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One special moment in time

  • DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Diane Kenesky Derr, Tamaqua, cherishes a collection of 1960s-era magazines and periodicals on the Kennedy family, the assassination and what some call the era of Camelot.
    DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Diane Kenesky Derr, Tamaqua, cherishes a collection of 1960s-era magazines and periodicals on the Kennedy family, the assassination and what some call the era of Camelot.
Published November 22. 2013 05:00PM

Those baby boomers who remember say it was a special moment in time.

Presidential nominee John F. Kennedy campaigned in Schuylkill County.

In Tamaqua, he was a Democrat visiting a Republican-controlled town.

But political differences didn't deter enthusiastic Tamaquans from turning out to greet the future commander-in-chief. On Oct. 28, 1960, he slowly proceeded along two major highways that bisect the community. He was en route to Hazleton after having offered remarks in Pottsville.

At Catholic schools in Tamaqua, students were allowed to go outdoors and line the sidewalks for a reception. But for whatever reason, public school children were not. Some, however, were able to sneak out. But the majority were kept inside school buildings and not allowed to witness history.

Whether based on politics, religion, or both, the reality of a partisan 1960 culture is reflected in comments by local residents and natives. The divergent political views and religious differences colored the events of the day and today are reflected in memories of the Kennedy experience.

Reevesdale native Francis "Franie" Quinn was a student at Marian High School and remembers the excitement.

"He first appeared in Pottsville at Garfield Square. My Dad was there to see him then. He and his caravan then traveled to Tamaqua," said Quinn.

"I knew about what time he was coming through Tamaqua and figured I'd wait at the west end of town. There was a fair-sized crowd there and when the cars started into town, they slowed down a lot because the people were reaching for him to shake hands. As I remember I didn't have too much trouble going up to the car which was a white Ford convertible.

"I'll never forget how young he looked in person as opposed to TV. I guess one hand shake wasn't enough because I raced down the street further and shook his hand the second time. It wasn't as easy the second time because of a greater crowd. I wonder if anyone else got two handshakes from him that day," says Quinn, now of Las Vegas, Nev.

Jacci Taylor, Tamaqua, recalls that her mother, the former Rosie Comisac, was on hand that day.

"My mom got to shake his hand down by St. Jerome's," she said.

Melanie Maliniak Preschutti, Boalsburg also recalls the Kennedy visit.

"I was five and had no clue who JFK was. I lived in Hometown with my parents. My grandfather, who lived in Coaldale, took me to watch. 'Didi' shook his hand and told me we had just met one of the greatest people in the world."

Tamaqua native Tom Berner, retired journalism professor living in Bellefonte, recalls that the caravan was late.

"He was supposed to go through Tamaqua between noon and 1 p.m. and therefore we didn't get off school to see him," said Berner. Berner also acknowledges that he believed all along that politics and religion likely played a role in the school board's decision.

Joe Suzadail, now of Syracuse, N.Y., remembers why JFK's motorcade ran late.

"I was in eighth grade at St. Jerome's. All classes were let out and waited for him in front of the school. The reason he was late was because he made an unscheduled stop into a school along the route. I'm not sure, but I think the school was either St. Bartholomew's in Brockton or St. Bertha's in Tuscarora."

Journalist Kathy Kleinhagen Kunkel, Tamaqua, remembers a brief encounter.

"I did manage to brush his hand, as most of the kids at SS. Peter and Paul's School did. The entire school lined that one block of Pine Street when he came through," recalled Kunkel.

Tamaqua native and retired Panther Valley School District educator Harry Everhart, Tallahassee, Fla., also recalls the blatant politics of the day. Everhart doesn't mince words.

"I saw JFK ride through town. In those days they used to allow art students to paint Halloween scenes on the windows of Broad Street stores. My painting was selected to be done on Miller's Dress Store downtown.

"As I was painting, JFK rode by in a Ford convertible sitting in the back, shades of Dallas. He came from Pottsville and turned and went to Hazleton. At the time I was in favor of Richard Nixon. Boy, was I wrong. Tamaqua was a Republican town and JFK's caravan was supposed to come around noon but it was late and the school principal would not let the kids in because they were late. He stood holding the door shut. What an idiot."

The shocking assassination

Three years after his visit to Schuylkill County, Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas. It happened on Nov. 22, 1963, exactly 50 years ago today.

There, as in Tamaqua, he rode through crowds in a convertible, vulnerable to the type of tragedy that eventually unfolded.

Many say the assassination is the profound, defining moment of the baby boom generation. It was so momentous a tragedy, so shattering to the senses, that boomers born in the 1940s and 50s can tell you exactly where they were when they heard the news.

Lynda Walton Martian, Seminole, Fla., was a student of the Tamaqua Area Joint School District attending sixth grade.

"Recently, on my trip to Tamaqua, we went looking for the old school in Tuscarora which I attended. This school was where we all heard the news of President Kennedy's fatality. Everyone was shaken up and crying or silently trying to piece together what this meant for the future of the United States.

"It was the time of youth when you felt the terrible emotion and confusion of not knowing what it all meant and the consequences in store for our country," said Martian.

Jean Romig Holmberg, South Tamaqua, said the event touched her to the core.

"I was 13 years old and in math class when we were told of the assassination. Our very no-nonsense teacher, Mr. Fritz, came into the room completely shaken up, fighting back tears, and told us. I cried hard for three days solid, there was no consoling me. I remember it well."

Kay Ann Wehry Oertner, South Tamaqua, also attended Tuscarora school at the time.

"I remember being on the bus and Miss Hegarty stopping the bus driver from pulling out. She stood on the bus steps and told us all that JFK was dead. I remember crying and thinking it was the end of the world."

One Tamaqua resident maintains a print collection that chronicles the era.

"I remember being in junior high at the time," says Diane Derr. Derr, who has numerous copies of "Look," "Life" and other magazines carrying stories of the tragedy and the Kennedy era.

Like others, she remembers a feeling of uncertainty. Today, those thoughts are relived when she looks at her periodical collection of all things Kennedy.

Similarly, Tamaqua native Tom Hadesty has a collection of Kennedy-era newspapers from Hadesty's days working at Moser News Agency.

For many adults living today, the sheer violence of the assassination is seared into the mind, an indelible moment of pain that gave way to a bottomless feeling of uncertainty all of which was reinforced through unprecedented media coverage.

Newspapers and periodicals carried front page Kennedy coverage for days, weeks and months after the assassination.

Television programming seemed to carry nothing but Kennedy: the funeral, tributes, analyses, investigations.

There really was nothing else to watch. Today's cable channels didn't exist. Television of the early 1960s was dominated by three major networks and the news centered on Kennedy and, finally, an eventual transition of power.

In some ways, the world had, indeed, ended.

The world, as we knew it, had vanished.

It was one special moment in time, and it was a moment we'll never forget.

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