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Paynesville Press - November 26, 2003

Residents recall JFK assassination 40 years ago

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

Eleanor Nepsund remembers the shock she felt when her husband called during his noon break on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, to tell her that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Front page of Paynesville Press about the assassination.

"You could have knocked me over with a toothpick," said Nepsund, a farm wife in Union Grove Township who was at home taking care of her infant son on that fateful day.

Nepsund's older children went to a country school, which had no phone, so she drove to the school to inform the teacher. But the teacher couldn't call off school because she couldn't notify the other parents.

On Saturday, the nation marked the 40th anniversary of the JFK assassination. After four decades, local people still remember, with vivid clarity, the shock and pain of the incident that marked the beginning of a period scarred by assassinations and political unrest.

"It's just like 9/11," said Larry Alstead, commander of the Paynesville American Legion, comparing the JFK assassination to the terrorist attacks that shook the nation more recently. "People will always remember."

"It came as such a surprise. I didn't think something like (that) could happen in this country," recalled Pete Hoppe, who was laying line for the power company when his crew learned the news over the radio, and was transfixed by the coverage.

Henry Sunde, now 97, was a bachelor farmer with his brother in 1963, and they were working on the farm when they heard about the killing over the radio. Chores still needed to be done, said Henry, but he and his brother kept a keen ear on the radio throughout the next several days. "We felt pretty bad," said Sunde. "It didn't make any difference whether he was a Democrat or a Republican; he was a human being."

In the days before 24-hour television news coverage - thanks to CNN - the Kennedy assassination took over the network airways. Images of Kennedy riding in the Dallas parade and being struck by bullets were transmitted to millions of homes via television.

Pastor Keith Ainsley, now the paster at Nordland Lutheran Church, was just 11 years old in 1963. He heard about the assassination in his sixth grade class in San Diego. Ainsley remembered his sister crying, but mostly he remembered the silence that hung over the city. "Everything was quiet. Everything became insignificant compared to what happened in Dallas," he said.

Ainsley already had developed a passion for TV news. Because of news coverage, Ainsley still has vivid memories of the Kennedy funeral procession three days later.

In addition to the memorial services for Kennedy, TV cameras were rolling when Jack Ruby shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin.

Nepsund spent the next few days glued to her TV. Never before had the public been able to witness such a tragedy from their living rooms, she said.

News coverage about the assassination helped relieve fears that the assassination could lead the nation to war. During Kennedy's presidency, the country had battled with the Soviet Union over Cuba, during the Cuban Missile Crisis and after the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Alstead was in the Navy in 1963. He was stationed on an amphibious ship at port in Norfolk, Va., when he learned that Kennedy had been killed, but he had just returned from patrolling the waters near Cuba.

Alstead and many of his shipmates first thought that they would be headed back to Cuba for war, until they learned that Oswald was the suspected assassin. Still saddened by the loss of his commander-in-chief, Alstead recalled the relief he felt when he learned that Oswald had been identified as the assassin.

Living in San Diego, home of the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet, Ainsley also remembers the feeling that swept across that community that the assassination was somehow connected to the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Because of the huge military installations in and around the city, at first everyone thought that San Diego would be a target for nuclear weapons if the nation went to war because of Kennedy's death, said Ainsley. "It was a very scary time," he said.

Father Richard Leisen, now the priest at St. Louis Catholic Church, was working at an office of Catholic Services in New York City when he heard that Kennedy was dead. Being a young priest, working on his master's degree in social work at the time, Leisen admired Kennedy for his work on human rights.

Leisen considers himself privileged to have seen Kennedy speak at his school just 11 days before he died. According to Leisen, Kennedy added a spirit to the country that no other president has. "He had a gift, and he used it well," said Leisen.

Because Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic president, the religious community held him in high regard, but what impressed Leisen most about the Kennedy appearence was the humor that Kennedy wove into his speech. "Our generation thought a lot of him," said Leisen, who also admired Kennedy's audacity. "He had a spirit o

f not being afraid to speak out." Leisen believes that if he had been a younger man at the time, he may have joined the Peace Corps, a program Kennedy started in 1961.

Joan Kost was working in an office of Catholic Services in Cheyenne on Nov. 22, 1963, when an elderly Irish nun came into her office sobbing: "My president has died," said Kost.

Because he was the first Roman Catholic president, the religious community had cheered for him, and his death left a veil of sadness hanging over the community, said Kost, who paid more attention to politics after the president died.

So did Marlys Pearson.

She was a young mother on a farm when Kennedy was killed. Life for her had to go on, she said. It was November, and fields had to be prepared for spring and other work had to be done, too.

But Pearson never forgot the feeling of sadness that swept over her that day. "It was the first time I thought much about politics," she said. Because her father and her husband were members of the DFL party, she never gave much thought to her own political beliefs until that day, said Pearson.

Kennedy was killed less than two years after assuming the presidency. Forty years later his death, and his legacy, still loom large.

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