For Lebanon Band Members, a Tragic Note: Just 1,000 Days After Marching for Kennedy, Shock and Grief
The Lebanon High School band marches in John F. Kennedy's inaugural parade in January 1961. (Courtesy photograph)
President Kennedy delivers his inaugural address after taking the oath of office on Capitol Hill on Jan. 20, 1961. (Associated Press)
Lebanon — The members of the Lebanon High School marching band had been participants in a joyous and extraordinary moment in U.S. history.
Now, just over 1,000 days later, they found themselves spectators to a terrible moment in history. A moment that would shock the nation and change lives forever — around the world as well as in the Upper Valley.
For Lebanon band members Bob Townsend, Peter Vanier, George Armstrong and Sue Henderson, the bulletin announcing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, was a startling blow to their young lives.
After all, they felt a personal connection to this president. It was just a few years earlier, on Jan. 20, 1961, that the Lebanon band marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, passing right in front of the president’s reviewing stand.
Band director Stu Morash had ordered his charges to keep their eyes forward as they marched. Not everyone followed that direction.
“I was on the left side, the side closest to the president,” said Henderson, who played saxophone. “I peeked out of the corner of my eye. I looked right at him.”
Townsend, who lugged a 25-pound tuba around that day, also looked toward the new president. “I was no more than 20, maybe 30 feet from him,” recalled Townsend. “It was as close as you could come. I could see him perfectly.”
It was a day for them all to remember. Not that long after, they would all share a day to forget.
On the Friday before Thanksgiving, Townsend, a senior in the Thompson School of Agriculture at UNH, was in meeting with his adviser to discuss his senior project. “Someone came in and said the president had been shot,” he said. “My first reaction was, ‘The president of the college?’
“He said, ‘No. The president in Dallas!’ We looked at each other and left the building.”
Later that day, the school announced that classes were canceled through the Thanksgiving break. Townsend returned home to his family in Lebanon.
While the events in Dallas and Washington commanded the world’s attention, Townsend had other priorities.
“I had work to do on the farm,” Townsend said matter-of-factly. “That was what was important.”
He did, though, follow the news when time allowed.
“We listened on the radio,” he said. “We didn’t have a television back then.”
Henderson remembers that Friday quite vividly.
As a nursing student at Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts, Henderson was working her shift in the clinical unit at Fitchburg Hospital tending to one of her elderly patients.
“I can still see her face and the purple angora sweater she was wearing,” said Henderson of that day 50 years ago. “She was in pain, so I was preparing to give her morphine.”
As it happened, the patient was a strong follower of Kennedy — the man and his policies — and was quite verbal about her support. She was well aware that the president was in Dallas that day.
As Henderson was attending to her patient, the floor supervisor came into the room to speak with the young nurse.
“She told me not to talk about the president at all. And make sure the TV was off.
“I asked her what was going on. She said the president had just been assassinated. And we didn’t want to upset the patient.”
Henderson spent the rest of her shift doing what she could to distract her patient and keep the news of the day out of that small hospital room.
When her shift was over, Henderson rushed back to her dorm to watch the news of the horrible day unfold.
“I remember going home and watching the funeral with my parents. Everyone was so quiet. It was a terrible day for all of us. I just couldn’t believe it had happened. It made quite an impression on me.
“For so many of us, it was our first experience with death. What did we know about such things? We were so young. It was a day that I’ll never forget.”
George Armstrong’s wife, Linda, was an eighth-grader when she marched in the inaugural parade. Playing the clarinet on that frigid day, she remembered not turning her head to see the president.
“I have no recollection of looking (at Kennedy) at all,” she said. “I was a good eighth-grader doing what I was told.”
The day Kennedy was assassinated, Linda Armstrong was a 16-year-old junior in Jerry Damren’s history class. Damren had a habit of walking down the hall to visit the school office, and on this day he hurried back to class with the news out of Dallas.
“He told us the president had been shot,” she recalled. “That was all the news we had.”
Shocked, she headed for her last class of the day — chorus.
“We had a young teacher, Sally Counts, and she handled it so well,” she said. “I thought of her example years later when I was a teacher of little ones during 9/11.
“She kept everything under control. She said we should sing the song we had been practicing. So that’s how we dealt with the news — we sang.”
The song chosen that afternoon seemed especially appropriate. It was, Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs, from Handel’s Messiah.
Once school let out, she went home and spent the next three days in front of the television. “It’s hard to think back to what it was like before that day,” she said, “But there was a definite feeling of loss, a loss of innocence.”
Her husband’s recollections were not as sharp.
“I didn’t have much of a reaction back then,” he said. “It didn’t affect me that much. Back then, I wasn’t a Kennedy fan in the first place.”
A freshman at Springfield College at the time, he remembers getting out of class.
“In retrospect, you could see what a historic moment that was. But anything else I say about it is from other accounts.”
Vanier was a sophomore at Plymouth State College the day of the assassination. “I was just leaving my part-time job at the college library and headed back to my dorm,” he wrote in an email. “ I began to notice students running up to one another; hugging and crying. I yelled out, ‘What’s wrong?’ Someone shouted in a sobbing voice … ‘Someone shot the President. … President Kennedy is dead!’
“I remember standing still in disbelief, shocked at what I had heard. I ran to the student union to get to a television to see and hear for myself. I was thinking and hoping as I ran that this must be a mistake. I remember standing in silence with about a hundred other students, listening to the news reports. I was sad, upset and angry all at once. Thinking, why? Who? Is this really happening?”
Having heard Kennedy’s inaugural address, Vanier took that call to action to heart. “I considered myself one of President Kennedy’s ‘new generation.’ I felt, as did many college-age youth, that President Kennedy spoke to me, especially during the campaign. We were ready to join him in trying to make our country and the world a better and more peaceful place. Yes, I was one of the many idealistic young people beginning to get involved in campus causes; motivated in large measure by the words and example of our president.”
In the fall of 1964, a year after Kennedy’s death, Vanier applied to the Peace Corps. A year later, he was invited to train at the University of Arizona for an assignment as a Peace Corps volunteer in South America.
“In the summer of 1967, as I settled in to my little pueblo in the Venezuelan Andes, I noticed photographs of President Kennedy hanging on the walls in several of the little grocery stores, in the elementary school and in the office of the parish priest. Kennedy was still a source of encouragement and a symbol of hope for people everywhere.”
Donald Mahler is the sports editor of the Valley News. He can be reached at email@example.com.