Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

November 22, 2013

50 YEARS LATER

JFK memories still fresh & chilling

BY BILL WOLCOTT bill.wolcott.lockportjournal.com
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — John F. Kennedy touched Lockport hearts. Residents remember the presidential candidate’s electrifying visit to the city Sept. 28 1960 and his tragic death in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, 50 years ago today.

The memories are vivid and still give chills.

•••

Felix Ratajczak was aboard the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (DD-850) when the crew of 230 got the news that the president had been shot. Ratajczak was in the Navy, a storekeeper on the destroyer that was named after JFK’s big brother who was killed in World War II. He met the First Family.

John and Jacqueline Kennedy — and the Kennedy clan — came aboard the ship to watch yacht races off Newport, Rhode Island. Members of the destroyer crew who were not on duty lined up to salute the president and JFK shook everyone’s hand.

“They were very nice and down to earth,” the seaman said. Younger brother Teddy Kennedy would fish off the ship.

When it was announced that Kennedy was shot, Ratajczak said, “I never heard 230 people so quiet. The ship went dead silent. The whole ship was in awe. The supply officer was crying. It was a very, very sad day. “

The officers would have dinner with the president. “Everybody was in shock.” Ratajczak said.

The Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. was the flag ship of the fleet and had taken part in the blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis 13 months earlier.

Ratajczak still has the books reminding him of the president’s visit and a Zippo lighter with picture of the flag ship.

•••

James Budde was in third grade at Washington Hunt School when the class heard of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The teacher was weeping, the 8-9 year old students didn’t understand. Jimmy did not know what “assassination” meant.

“It was chaotic,” Budde said. “I don’t think I grasped it at that age. We understood that somebody was shot. That certainly resonated.  We didn’t comprehend the magnitude, what was happening to the nation,” Budde said. 

His parents, Grace and Larry Budde, were in tears. “They were devastated. My mother prayed immediately,” said James, the youngest of three children. The family prayed together for the nation and for the Kennedy family. For the next few days, everyone was glued to the television. 

Budde began to appreciate the significance of what the United States meant in the world. His family bought “Life” magazine (at a cost of 25 cents) which had dramatic photographs. Some still bring chills.

He saved the magazine and began to learn more about the Kennedys. “It is the most fascinating family of modern times,” Budde said. “That family, although fascinating, has seen the most significant tragic times that a family could ever endure.”

What does Budde think about JFK today? “He’s admired. He’s revered. I think kids, who did not know him, know as much about him as any other president. A lot of kids today still today identify with him.”

•••

Bob Fritton, 72, of Wright Corners grew up in the Town of Lockport and joined the Marines two years after graduating from Starpoint High School. John F. Kennedy was his Commander in Chief.

Fritton was stationed in Okinawa with the Third Marine Division and standing in the Quonset hut chow line with comrades at “Zero Dark 30.” That is, after midnight and before 6 a.m. 

The bugler who woke marines up for breakfast recalled, “The sun hadn’t come up yet and there were many voices, like a soft murmur. Then, in an instant, a brief silence,” Fritton said. “The silence turned into a roar with the words ‘the president has been killed.”

The assassination took place on Nov. 22 in Dallas, but it was Nov. 23, on the other side of the world when Fritton’s mates learned of it.

At the time, Fritton wondered who killed Kennedy and where it happened. When he thinks about JFK today, he thinks about the young PT 109 commander, putting a man on moon and getting the Equal Rights Amendment passed.

Is JFK remembered? Fritton’s grandson knew the young president appealed to young America and JFK said, “Ask not what  your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

Fritton, wonders, “What would our world, our country and our lives would be like today if Kennedy was still among us.”

•••

Steve Walsh of the Town of Lockport was in music class at DeSales High School when the announcement came over the loud speaker that Kennedy was shot. The ninth-grader was in shock then. Today he wonders if there was a conspiracy and is convinced the United States would not have been trapped the Vietnam quagmire had Kennedy lived.

Walsh, who attended Niagara County Community College before being drafted into the Army in 1970, has researched Kennedy’s commitment to a war in Southeast Asia and concluded, “If Kennedy had not been assassinated, we would not have been in Vietnam.”

Walsh pointed to National Security Action Memorandum 263, dated Oct. 11, 1963 that stated that 1,000 U.S. troops (Advisors) would be withdrawn by Christmas and there would total withdrawal from Vietnam by 1965.

Col. L. Fletcher Prouty of the Joints Chief of Staff released the document four days after the assassination of JFK. That revelation was shocking to Walsh, a retired optician.

•••

Bonnie Tarajos of Lockport was a student at Roberts Wesleyan College studying nursing when the news of the assassination came over the television. Several students boarded in a building which was owned by a husband and wife. 

“We sat on floor in living room watching TV,” she recalled. “We were all crying and upset.”

Bonnie bought the Rochester newspapers revolving around the historical event and saved them for memories.

•••

Carol Covell, who lives on Saunders Settlement Road, will celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary next Friday. Carol and Jack went on their honeymoon in Washington D.C. a week after the assassination. Although it was not part of the original honeymoon plans, they visited JFK’s grave at Arlington Cemetery and saw the eternal flame. 

Mourners formed a long line. There was a white picket fence around the site and many flowers. 

“It was quite sad,” Covell said. The newlyweds took a photograph which they still have today.

•••

Ann Whalen Bates watched from the Big Bridge when then-Senator Kennedy and Jackie passed by during his 1960 campaign. She was a student at DeSales High School.

“We were out of school that day,” Bates recalled. “All the kids were rubber necking to get a look at him.” 

Anne’s uncle, Weldon “Moose” Whalen was alongside the convertible, protecting the president. Whalen, a well-known Lockport police officer, became a captain in 1965. 

The photographer offered the Whalens a copy of the photograph and the family treasures it. A copy also hangs at Danny Sheehan’s Steakhouse. 

Anne was living with her family on Hawley Street, ready to start a new job at Social Services, when she heard the bulletin that Kennedy was shot. And, a few minutes later that the president died. She can’t forget it.

Bates is the co-owner of the Bates Funeral Home in Middleport.

•••

Clarissa Myers Eldredge Merritt wrote: 

It’s very hard to explain the impact the assassination of President Kennedy had on me; to this day I cannot watch footage of the motorcade or the days that followed without tears.

Really? 50 years ago? I was 16 years old, in class at Lockport High School, when the announcement came over the public address system that the president had been shot. Classes were canceled, the buses were there to take us home, a ride in total silence. So strange. Surreal. Heartbreaking.

I spent the next few days glued to the black and white television trying to process what was happening. Then I went to work as an aid at the Odd Fellows and Rebekah Nursing Home the following Sunday morning. I was with a patient who had her TV on and I actually saw Jack Ruby shoot and kill Lee Harvey Oswald. Impossible to believe.

As I look back, it was this charismatic young man and his family in Washington that piqued my interest in current events, or maybe at 16 years old it was going against my parents; they were not so fond of President Kennedy, a Democrat and a Catholic?!

Some time ago I discarded all of the memorabilia I had saved. It was time to let go. Even though I have suffered the trials and tribulations of life, other than 9-11, nothing has affected me to the degree of November 22, 1963.

•••

Steve Legters, who now lives in Lockport, was a fourth-grade student at Clymer Central School the day JFK was assassinated. It was his turn to display his science project and he left the classroom to get his crystal supplies.

As he returned, people were going to lunch, talking about the shooting. “I didn’t comprehend what was going on,” he said. He told his classmates what he heard.

“It’s as fresh in my mind as the day I did it,” Legters said. He was 9 and knew who the president was.

Legters’ parents were dairy farmers and his aunt was politically active. The family came to Buffalo to see the Kennedy at the airport.

They had an inside track because his aunt told the Legters where to stand as the entourage went by. “There was a lot of people,” he said. “My aunt said, ‘Stay here. He’s coming.’ The president passed within 10-feet of us. He was in a convertible and we could see him waving.”