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50 years later, Baltimoreans remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy

At the federal courthouse, a judge was swearing in 102 new citizens. In a downtown hotel, the Santa Claus Anonymous charity was having a luncheon. Races were underway at Pimlico, and a shift of Bethlehem Steel workers would soon clock out at Sparrows Point, with another filing in to take its place.

It was cool and cloudy in Baltimore on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963.

Shortly after 1:30 p.m., by radio, television or frantic word of mouth, the news from Dallas made its way here: President John F. Kennedy had been shot. A half-hour later, his death was confirmed, setting off an extraordinary cascade of events, captured unblinkingly in real time on TV: the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, nightclub owner Jack Ruby's killing of Oswald, the funeral of JFK.

Fifty years later, those who lived through those emotion-fraught days can still see their teachers or parents weeping. They can still hear the cadence of drums and the horses' hoofbeats as JFK's casket was borne by caisson to lie in state in the Capitol. They can still feel the utter sense of disbelief.

"It was like a hammer dropping," recalls Robert Ahlstrom, then a 15-year-old at Perry Hall High School. "It was like you weren't in the real world."

There was no template, no precedent for what to think or do next.

"Assassination," says former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke "that was something from the 19th century, something we studied in history."

The now 63-year-old Schmoke actually was in a history class at City College when students were told that Kennedy had been shot and killed.

"The teacher wasn't sure what we should do. So he sat. And we just sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity," Schmoke says. "Everybody was stunned."

It is hard now to remember a time when news wasn't instantaeous and updates a click away. Even TVs weren't ubiquitous, especially outside the home.

"Everyone was trying to get information from everyone else," recalls Gary Sapperstein, 74, then a deputy clerk of the federal court. From his office on the fifth floor of what is now known as Courthouse East on Calvert Street, he headed down a flight to the U.S. attorney's office, where he learned that Kennedy had died.

The Baltimore Sun's coverage at the time describes a chaotic courthouse, with people crowding around a few radios in the clerk's office, and a deputy marshal interuping the swearing-in ceremony of new citizens to alert Judge R. Dorsey Watkins.

"I cannot go on," the judge told the new citizens. "President Kennedy has just died." People in the courtroom sobbed, and one woman could barely see through her tears when it was her turn to sign a registry in the clerk's office, the newspaper reported.

Sapperstein remembers going to his contracts class at the University of Baltimore School of Law that evening, where after a listless half-hour, the instructor couldn't go on. "Just leave," Sapperstein remembers him saying.

Churches hurriedly organized services. Newspapers printed extra editions. Some businesses sent their employees home. Even the owners of the strip clubs on The Block voted to close for the night. And yet other events, including Sunday's Colts game in Los Angeles against the Rams, went on, even as a sorrowful haze enveloped the country.

It just seemed wrong, Thomas Caplan, then in his last year at Gilman School, remembers thinking as his school's football game against rival McDonogh went on as planned. Now 67 and an author who now lives on Tilghman Island, Caplan remembers either not going to the game or leaving early to return to Gilman.

There, he lowered the flag to half-staff.

"I was highly upset," says Caplan, who had met Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign. Caplan had written to all the candidates, seeking interviews for his school newspaper, but only JFK had responded, noting a campaign event in Baltimore and suggesting Caplan stop by.

After Kennedy's election, his administration agreed to Caplan's proposal for a sort of junior Peace Corps, in which schoolchildren would correspond with their counterparts around the globe. Through that, Caplan frequently went to a White House less burdened by security than now, meeting aides who, after the assassination, would invite him back to view JFK's casket in the East Room.

Coincidentally, the following year, on his first day at Georgetown University, he would meet and eventually room with a fellow JFK loyalist — the future president, Bill Clinton.

A sense of loss

Kennedy had a particular appeal to teens and young people. Some of that was his own youthful style — in his Ray-Bans, on a sailboat, with his chic wife and the frolicking young children, he looked like no other president before him. But he also tapped into their idealism, their urge to break with the past and follow him to a New Frontier.

"I watched his inaugural address and kind of bought into it," says Ahlstrom, the Perry Hall student, who now is an attorney in Columbia.

He remembers being dismissed from classes early and nearly fighting a group of boys who were joking about the assassination as they rode the school bus. Even though he had never even been to Washington, he'd already decided to attend Kennedy's funeral that Monday.

His father, a Beth Steel worker, dropped him at Penn Station early in morning, and in Washington, Ahlstrom plunged into a throng of 1 million lining the streets. He followed the procession, letting it out of his sight only to dart around blocked streets, all the way to Arlington National Cemetery.

There is a lingering sense of loss among many who were young then.

"It was like in that song, 'the day the music died,' " says Jack Leonard, 67, of Lutherville, who was a high school senior at the time.

Kennedy's presidency coincided with what Leonard considers the best four years of his life, his time at Calvert Hall College High School. Soon, Leonard, a former English teacher who now works for a fireworks company, and others of his generation would begin losing friends to the Vietnam War. They would see JFK's assassination followed four short years later by the slayings of his brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King. There would be riots on city streets and anti-war protests on college campuses.

"I feel like we've never recovered," says Debbie Grossblatt, 66, a retired policy analyst for Social Security and Medicare. "A lot of people had their hopes invested in him."

When she looks back on that Nov. 22, she remembers an uncommon silence: The news reached her at her locker in a hallway at Western High School, then housed in the former City College building at Howard and Centre Streets. It is now the Chesapeake Commons apartment building.

"I can still feel the environment," says Grossblatt, whose last name then was Ginsburg. "The light was muted, people were really quiet. There was this feeling of deep sadness."

She and the other students would soon learn they had a link to the event: A Western alum, Sarah Tilghman Hughes, a Kennedy appointee to the federal bench in Texas, administered the oath of office to then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson on Air Force One before it lifted off from Dallas to return to Washington. There is now a politics center named after Hughes at her alma mater, Goucher College.

A bygone Baltimore

To look back 50 years now is to revisit a distant version of the city.

The Pratt Street that Martin Millspaugh was crossing when someone called out the news to him would barely be recognizable today. Millspaugh, a key leader in the development of Charles Center and the Inner Harbor, remembers a downtown straining to revive as retail and other businesses joined the flight to the suburbs.

"The Inner Harbor was not there," Millspaugh, now 87, says. "Harbor East wasn't even thought of."

He was heading to his office at on the seventh floor of One Charles Center, the gleaming black Mies van der Rohe-designed building that had just been built the year before and would ultimately help trigger a downtown building boom.

Change was afoot in other ways. At a meeting at the Lord Baltimore Hotel that day, The Sun reported, Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin and other speakers discussed proposed local and federal civil rights measures. Told about the assassination, those at the meeting, who included state Verda F. Welcome, the first black woman elected to the state Senate, began crying.

In 1963, Baltimore still felt like its older, smaller self. "The biggest law firm might have had 12 lawyers," remembered attorney Melvin Sykes, who at 89 is considered one of the deans of the city's legal community.

He worked in the Munsey Building on Calvert Street, since converted into apartments, in offices shared with several other lawyers, including his father and Harvey Bickel, a former judge of the People's Court, a predecessor to today's District Court.

"Judge Bickel had a secretary named Gloria ... and she was a real fan of John Kennedy," Sykes says. "I was walking out the door to get my lunch, and she was collapsing and breathless. I asked what was the matter, and she said President Kennedy has been shot."

Baltimore also was a blue collar area back then. On the east side of Baltimore County, the now ghostly-still Sparrows Point was at its clanging peak, with more than 30,000 workers, among them LeRoy McClelland, Sr., then a 25-year-old tractor operator and union steward

He worked the 3 p.m.-to-11 p.m. shift at the tin mill, but remembers arriving early on Nov. 22, 1963, for shift relief. In the locker room, he heard a newsflash on the radio.

"If you could have been there, that stillness," McClelland says of the shock that silenced the locker room. "A lot of guys, they couldn't believe it. It happened, but it didn't happen."

Time passes

On Charles Street, a crowd of about 1,000 gathered for the installation of the Rt. Rev. Harry Lee Doll as the Episcopal bishop of Baltimore. His counterpart, Catholic Archbishop Lawrence J. Shehan, likely would have attended the ceremony — they would partner on local civil rights efforts later on, taking much heat from detractors.

But on Nov. 22, Shehan was in Rome, so an associate pastor, the Rev. Paul Cook, then 31 years old, was among a dozen Catholic clerics there to represent him. The ceremony was at 11 a.m., and it was only after Cook emerged that he learned the news.

"We went from celebration and ecumenism to the death of the president," says Cook, now a monsignor and pastor of St. Joseph's in Cockeysville. "It was kind of a blur."

Cook remembers silently walking several blocks with another priest to his own church, the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. Already, the phones were ringing continually: "People were calling to find out if there would be a Mass," he says. There would be many Masses, from the regularly scheduled ones to requiems for the president, the first Catholic to hold the office.

Sister Kathleen Marie Engers, then teaching drama and speech at what is now Notre Dame of Maryland University, remembers "exactly where I was, what was happening and whom I was with" when she learned of the assassination.

That year, Engers had just begun working on what would ultimately become the Pumpkin Theatre for children, now located in Owings Mills.

"We had a little theater here, and we had a workroom adjacent to the theater that was also where my office was," says Engers, now 88. "A student and I were standing by a table and talking, and somehow, whether the radio was on or someone came in, we found out President Kennedy had been shot."

At Pimlico Race Course, more than 9,400 had been enjoying the races when the news reached them.

On a recent visit, Howard "Gelo" Hall, 86, points toward the Hayward Avenue entrance as he recounts that day's events. Hall, who began working there as an exercise rider in the 1940s, rose to become a jockey's agent and fill multple track positions before retiring several years ago.

He remembers waiting for the bus to the track when a jockey's agent, Harold "Fats" Wiseman, drove by and gave him a lift. They were in the paddock area when news of the assassination began spreading, Hall says, followed soon afterward by general manager Charles "Chick" Lang's decision to cancel the remaining four races.

"It was a little cool. It was good racing weather," recalls Hall, who inherited his nickname from an older brother named Angelo. "Everyone was taking care of their horses, givng them the old comb and brush, the coats were shined, the tails, they had to be plaited. It was a delight to see.

"And then we heard, our president has been assassinated. Our dear president had been assassinated."

Hobbled a bit by arthritis, Hall doesn't get to Pimlico much, although when he does, he is showered with affection from trainers, security guards, office staff and seemingly everyone at the track. He knows everyone, and likely their parents and grandparents too, although many, such as his good friend Lang, are gone

"The years do pass," Hall muses, "don't they?"

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jean_marbella

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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