A shared agony: Americans remember their lives during some of the country's darkest moments

If you are a Pittsburgher who was at least 5 or 6 years old in 1963, this is not ancient history.

This -- the memory of where you were when President John F. Kennedy was shot -- is probably as vivid, searing and immediate as your wedding day, the day your child was born, the day your father died or your first kiss.

For Alice Slagle, the memory is about flags being lowered on Grant Street. For Bishop David Zubik, it is the deep, impenetrable silence on the bus home from St. Veronica High School in Ambridge. Gov. Tom Corbett can still hear the voice over the public address system at Shaler High School.

Two days later, when Kennedy's casket was taken to the Capitol to lie in state, Michael Suley scrambled to get a good view 200 feet from the building's steps. He got more than he bargained for.

"It was the first time," said Mr. Suley, 64, of Mt. Lebanon, "that I had ever seen thousands of older adults openly weeping and grieving."

Nov. 22, 1963; Sept. 11, 2001; and Dec. 7, 1941, are the three moments in modern history that, for whole generations, are the before-and-after watermarks of their lives.

Of that early afternoon 50 years ago next Friday, the memories seem to come in two beats, not one: the first report at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time that the president had been shot, and then, at 1:33 p.m. CST, the official announcement that he was dead.

"It was the not knowing which was so hard," Bishop Zubik said of that interim agonizing hour, followed by a somber trip home. "I took the 3:10 bus to my parents' house, which was a couple of miles away from the school, and there was absolute quiet. No one spoke."

Karen Steans, now of Austin, Texas, went into her senior government class in Negaunee, Mich., with Kennedy as her president, and by the time she was finishing Advanced Biology, Lyndon Baines Johnson had taken over that role.

"My mother picked me up from school Friday, but she let me drive home because she was so distressed," said Ms. Steans, 67.

Stillness in the workplace

Others -- not schoolchildren, but those at work, in offices or hospitals or in stores -- remember the stillness that descended upon Downtown.

Ms. Slagle, 74, of Brighton Heights was working for Alcoa on the 18th floor of the company's headquarters. After someone walked into her office with the news that Kennedy had been shot, she prayed while her boss stood by the window looking toward Grant Street.

"Then he said, 'They are lowering the flags,' and that is how I learned that ... JFK was dead."

Ms. Slagle worked a later shift in Alcoa's teletype department, and went to lunch at 4 p.m. Walking through the lobby, she sensed an unusual quiet, and when she approached a newspaper stand at Smithfield Street and Sixth Avenue, next to Brooks Brothers, she saw a truck driver deposit stacks of newspapers on the stand and on the ground beside it. The papers disappeared quickly, "people grabbing them and hurrying off without a word. There were no car horns honking, just this silence that fell over the city, numbness and shock," she said.

Cyril Wecht, who later became a central player in the who-shot-JFK conspiracy theory industry that was launched that day, was in California, standing in the autopsy room of the Los Angeles medical coroner's office. Thomas Noguchi, then a deputy medical examiner -- later, as coroner, he was involved in many high-profile cases -- was showing him around.

After a secretary told them the news, they went to the nearest bar with a television set.

"I felt a great loss," said Dr. Wecht.

Nearly a year later, the up-and-coming young pathologist was asked by the American Academy of Forensic Science to present a critical review about the Warren Commission's findings on the assassination.

"I went over to the Carnegie Library to research their report, and there on the shelf were 26 volumes. Phew!" said Dr. Wecht. In February 1965, he appeared before the academy to challenge the single-bullet theory advanced by the Warren Commission, and caused a sensation.

But all that was in the future.

"I was 32 years old and very taken with JFK, like most young people. I was taken with the idea of a fresh new face moving forward with voting and civil rights in America," he said.

Morton "Moe" Coleman, director emeritus of the Institute of Politics at the University of Pittsburgh, also admired Kennedy, volunteering for his campaign in 1960, setting up headquarters on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill, even as he was just starting his career as a city planner.

After hearing the news at lunch, he and his friend Earl Onque, an architect, repaired to Mitchell's Restaurant, the Downtown watering hole for lawyers and politicians "where I threw back quite a few that afternoon," Mr. Coleman said. "And I'm no drinker."

The event profoundly traumatized him.

"I can't tell you how much it disoriented me about the world. It confused my whole mind-set for a long time," Mr. Coleman said. For years afterward on Nov. 22, he would go to his synagogue, Beth Shalom on Beacon Street, just as he did every year on the anniversaries of his parents' deaths, to remember.

"After awhile, I stopped going," Mr. Coleman said. "But I will go again this year."

The historical what-ifs

Despite those razor sharp where-were-you memories, so many questions remain unanswered about how Kennedy died -- and if that turbulent decade would have, somehow, been different had he lived.

"You wonder what the country would have been like in the 1960s if he'd been there," said Mr. Corbett, who was then a freshman at Shaler High School. "That was such a revolutionary period, and had he been president instead of Johnson, what would it have been like? Did the assassination kick-start something, or would it have all happened anyway? Everyone can speculate to their heart's content, but we'll never know."

Not knowing isn't the same, though, as not forgetting.

For Mr. Suley, the Allderdice ninth-grader who found himself on the southeast side of the Capitol at the public viewing for Kennedy, "I'm thinking now that the security was much less than today's standards. How did my sister's boyfriend and I end up less than 200 feet away from the Capitol steps?"

What else can't he forget?

"The riderless horse. The drums. The soldiers," he said. "Mrs. Kennedy and her children. What I witnessed was majestic and intimate at the same time. What I witnessed and heard 50 years ago had a huge impact on me and my generation."

Thousands of those older Americans, so young then, also have another memory they hold close -- Kennedy's call to service in his 1961 inaugural address, and how it inspired them to go to Washington to serve their country.

One of them was Paul O'Neill, who came to the nation's capital in 1961, after graduate school. He went on to become CEO of Alcoa and Treasury secretary under President George W. Bush.

On Nov. 22, 1963, he was working as a management intern at the Veterans Administration, leading a project team to apply operations research ideas to the VA hospital system. After his boss announced the news at about 1:45 p.m., everything went still, "as though time had stopped," he said.

Then the room "erupted in shouts of disbelief, and questions -- it can't be true, is he going to be OK, who has a radio -- until the president's death was announced minutes after 2:30," he said.

When Mr. O'Neill took the elevator downstairs, he found himself walking toward the White House, almost alone. There was no traffic on H Street, which parallels Pennsylvania Avenue. "It was as though the city had suddenly shut down."

That night, "I went home to our little brick house outside McLean, Va., and my wife and I spent Friday evening, all day Saturday and Sunday and Monday witnessing history on our black-and-white television," Mr. O'Neill said.

"And since then, for 50 years, whenever I come across the Memorial Bridge toward Arlington Cemetery, I look for the eternal flame below the Custis-Lee Mansion and these memories flood back."

Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1949. On Twitter @MackenziePG.

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