A community remembers 11/22/63

Residents share their memories of that fateful day


By Jessica Tuttle
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jtuttle@kenoshanews.com

A child. A teacher. A soldier. A newspaper delivery boy. Kenosha residents of all walks of life remember where they were on Nov. 22, 1963. They experienced a national tragedy, and a part of history that will never be forgotten. It will stay with them forever.

The streets were lined with excited crowds of people, waving to the Kennedys as they rode in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas. Just as it passed the Texas School Book Depository, sudden gunfire echoed through the scene.

Bullets struck President John F. Kennedy’s neck and head. He slumped over toward his wife, whose clothing was quickly stained with her husband’s blood and her heart tainted with fear and shock.

The car sped off to a nearby hospital, but nothing could be done. The president had been assassinated.

Eve Lawler

Eve Lawler, 67, was an apprentice at a local beauty shop when a customer broke the news to her and her co-workers.

“We just could not believe it,” she said. “People were crying. It was really emotional. We all held hands, the ladies were sitting under the dryers all holding hands, and somebody said a prayer.”

Lawler, an 18-year-old who had just gotten out of high school, didn’t know what to make of the incident.

“We just thought it was the end of the world,” she said. “Everybody was devastated. For a long time, everybody was really sad about it.”

Lawler compared her feelings to her memories of hearing about 9/11. But things were different back then, she said.

“We didn’t have a lot of disasters then,” she said. “Now it seems like every day you turn the TV on and somebody is shooting somebody. Then, you didn’t have that kind of incident. It was just a real shock for everybody.”

Kathleen Keitel

Kathleen Keitel, 65, was in gym class in junior high, warming up when her teacher told the class.

The room hushed to silence and the class was excused to relax in the locker room. She was just a child, and Keitel and her classmates didn’t understand why that would happen to someone who was trying to do so much good, she said.

“It tore the heart out of us,” she said. “He had such good plans for America. ... It was like someone pulled a rug out from under us.”

Keitel recalled Kennedy visiting Milwaukee, where she lived, during his campaign. She and other children lined up along Mitchell Street to watch him come through the area. It made them feel like he cared about each and every one of them, and she felt closer to him ever since.

“We walked around for a little while just kind of numb thinking about it,” she said. “It was kind of like all the innocence was gone.”

The country was never the same after that, Keitel said, and having to think about such a heavy topic at a young age affected her, too. But she tried to keep the hope Kennedy gave her alive beyond his tragic death.

Gaye Sakonyi

Emotions quickly took over Gaye Sakonyi, 72, when she heard the news, and the overwhelming feelings brought her to tears immediately.

“We lost a great guy,” she said. “(The Kennedys) gave so much hope to Americans.”

Sakonyi remembers watching Kennedy’s wife, Jackie, during the incident and the courage she took on in an instant while trying to escape the situation safely.

“To see (Jackie) crawl with blood all over her... I get goosebumps,” she said. “Could I have done that? I don’t know.”

But she couldn’t help but watch it all, Sakonyi said. She watched the repeated scenes of news broadcasts, the funeral, the aftermath and Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination.

“You had to watch everything,” she said. “It was a journey. We had to have our grief. I don’t really think we’re done grieving.”

That’s why Nov. 22, 1963, is such an important date to the United States, she said. It made an impact on the country that is still relevant today.

“It took away our hope,” she said. “We haven’t had anybody that gave us hope like that era did and that president did.”

Tim Christianson

Tim Christianson, 71, was in a barracks at a U.S. Army base in Arkansas when the company commander gave the news.

To this day, his memory of the announcement makes Christianson very emotional, he said. But he wasn’t alone.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” he said. “Grown men were weeping. ... Not just tears, but bawling. It’s probably hard for some people to understand that, but we all loved our country.”

Christianson was concerned and in immediate fear of what might happen next. The base didn’t know what was going on and wondered if they were at war.

“It was traumatic,” he said. “I figured our country was under attack.”

Christianson also recalled a lot of confusion associated with the assassination, followed by a lot of speculation and multiple viewpoints, including how many shooters there were, who did it and why.

“We’ll probably never know for sure,” he said. “It was a terrible tragedy.”

Dominic Ruffalo

Dominic Ruffalo, 62, was called into an assembly right after lunch time at Holy Rosary Catholic School to hear the news.

“He was the first Catholic president, so going to a Catholic school, it really hit home,” he said. “We prayed for him and his family, and we didn’t go back to the classroom the rest of the day. We stood in shock in the assembly.”

Ruffalo was 12 years old at the time and was a newspaper boy for the Kenosha Evening News. After school, he started his route, carrying a heavier load that day. His customers were extremely sad and shocked.

“About a quarter of (my customers) didn’t hear anything about it,” he said. “I was telling them the news.”

The Kenosha Evening News also ran a special section on the assassination. Inside, there was a picture of John F. Kennedy, Ruffalo said. When he returned back to collect money, the photograph was everywhere.

“I was amazed at how many people had that picture in a black frame,” he said. “They were proud to display it, I think. People had it up for years.”

It was little details like that, that Ruffalo will never forget.

Ed Setter

Ed Setter, 85, was teaching sixth grade at Roosevelt Elementary School when he looked out the window and noticed the flag at half staff.

He sent a student to the office to inquire about it, and he returned with the alarming news.

“When you first heard about it, you didn’t realize the effect of it,” he said. “It’s something that unified the whole country, I think.”

Setter had plans to leave for deer hunting that day, but he grew hesitant. He soon realized he was putting his life on hold trying to find out more information.

“It was difficult for me to leave my house, because I was so interested in what was coming over on the TV,” he said. “I was more concerned with what had happened than what I was going to be doing.”

On the way back home that weekend, Setter watched out for antennas and stopped at several places with television sets.

“I was trying to keep up on the news — the visual part — and I had my car radio on,” he said. “That was the center of attention for everybody for a long period of time.”

To this day, when Setter sees pictures of Kennedy for various reasons, he is brought right back to the memories that will never leave him.

“It made a very lasting impression on me,” he said. “It’s something that one never forgets.”

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