. He said, 'I don't think the country is ready for a Baptist.' He was really quick on his feet!"
Leonard was then assigned to the Church of St. Stephen on East 29th St. near the NYPD Academy and on Monday morning - the day of Kennedy's funeral in Washington, D.C. -- "I preached a mass for 1,800 cops." Leonard can't recall the sermon, but reckoned he sought to console his flock that "It was not his age and time, but what he did with the opportunity of his life." Leonard paused, and added, "But his was a great future. There will always be the mystery of what could have been."
Luis Soto, 70, retired state government supervisor, Washington Heights
Soto was working as a truck dispatcher in the garment district when a man came in and told him the president had been shot. "I had to keep working, but it made me feel very uncomfortable. I wanted to go home and watch the news." Someone turned on a radio and Soto heard Kennedy was dead. "Business continued and I was just appalled. Psychologically, it was really bad. My mind was numb. I really liked Kennedy. He and his brother had people like Martin Luther King in his office, so we felt he would help us all in a historical way, with laws against discrimination. There was a feeling when he got elected that everything was going to be better. He was advocating for social justice and economic equality. Then the rug was just pulled out from under all of us."
Annette Magana, "70ish," Hell's Kitchen, owner of the AM Two in One Shop
Magana was cleaning her Murray Hill apartment when her husband, who was watching television, delivered the bulletin that would glue them both to the screen for the next week. Finally, they pulled themselves away to walk their dog, and "right on the street, people were weeping. It was like a family member had passed away. New Yorkers come together in tragedy, though, and people were consoling each other."
For Magana, a Republican, Kennedy's death marked the end of a pre-partisan era where humanity reigned and even political opposites bonded over unspeakable transgressions. eThe Kennedy's assassination and subsequent killing of Lee Harvey Oswald, which Magana and millions of others watched on television, made her feel that the world had been turned into a violent, unpredictable dystopia. "There was no politics involved at all," said Magana. "You saw it - raw! - what was happening," and everyone was collectively sickened, she recalled. For days, "everyone on the streets was somber. No matter what anyone was doing, you could see the hurt in their face."
Richard Jacob, 74, retired doorman, Riverdale
Jacob was spending day at the races at Aqueduct Racetrack in South Ozone Park, Queens when he heard learned of the tragedy in Dallas. "I went into the restaurant and this guy, called Mac, told me. He said, "did you hear the president got shot?
"Eventually, someone got on the PA system and when they said they were going to close after the seventh race, we knew he was dead. After the seventh race - the feature race - they closed the track and everybody had to go home. I had the winner in the seventh race - I remember that. I think his name was Get Around, and he paid $360 or $380."
Jacob left to find out that "everyone was in shock. Everyone was sad all over the city. The whole city just had a shocked feeling: How did this happen?!"
Marge Lang, 67, Upper West Side
Lang was working as a stock clerk at a grocery store in the Parkchester section of the Bronx when customers began streaming in saying, "did you hear? Did you hear?'" The veil of anonymity in the busy, bustling city broke down as strangers connected with other strangers, trying to make sense of the incomprehensible death. "Everyone had a comment to make," Lang recalled. I went home and spoke to my parents. Everyone wanted to know: How can this happen?" Lang said.
In a city besieged by grief, Lang didn't cry. "We were raised not to show emotions," because her parents, immigrants from Germany, prioritized coping above emotional catharsis. "They would tell you, 'stop crying.' When you come from Germany during the War, you know shocking things can happen. You learn from it and try to absorb it. You know that life goes on."