In Washington, Witnesses to a Nation’s Grief
Felicity and T Swayze at their home in Tunbridge, Vt., on Nov. 15, 2013. The couple were in Washington, D.C. at the time of JFK's funeral proceedings and were able to see the President's body lying in state at the U.S. Capitol Building.
Valley News - Sarah Priestap
In this photograph taken by T Swayze of Tunbridge, Vt., Jacqueline Kennedy walks with her brothers-in-law Robert Kennedy and Edward Kennedy in JFK's funeral procession.
Valley News - Sarah Priestap
Jane Stephenson at her home in Plainfield, N.H., on Nov. 14, 2013. Stephenson was visiting the U.S. Senate Chamber while on a leadership conference when JFK was assassinated.
Valley News - Sarah Priestap
An old man’s tears. Flags at half-staff. Enormous, silent crowds.
Fifty years after President John. F. Kennedy’s assassination, some of the memories are hazy, but for Upper Valley residents who were in Washington, D.C., at that time, certain images remain burned into their minds. And along with them, the memory of being moved to action.
With a stream of media coverage in the days following the shooting, they could have stayed inside, huddled around a radio or a neighbor’s television set. But like hundreds of thousands of others, something drove them into the streets. Felicity Swayze stood outside in the cold all night, waiting to pay her respects to the charismatic young man whose death shattered her sense of safety.
“You want to bear witness in some way. Be there. Show up,” she said. “I couldn’t let it pass without taking some kind of action.”
Her husband, Townsend, had joined the foreign service, and at the time of the shooting, they were preparing to go to India.
“In the 1950s, government was not a career that young people sought,” Felicity Swayze said. “It was thought to be not very exciting.”
But like so many others, the couple, who now live in Tunbridge, had been drawn in by Kennedy. They shared an alma mater; Townsend had graduated from Harvard, and Felicity was a Radcliffe alumna. And Kennedy’s passion for public service inspired them.
With programs such as the Peace Corps, “he just energized young people,” she said. “The word was, this kind of work was for you. We need young people.”
When Kennedy was shot, Felicity was visiting her in-laws in Manhattan and Townsend was in Washington. On Saturday, he came back to New York City, and the two drove to Washington the following day. The couple walked to the White House from their hotel.
According to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum website, about 250,000 people paid their respects during the 21 hours that the president’s body lay in state in the Capitol rotunda. The Swayzes were among them.
“We ended up at the bottom of the Capitol steps,” joining a line that someone told them extended 13 blocks east and then back to the Capitol, Felicity Swayze said.
She remembers people talking quietly to each other and small bonfires popping up as the line snaked along. As dawn broke, they entered the Capitol, where they silently shuffled past the flag-draped coffin.
Leaving the building, they stepped out “into a different world,” Felicity wrote in an email. “For the first time in our lives, we have been witnesses to true violence.”
Stephanie Einstein, now a Hartford resident, was a student at George Washington University when she heard about the shooting.
“We weren’t from a family that idolized Kennedy … but it was very upsetting,” she said in an interview.
The assassination seemed to change the mood of the city, and people became “much more polite,” said Einstein, who soon after the shooting visited a church with a friend who was Catholic. On the city bus back to their dorm on Wisconsin Avenue, “men were getting up for women of all ages to give them their seats. Normally, that rarely happened.”
Originally from Concord, Mass., Einstein grew up with a strong sense of the past. After Kennedy was shot, she and her classmates spent a lot of time watching her “little portable television” and reading The Washington Post, she said. “It was historical, and we knew it.”
On Nov. 25 she and a friend left their dorm very early and made their way to Connecticut Avenue to watch the funeral procession.
“It was an impression I will never forget,” Einstein wrote.
“Jackie, tall, with her face mostly hidden behind the heavy black veil hanging from her hat, walking between Bobby Kennedy on the left and Teddy Kennedy on the right. The heads of state marched right behind them.”
She remembers the caisson pulled by horses, the flag-draped casket, and Black Jack, the riderless horse. Just 18 at the time, Einstein was moved and upset, but she was not afraid for the country.
“As the Constitution mandates, Vice President Lyndon Johnson had become president and there was continuity,” she wrote. “But, there were changes that would happen that we could not foresee that would be very chaotic and disillusioning.”
In late November 1963, Jane Stephenson happened to be in Washington, D.C., for a church youth leadership conference. Over the course of several days, the 16-year-old watched the events of the assassination unfold.
Her mental snapshots start with seeing the president’s helicopter take off on Nov. 21. The next afternoon, she and her roommate were in the Senate Gallery, where Sen. Edward Kennedy was presiding.
“Someone hurriedly came over to speak to him, and he quickly left the room,” Stephenson, who now lives in Plainfield, wrote in an email. “Moments later, the Senate chaplain came and said a prayer.”
The Senate immediately adjourned, and Stephenson and her Texan roommate left, wondering what had happened. Their conference “assignment” included visiting their senators’ offices, so they headed to the office of Sen. Ralph Yarborough, D-Texas. There, they saw secretaries standing on chairs in the corridor holding radios, where they must have received better reception, Stephenson said. Yarborough was in Texas with Kennedy at the time, and it was in his office they heard the president might have died.
Stephenson, who lived outside of New York City, had come to Washington with a mission: to visit the Congress of Racial Equality and pick up some pins promoting equality. She and her roommate walked toward the office, through mostly black neighborhoods, where people sat on their stoops listening to transistor radios. News reports said the president had been shot.
“It was eerily quiet for a city scene,” she said in an interview. “Everybody was sitting, just waiting for news.”
They walked a long way, 50 blocks or so, she said. Along the way, they saw flags being lowered to half-staff.
“I think that’s when the enormity of it hit me,” said Stephenson. Just teenager at the time, Stephenson recalls being shocked by the news. “I knew that it was just the strangest thing.”
Her roommate was especially distressed because it had happened in Texas. “She realized that it was a horrible thing … the fact that it happened in her state.”
When they arrived at the Congress of Racial Equality, they found the office closed, due to the assassination. “We finally took a cab back to our hotel, with our elderly black cab driver weeping openly and telling us he had driven the president when he’d been a senator,” Stephenson wrote.
Unsure of what to do, they walked to the White House, where others who had also “drifted there” were standing quietly outside.
“People just gathered at the fence to look at the White House,” she said. “People don’t know what to do after something like this. People go to a spot that has some symbolism.”
Alison May, who worked on Kennedy’s presidential campaign, remembers the excitement of having elected “a young man who inspired many of us.”
“It just made me feel that there was real hope and a future,” said May, who ran the campaign office in Alexandria, Va. But that feeling ended suddenly less than three years later.
“Emptiness. Sheer emptiness,” the Norwich resident said, describing her feelings at the time. “It was definitely an end of an era or end of a belief which didn’t return until Obama.”
Her husband, Don, was a newspaper reporter for UPI and was off covering the story.
The Mays, who lived in Alexandria, didn’t have a television, so Alison watched the events unfold with their neighbors. Seeing the news made her want to be there in person, so she packed up the children and parked near the Arlington Memorial Bridge to watch the funeral procession. Their daughter, Anne, was only 8. Their son, Stephen, just 5. But they understood somewhat what had happened, she said. Later that day, she wrote about the experience for the now defunct Hanover Gazette. Anne, she wrote, remembered the caisson stopping right in front of them. Steve remembers the riderless horse, she said in an interview.
But for her, the silence was most memorable, May said.
“That was what was so stunning about it, because it was huge crowd, but it was so silent.”
Aimee Caruso can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3210.