JFK memories still fresh: Local residents reflect on horrific day for nation, and what could have been

Fifty years have yellowed the paper and frayed the edges but not dulled the giant headlines.

Deanna Nardozzo’s small collection of newspapers still scream a nation’s shock and anguish.

Nardozzo, of State College, kept five copies bearing the news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. She also owns a paper reporting Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s killer or one of them, depending on which version of history you believe.

“It was just a case where I didn’t specifically collect them over a period of 50 years,” Nardozzo said. “These were the papers I got that weekend. It was such a monumental event to witness on television, I saved them. I didn’t know what I was going to do with them. They were pieces of history.”

At the time, Nardozzo was 24 and living in Long Beach, Calif. She bought the West Coast edition of the New York Times, her local Press-Telegram and two copies of the Los Angeles Times, one the day after the assassination and one after Oswald’s death.

The Press-Telegram was a special “bulldog edition” that hit the streets hours after Kennedy was shot.

From State College, Nardozzo’s parents sent her the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Evening News from Harrisburg.

Through the years, Nardozzo stashed the papers in a drawer. She plans to give them some day to her grandson, a Penn State student.

But for the 50th anniversary of the November day that jolted the world, they emerged to spur memories.

Nardozzo, a retired mental health therapist now, had the day off from her job at an apartment-rental store.

“I didn’t have a television set,” she said. “My landlady came over and kind of frantically said, ‘Come quick, the president has been shot, come over.’ I heard her and immediately went to her apartment.”

Together in silence, they watched the unfolding horror. Black and white images of the ambulance bearing Kennedy from Dealey Plaza flickered on the screen.

“We had hope,” Nardozzo said. “Nobody knew at that moment that he was dead.”

She remembers looking out later in the day at quiet, deserted streets.

“The buses went away. The cars went away,” she said. “Not everyone had a TV in the 60s. So you went to where there was one.”

That Sunday, she said, local churches and synagogues were packed with dazed mourners in black. She walked to a neighborhood Methodist congregation, but on the way, she had to break the news herself.

“About an 8-year-old boy came up to me and said, ‘Why is everybody so sad?’ I don’t know how I got the words out: ‘The president of the United States is dead.’ ”

Other local residents recall the tragedy just as clearly.

Dan Riddle, the music director of the Penn State School of Theatre, was in the second grade in a Dallas suburb. His elementary school principal was an imposing figure: tall, stern, a “never-smiling, Texas cowboy sort of guy,” Riddle said.

On Nov. 22, 1963, he stunned his students.

“He came on the intercom, sobbing, saying the president had died,” Riddle said. “I remember it was jarring. ‘Mr. Benthul is crying. What in the world?’ My teacher started crying, too.”

School would be canceled for two days. But first, students were told to gather with their backpacks for an early dismissal and wait for their parents.

“It was a mob scene,” Riddle said.

A little younger, and he might have been even closer to history.

About seven miles away, his father, Ned Riddle, and his 3-year-old sister staked out a spot a couple of blocks from Dealey Plaza to see the presidential motorcade. Kennedy’s open convertible passed by them, with the president waving, then disappeared around a corner.

Returning to their car, they heard the shots.

Ned Riddle, the art director at the Dallas Morning News, rushed his daughter home and hightailed it back to the paper, where it was all hands on deck.

His brother-in-law, John King, had it the worst. As the city desk editor, he was at the heart of the bedlam.

“He didn’t sleep for three days,” Dan Riddle said. “He was just ready to go to bed and then Ruby shot Oswald and then he was up for another two days.”

Riddle said his aunt, to her dying day, was convinced the stress — plus dozens of packs of cigarettes smoked during the ordeal — helped send her husband to an early grave.

Across the country in State College, news of Kennedy’s death reached Ralph Shope as he checked a boiler’s temperature at Westerly Parkway Junior High School.

Shope, a retired teacher in Houserville, then worked in the maintenance department of the school, now the south building of State College Area High School.

“I heard a commotion out in the hallway and some screaming and crying and couldn’t imagine what was going on,” he said.

He ran out and saw a girl stretched out on the floor, a teacher tending to her. Students milled about sobbing.

Shope learned the girl had fainted.

Then he learned why.

He went to the nearby cafeteria to check on his assistant there. Lunches sat half-eaten on tables. Nobody felt like finishing.

“All the cooks were in shock. They quit serving the students,” Shope said. “The students were hugging each other and crying. It was complete chaos.”

In the teachers’ room, faculty sat dazed, some weeping, other staring off into space. For the rest of the afternoon there were no class changes as teachers tried to console students.

“I’m telling you, it was a deafening silence,” Shope said. “It was like there was no one in that school. Everything was quiet. It was eerie.”

Every anniversary since, Shope has had the same thought.

“I just wondered where that little girl went and what happened to the rest of her life,” he said.

At Centre Hall Elementary School, LeDon Young’s sixth-grade class looked up to see a surprise visitor.

In stepped her teacher from the previous year.

“And she was in tears, and for Mrs. Rishel to be in tears, it was the end of the world,” said Young, a local attorney. “Mrs. Rishel was a mighty force.”

Rishel called Young’s teacher out in the hall. He returned, ashen, and ducked into his office in the back of the room.

“The next thing we knew, he came out and said, ‘I have to share with you: President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas,’ ” Young said.

School let out early — a rare occurrence — and stunned students returned home, their families glued to TV sets and Walter Cronkite like the rest of America.

Later, while watching the broadcast of Kennedy’s funeral, Young sat at her kitchen table and wrote a condolence letter in pencil to Jacqueline Kennedy.

Though her father helped her with the address, she had visited the White House. During the tour, she saw her parents, both dyed-in-the-wool Democrats and Kennedy supporters, laugh at scuffs on one floor and guess they were young Caroline Kennedy’s tricycle marks.

It just felt right to send her sympathies to Kennedy’s grieving widow.

“I guess part of it was: Seeing them on TV so much, I felt we knew them,” Young said. “Just as my parents sent condolence letters to people we knew.”

Weeks later, the mail brought a printed thank you card.

“I did not expect anything,” Young said. “It was just expressing my condolences. I remember writing in the letter that I would remember always to ask first what I could do for my country.”

Still sad 50 years later, she looks back and thinks what might have been if Kennedy had lived to serve a second term, if the New Frontier optimism had continued throughout the decade. Maybe the Vietnam War wouldn’t have exploded and ravaged two countries.

She remembers a historian described a torch passed from one generation to another at Kennedy’s inauguration.

“I guess to me,” Young said, “Dallas put out the torch.”

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