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Wendy Reuer, Published November 21 2013

Area residents share memories of the day President Kennedy was killed

MOORHEAD - On the morning of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, Char Skaff was excited to become a teenager and join her friends after school for a scavenger hunt and taffy pull her mother planned in celebration of her 13th birthday.

But plans changed quickly when the principal’s voice crackled over the loud speaker at Moorhead Junior High after noon to say President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.

“We cried, and the rest of the class was spent with our heads in our hands until the bell rang,” Skaff said. “I was in shock, I guess. The first thing I wanted to do was go home.”

That evening, plans for scurrying around town in search of scavenger items quickly gave way to Skaff and her friends somberly pulling taffy in front of the television, watching for clues to the nation’s biggest crime.

Like many Americans, Skaff and her family spent a lot of time watching news coverage of the events following Kennedy’s death. That night, Skaff fell asleep watching the somber image of the White House on a television set she received as a birthday present.

Skaff was ill and stayed home alone on Sunday, Nov. 24, while her family attended church. She was watching television when Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was shot by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby during Oswald’s transfer from police headquarters to the county jail.

“I’ll never forget that,” Skaff said.

While today marks the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, for those who responded to The Forum’s request for remembrances of this day, it still feels like it happened yesterday.

“Everyone has their unique story as to how the death of JFK impacted their lives,” said Pat Puetz of Frazee, Minn. “I remember JFK’s death because my own mother had died less than a month earlier. … It seemed like death and sadness were everywhere.”

Like Skaff, many in this area learned the news while in school, most by an announcement over a loudspeaker.

Frazee resident Mary Olson was in junior high school in Hopkins, Minn., and heard the news over the “rarely used” loudspeakers at her school.

“It was scary and sad at the same time,” Olson said in an interview this week. “As young as we were, we were all stricken by the information.”

Olson said she, like many in her school, was in a state of dismay.

“I remember feeling just shocked; I think everybody did,” Olson said. “It was that feeling, that this really can’t be happening, but it was.”

Judith Mathieson Nelson learned the news from a teacher while in school at Delemere, N.D.

“She told the students and we couldn’t understand how something so horrible could happen,” Mathieson wrote to The Forum. “It was a cold, damp, sorrowful, day.”

David Buchanan, a fifth-grader in Glyndon, Minn., heard the news from a classmate who had stayed inside during the noon recess. “We listened to the radio over the intercom until several minutes later came the announcement that the President had died.

“The teachers took us to the gym to try to have us play until the busses came early to take us home,” he wrote to The Forum. “Once home, it seems like we never turned off the television until it was all over.”

Beth Pennings of Moorhead was in grade school in Lincoln, Neb. For her, it wasn’t learning the news but the reactions of those around her that is burned into her memory.

“… the most indelible of all, seeing my own father cry as we watched the television coverage over the days that followed. It was the first time I’d ever seen him cry and that, more than anything, impressed on me the scope of the tragedy our nation was enduring.”

Paul Owens of Fargo was 9 years old. As the news spread, the radio was turned on in his classroom and students listened to events unfold.

Owens said although the class tried to continue on with its daily business, conversations kept returning to the president.

Kevin Riley of Fargo and Robert Eaton of Great Falls, Mont., were also celebrating birthdays on Nov. 22.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Eaton said. “As soon as the news hit, all of the moms were crying and everyone went home. Mom explained it to me, and at the time I could not figure out how JFK’s death could be more important than my birthday.”

Although he was only 4 years old, Riley can recite where each partygoer was seated at the table, enjoying birthday cake and ice cream at the moment his mother announced the news.

“We all sat around the TV and it was then that I realized what a big deal this was, even at the young age of 4,” he said. “I remember watching the TV through the whole weekend with my family and realizing how sad this was.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530