“Oneontans Shocked, Hurt, Angry over President’s Death” was the headline at the top of the city page of The Oneonta Star on Saturday, Nov. 23.
“People in Oneonta who hadn’t shed a tear in years remembered how to cry Friday when they learned of the assassination of President Kennedy,” the story began. “They wept unashamedly.”
For many adults and families, one reaction to the president’s death was heading to their house of worship. Most simply opened their doors, lit candles and let their parishioners mourn privately. A spontaneous chapel service involving more than 400 students at Hartwick College began once the horrible news was learned. Chaplain Robert Heffner and Assistant Professor Bernard Johnpoll conducted services.
SCHOOLS STRUGGLE to SHARe THE NEWS
The shooting took place during the school day, so depending on the school, news was either gently told, or withheld so parents could tell their kids when they got home.
Oneonta High School and Junior High students were told. Both schools were then found on Academy Street.
Chestnut Street School Principal William Swain said he felt it was best to tell the children. Swain was also the principal at the Plains School, once found at the corner of Winney Hill Road and Chestnut Street, and informed those students as well.
“It hit the kids harder than you might think,” he said.
Bugbee School children were also told as soon as the death confirmation was made.
Center Street, Mitchell Street and Valleyview children and teachers were not informed of the tragedy during school hours. Nader Towers now occupies the site of the former Mitchell Street School.
“Principal Thomas D. Coady said he ‘thought it was best the children learn of it from their parents to avoid possible repercussions from the children.’”
“Miss Gertrude M. Eldred, Valleyview principal, and Miss Lucille B. Houck, principal of Center Street said they shared Mr. Coady’s opinion.”
Oneonta native William “Bud” Pirone was then a 10th-grade social studies teacher at Sidney High School. Pirone recalled how students and staff had earlier learned of the shooting. When the president was pronounced dead, school administrators came to the classrooms door by door, and it was then up to the teacher to break the news to their students.
“The silence was deafening in the halls and as they left school. We had been hoping against hope that the president would survive,” Pirone said.
LOCAL OFFICIALS LED AREA IN MOURNING
A period of mourning was declared in Cooperstown. The Otsego Farmer of Nov. 28 told how, “Almost immediately after the announcement of the President’s death … a Cooperstown businessman went quietly to the flagpole at the intersection of Main and Pioneer Streets, lowered its flag to half-mast (sic) and just as quietly returned to his store.”
Likewise, the city of Oneonta officially entered a 30-day period of mourning when Mayor Albert (Sam) Nader ordered flags on city buildings flown at half-staff for the next month. Nader also ordered that all public offices be closed on the day of Kennedy’s funeral, Monday, Nov. 25.
As a part-time mayor, Nader recalled being at his full time job as purchasing manager at Bendix Corp. in Sidney, today’s Amphenol. A co-worker stopped by his office door and told him the president had been shot, and Nader first thought it was a joke. He called both his wife, Alice, and Oneonta City Hall to confirm that the news was true. Nader was allowed to come back to Oneonta to perform his job as mayor that day.
“It was the greatest tragedy since the assassination of Abraham Lincoln,” Nader said.
GILBERTSVILLE WOMAN HADCONNECTION TO KENNEDY
Kennedy’s death hit hard for Winona Slaughter, a longtime resident of Gilbertsville. In 1958 when Kennedy was a U.S. Senator in Massachusetts, Slaughter, a high school student in Penn Yan, wrote a term paper about Kennedy. It was in a format of a nomination speech for president.
After receiving an “A” for her work, Winona’s teacher encouraged her to send it to Sen. Kennedy. Several weeks later, Winona received a letter from Kennedy, which she still has today and is very confident that it was personally signed to her. Kennedy hadn’t yet made plans to run for president, but thanked her for her interest. When Kennedy did run for president, Slaughter said she campaigned for him.
“I was totally blown away when I found that letter in the mailbox,” Slaughter recalled. “I couldn’t wait to get to school the next day to tell my teacher.”
As a dental hygienist working in Boston in November 1963, Slaughter learned of the shooting while cleaning a patient’s teeth. The reaction from the patient was messy, she said, as they both heard it on the office radio.
Slaughter in more recent years was a hygienist at dental practices in Norwich and Oneonta.
CITY QUIET AS KENNEDYLAID TO REST
Around Oneonta that Saturday, rain and dark skies were reported, highly reflective of peoples’ moods observed by Oneonta Star reporters.
“Merchants went to work to arrange some sort of window display to honor the memory of the nation’s well-loved leader.” In the window of Bresee’s Department Store, there was a portrait of the late president against black drapes, fronted by a bouquet of roses.
Like the rest of the nation, Oneonta stood at a standstill on Monday for President Kennedy’s funeral.
“Gone was the hustle and bustle of usual shoppers on a pre-Christmas Monday,” the Star reported. “Except for a few strolling teenagers and two policemen, the business district was deserted.”
“Traffic was at a minimum and veteran policeman Carl Delberta, on duty at the corner of Chestnut and Main Streets commented, ‘I’ve never seen it this quiet … not even on a Christmas afternoon.’”
Residents of the area attended church services, and although the schools were closed, youngsters remained indoors near televisions as they saw some of America’s bleakest history being made.
ONEONTA MAN RECALLSFUNERAL PROCESSION
One Oneonta family made the trip to Washington and saw the solemn procession firsthand.
James and Kathryn Friery were convinced by their children to make the trip, according to Mike Friery, then 12.
“We were devastated when the news broke … and my sister (Patricia) and I pleaded with my father to do something,” Friery said recently.
“My father’s business and political careers led to his meeting both Bobby and Jack. My father was eventually the Democratic Party chairman of Otsego County and his company, Lyncoach & Truck, was a defense contractor and the largest supplier of mobile medical clinics at the time. The federal government purchased numerous such units from him and he needed to spend a lot of time in Washington to stay connected with the administration. My parents had attended JFK’s inaugural ball in 1961 and they had regaled us children with all of the glittering details of Camelot.”
Of the funeral, Friery said, “I vaguely remember the black limousines carrying the world’s political elite. I especially was impressed by the caisson bearing the body and ‘Black Jack’ the black stallion being led riderless with empty boots reversed in the stirrups behind it.”
As best it could, local life got back to normal on Tuesday. Many began making preparations for Thanksgiving. Schools re-opened and students were looking forward to Wednesday, a half day of school before Thanksgiving vacation.
“Many Oneontans admitted…they were ‘punchy’ from watching television,” the Star reported Wednesday. “Many praised the network coverage. A few wished they hadn’t seen Lee Oswald’s murder.”
“Though many mentioned Mr. Kennedy’s loss a tragic page in American history, just as many wished President Lyndon B. Johnson good luck in one of the world’s toughest jobs.”