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Shots heard around the world

Kennedy assassination reverberated far and wide

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/11/2013 (1365 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For those old enough to remember it, Winnipeggers know exactly where they were when they learned U.S. president John F. Kennedy had been assassinated 50 years ago today.

In the pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, pre-Internet and pre-24/7 news cycle that was the reality on Nov. 22, 1963, the news from Dallas, Texas, while moving slower than today, did get to people in just a few hours -- through rushed special editions of newspapers, radio reports and live television news.

John Millar with a photo of himself near the time Kennedy was killed. Millar worked on JFK's campaign and later with Robert Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King.


John Millar with a photo of himself near the time Kennedy was killed. Millar worked on JFK's campaign and later with Robert Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King.

Front page, final edition of the Winnipeg Free Press on Saturday, November 23, 1963.

Front page, final edition of the Winnipeg Free Press on Saturday, November 23, 1963.

It was literally the shots heard around the world, and they still echo five decades later.

Winnipeg Free Press articles at the time point to the emotion of the day and the days after.

Two students at St. Paul's College were reported to have fainted after hearing the news, groups of people congregated around exterior store windows to watch televisions, and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet cancelled a reception in honour of the Russian Bolshoi Ballet troupe.

The Free Press published in the afternoon and evening at the time so it was able to produce a newspaper within minutes of the 12:30 p.m. shooting.

The first edition of that Friday paper had the banner headline "Kennedy shot", while in slightly smaller print underneath it said "Rushed to hospital". On either side of the short piece, which stated there was no word on Kennedy's condition, were articles saying the province would pay 100 per cent of the costs for a four-lane bridge on Osborne Street to St. Vital and that Trans-Canada Air Lines would stay in Winnipeg for at least a decade. The latter story was accompanied by a photo of a plane serviced here.

The headlines in the second edition confirmed what is now history: "President Kennedy Is Dead; Assassinated in Texas Ambush". Gone was the photo of the plane, replaced by a file photo of Kennedy, as well as a picture of the stricken Kennedy fallen forward in the presidential limousine while his wife Jacqueline started to climb out onto the trunk.

There's also a hint of how quickly the front page had been rejigged in those days before computers: The new headline for the much shorter story about the St. Vital bridge had the misspelling "Provnce" .

By the third edition, the typo had been fixed, more details were known, vice-president Lyndon B. Johnson was now president and a headline announced there were more stories and pictures on page 24.

The next day's paper included a story on Winnipeggers' reaction, including "pretty Audrey-Ann Taylor," who said: "I just can't believe it. It doesn't seem possible. I saw President Kennedy when he visited Grand Forks two months ago. He was so impressive, he looked so strong and now he's dead.

"It's such a senseless thing."

Page 12 included a large advertisement from "The Directors, Officers and Staff of Simpsons-Sears" expressing their "Deepest Sympathy To The People Of The United States Of America In The Loss Of Their President".

By the time Monday came, the day of Kennedy's funeral, Winnipeggers had been glued to their black-and- white TV sets for the weekend, watching the coverage in the aftermath, many seeing live the shooting of his accused killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, by Jack Ruby.

Flags throughout the city had been flown at half-staff for days and, under orders by the province's attorney general, the city and provincial courts were opened but then adjourned until the funeral service was over. The Winnipeg Grain Exchange and Winnipeg Stock Exchange, both of which closed on Friday when news of the shooting reached the city, stayed closed on Monday.

Hundreds of people, including premier Duff Roblin, lieutenant-governor Errick Willis and other dignitaries, gathered at the University of Manitoba's St. Paul's College chapel to mourn the president at a mass. Later, many of them attended a second memorial service at Holy Trinity Anglican Church.

Calling Kennedy's assassination a "religious occasion," Roblin said the mourning in Canada was "a natural expression of that sense of community which transcends our borders."


Roger Newman was the Free Press legislature reporter at the time, but he just happened to walk into the newspaper's old Carleton Street newsroom just minutes after the teletype rang out its rare multi-bell chimes signalling a major bulletin was coming in.

"The place was absolute bedlam," Newman recalled.

"I'd never seen anything like it in my life. We watched the wire and then we saw he died... I was really shook up.

"I went out and walked around the downtown for about an hour. I don't think people knew when I was walking around -- at that time it took a while for news to spread. Then I went back to work."

Newman said Kennedy had been a hero of his.

"He was such a fresh face in politics, almost like Trudeau in the '60s and like Justin is now," he said.

"His hope is one of the big tragedies, because that hope went out the door with Lyndon Johnson."

-- -- --

A few blocks away, at the rival Winnipeg Tribune, much the same pandemonium was going on.

Frances Russell, then still a rookie reporter covering the Winnipeg School Board beat, was just waking up after a late-night meeting when she turned on the television and heard the news Kennedy had been shot and killed.

Russell said she rushed to the Tribune's downtown offices and was quickly assigned by city editor Harry Mardon to join other reporters and hit the streets and get comments from shocked Winnipeggers.

"We walked up and down Smith Street and Portage Avenue talking to people," she said.

"Everybody was more or less saying the same thing: It was a terrible tragedy for the Americans and the world. A lot of people were stopping and watching TVs to see the news."

-- -- --

John Harvard, later a federal MP and the province's lieutenant-governor, was working at CJOB when the news came in.

"We were just absolutely stunned," Harvard said.

"We couldn't believe what had happened. We had all been caught up in Camelot. He was charismatic and his wife was beautiful. I think even Canadians were carried along with that."


Maxine Hasselriis was teaching a class of Grade 7 students at Churchill High School when she and other teachers learned about Kennedy's assassination -- from their young charges.

"The kids went home for lunch that day and came back and said he had been shot and killed," Hasselriis said.

"We said, 'Don't say that; it couldn't have happened.' What could you think? We thought one of them had started a silly rumour. Nobody would kill the president. It just sounded unbelievable.

"But they had come back stunned and we soon found out it was true. It was on a Friday, so we finished the school day and then we watched TV about it that night and through the weekend until we went back to work on Monday."

-- -- --

Winnipeg marriage counsellor John Millar, then working at a small church north of New York City, said the assassination hit him hard because just three years before, when he was in seminary school in California, he stumped for Kennedy in that state.

"We were knocking on doors for him," Millar said. "It really hit me."

It wasn't the last assassination that rocked Millar. He later worked for Robert Kennedy and then closely with Rev. Martin Luther King.

"I became a pretty depressed person -- everybody I go to work for gets shot.

"The great thing about Kennedy is he wanted to break barriers and take risks... it was a feeling we could change the world."

-- -- --

Mahlon Harvey, a retired business professor from the University of Winnipeg, was a 21-year-old in the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, doing training when they were told what happened only 250 kilometres away in Dallas.

"Training stopped and people either went to the office to listen to the radio or the barracks to watch on the TV. I went to the barracks. At that point of time, they were still saying that the president was shot.

"Then they said he was dead... We knew in the chain of command the president is the commander-in-chief, so everyone knew it would have some effect, but no one knew what it would be."


-- -- --

Winnipeg city councillor Harvey Smith was living in Vancouver at the time and he recalls the assassination was on the same day he received a call asking him to look at applying to be executive director of the Manitoba NDP.

"It was a shock," he said.

"I had a fairly favourable impression of Kennedy. For him to be out of the picture was very disheartening.

"It was like all hope was disappearing. We were going back to the institutional politicians."

-- -- --

Lawyer Hymie Weinstein said he heard the news while taking a break from law school to have lunch in a Chinese restaurant with a fellow law student.

"I was with Ray Kives, before K-Tel," Weinstein said.

"I don't know if it was the owner or someone else, but that's when we heard about the assassination. We just couldn't believe it. We said this can't be a rumour or made up, this had to be the case. We were in shock and everyone at the restaurant was in disbelief.

"I think he was a great president... he came out with some wonderful, wonderful lines people will never forget."

-- -- --

Lloyd Axworthy was a few years away from getting into politics when he heard the news.

He was a student at Princeton University in New Jersey when he heard about it during a pickup basketball game.

"One of the students heard the news and we glommed onto the radio after that," he said.

"Three or four rows over in the change room, it sounded like laughter -- clearly there were students who weren't taking in the import of this -- so we went over and told them to pay attention, the president had just been shot."

Axworthy said that just the year before, he had seen Kennedy in person up close at an event in nearby Trenton.

"For a young person with a political interest, it was a life-changer," he said.

"Here was this very graceful man coming out in a November evening with no coat on with the older politicos around him with cigars and overcoats. He was a symbol and an inspiration for all of us, even with all the debunking since.

"I still think he was a very important president because he really was a turning point in recasting how the world would work. Here was a very strong and intelligent man saying how we could change the world."

-- -- --

Premier Greg Selinger was 12 and an elementary student at Linwood School in St. James at the time.

Selinger said he remembers "the teacher coming in with absolute tears.

"He was a very popular romantic figure at that time. It was one of those moments you don't forget.

"It affected all of us. This was a president with a global presence. It did have a big impact on us and made us think of global events."

-- -- --

Sometimes you didn't even have to be born at the time to be moved by Kennedy's assassination.

Stephanie Yamniuk, a PhD candidate at the University of Manitoba and an instructor in the faculty of education and human ecology, was born about nine years after, but Kennedy's life, presidency and death still resonated with her.

Yamniuk said while she was growing up in Ohio, her mother talked about Kennedy so much she began learning more about him herself, so much so that later she devoted her master's thesis to his presidency.

"I should have been born 15 years before instead of 1972," she said.

"But it's funny -- he hasn't impacted on my students like he did in my generation. I say the 50th anniversary is coming and they say, 'So?' and that has shocked me. He did so much for society."

Where were you when you heard the news? Share your story in the comments section below.

Read more by Kevin Rollason.


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