Assassination memories remain vivid

By NANCY WHYTE

Psychologists call it a “flashbulb memory,” that special, autobiographical memory that is seared into one’s mind upon seeing or hearing something emotionally traumatic. For many individuals aged 55 or older, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy often evokes such a carefully-preserved memory. A lot of people can provide a detailed description of where they were when they heard that tragic news.

Andrew Halcoussis, a patron of the Avalon Library, recalls that he was working in a lab at PPG Industries. Halcoussis had come from Greece to attend college in the United States. Later he’d married and had just become a naturalized U.S. citizen during the summer of 1963. He and his wife were the parents of a 2-month baby boy.

Recalling his day at work on Nov. 22, 1963, Halcoussis said, ““We were making polymers,” when “someone opened the door and said that Kennedy had been shot.”

“Everyone was upset,” he stated. He remembers going out to the parking lot, where everyone was “standing around and discussing it in amazement.” There was a bit of fear in their conversations.

“Some of us didn’t like Johnson” and wondered how things might change with him as president.

A relative of his later sent him a copy of The Daily, which was the main newspaper in Athens. It contained many “articles that the assassination was a conspiracy.”

Bellevue resident Lori Neel said that after watching some of the anniversary shows so prominent on television this week, that “all those memories came flooding back.” Neel was the youngest of their family’s four children. They lived in Manchester on the North Side. At the time, she was a third grader at Mary Immaculate, a Catholic school. She recalls that the teacher, a “young nun named Sister Monica, left the room and then reentered, crying. She put her head down on her desk and continued crying.” Soon after the children were led into the church to say prayers.

On that Sunday, Neel remembers, her mother took the children to church at Regina Coeli. Her father stayed home and was watching television. Upon arriving back at the house, Lori and her siblings entered the front door to hear her father tell his wife, “That b*d shot him.” Then it was explained that the suspected assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had himself just been shot and killed by Jack Ruby.

Nancy DePace, secretary to the superintendent and board secretary for the Avonworth School District, has clear memories of the event, particularly because she had seen John F. Kennedy in person. On Oct. 13, 1962, President Kennedy visited the Pittsburgh area. One of his stops was at the Holy Family Institute in Emsworth. Knowing his planned motorcade route, DePace, a friend, and a Quaker Valley guidance counselor were standing along Route 65, as were many other spectators. They saw the motorcade slowly approach. “Time stopped,” she relates. There he was, “in a black convertible with the top down. He was sitting on the back.”

The president looked at the group in which DePace was gathered, then Kennedy said, “Sorry I can’t stop; we’re a little late.”

DePace smiles when describing Kennedy, relating that he was young and good-looking and seemed suave and debonair.

No one knew that at the time, he had a mere 13 months to live.

When JFK was in Dallas on that fateful day, Nancy DePace was in a Quaker Valley classroom. She recalls that from the wall speaker came the unbelievable news that the president had been shot and killed. Soon, “the whole class was sobbing.”

“They let school out early,” relates DePace. “No one was on the streets. No one knew what to say. He was so loved.”

Two days later, she was on the phone, watching TV while she talked.

“Oh my goodness,” she recalls exclaiming, “He just shot him!” She was referring to seeing -- it was live coverage -- Jack Ruby step forward and shoot Oswald.

And she sadly remembers the extensive television coverage of the funeral procession.

Whether children, teenagers or adults, the bulb flashed so brightly on Nov. 22, 1963 that today, 50 years later, we continue to see the images, and experience the event some say changed the course of American history.

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