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Canadians remember where they were the day JFK was assassinated

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TORONTO - It was just another Friday in 1963 with all the time in the world for Canadians to struggle through school classes, go for a walk or even skip work to shake off a winter bug.

But when a man fired gunshots south of the border and ended a president's life, Canadians were quick to join their American neighbours in mourning.

Men and women across the country still recall the precise moment at which they heard that U.S. President John F. Kennedy had been struck by an assassin's bullet.

Times, places events and emotions remain as vivid today as they did when they unfolded 50 years ago, they said.

Rodger Campbell, 64, distinctly recalls the flu that kept him back from work that day. From a couch in his Toronto home, Campbell said he unwittingly wound up watching history unfold in something very close to real time.

"I was watching television just idly and feeling miserable," all of a sudden they broke into the news and it was Walter Cronkite talking about the fact that Kennedy had been shot," Campbell said in an interview.

Phyl Good was a seven-year-old student in Calgary, but said her youth did nothing to dim her memory of a day that traumatized nearly every adult around her.

Good recalls watching her usually stoic mother become visibly upset as she watched the non-stop television coverage of Kennedy's death.

The event itself made an impression on Good despite the fact that she believed the fallen politician to be the leader of Canada.

The Cuban Missile Crisis had loomed large in children's lives just a year before, she said, adding she and her classmates had even undergone practice drills to teach diligence in the face of an attack.

She said Kennedy's involvement in that saga had been enough to force the American president into the orbit of even the youngest and least politically astute Canadian.

"President Kennedy was already in my consciousness at the time because we knew that was a tense and scary thing too, and he was associated with that," she said. "That obviously made quite an impression on me."

School figured even more prominently in Gerry McGuire's recollections of the day.

He was a nine-year-old in Duncan. B.C. when a teacher brought a television into his grade four classroom.

He and his peers watched in shock as reports suggested the president may live, only to ultimately reverse course and announce his death.

"Everybody was in shock. Classes were dismissed early, and I walked home on rural roads by myself. As I started to climb the one hill on the way I cried," McGuire said in an email.

"It's funny how I didn't cry until I got to the hill. The physical effort required released the emotion that was overwhelming me."

Francine Melmer's memories focus more specifically on the aftermath of the tragedy that shook the world.

After rumours of Kennedy's death filtered through her London, Ont. high school, she watched in shock as her entire world ground to a halt.

"Everyone was glued to their TV sets. They cancelled all social engagements for that weekend, and they watched the recap of the shootings," the 64-year-old said.

Not just the assassination, but the fate of the assassin held the people in her life spellbound, Melmer said.

"People were watching TV live when (Lee Harvey) Oswald was shot, which had never happened before."

Many people said the president's death ushered in a time of fear and desolation for those who had been captivated by the Kennedys and the liberal ideals they represented.

Melmer said the loss hit workaday people hard because of the combination of glamour and down-to-earth charm that made him easier to relate to.

For Campbell, Kennedy's death marked the end of what many saw as a golden era.

"It was a time of Camelot," he said. "It was a time when everybody thought the world was going to change because of John F. Kennedy and what he was able to do."

Even half a century later, some people still struggle to make sense of Kennedy's untimely death.

McGuire suspects the course of history would have changed if Kennedy had lived.

For 62-year-old Gayla Mayman of Toronto, the anniversary is just one more reminder of a painful time.

"I still get broken up about it," she said. "It's a very sad story.”

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