My father always remembered exactly where he was when Pearl Harbor was attacked. And I can tell you where I was standing when I heard of the death of President Kennedy in Dallas.
On the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, about 2 o’clock I was taking a smoke break in the shipping dock at the Chase Mill in Derry Village. Someone had a radio on when the announcement came in. Immediately all of us mill workers went silent; several of these tough working men had to wipe their eyes as they welled up; one man just sat on the bench, staring at nothing, saying a one-word obscenity, over and over again. Democrat or Republican, it didn’t matter, our president was dead.
With in minutes of the announcement, Father Giguere at Derry’s St. Thomas Aquinas Church led the school’s students to the church to offer prayers for the soul of the late president, for his family, the government and “for each individual citizen who must bear the burden of the dark deed that was done.” At Pinkerton, at Hood, Floyd and Grinnell schools, the announcement was made to the stunned children there would be no school on Monday because of the president’s funeral.
Soon the town of Derry began to shut down. The majority of our businesses sent its workers home early. Most people that night sat quietly listening to the TV eager for more facts about the assassination. The Derry News said the “people were obviously dumbfounded with shock and grief. Many wept openly.” The Derry Star reflected that the town “was like a community of the living dead.”
All weekend the mourning continued. Newspapers at Nelson’s Paper Store were sold out early. In every living room, our people were tuned into Walter Cronkite or Howard K. Smith to find out about the funeral arrangements. Many of us were watching when Kennedy’s killer, Lee Harvey Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby. Many of us stayed up late to watch the Kennedy casket being unloaded in Washington. Many of us cried when we thought of Jackie, Caroline and little John-John. We all felt we were personally part of a sad moment in history. The town’s churches had memorial services on Saturday and Sunday.
On Monday, the day of the funeral, the streets of Derry were empty. All the stores, factories and offices were closed. Only Sam Prescott, the owner of the Benjamin Chase Company in Derry Village, refused to close his business. He was a man with a most unpleasant personality and profits ruled his view of the world; he saw no need to lose money by closing up the mill. Sam rarely ever met his workers because he almost never came to his office before 5 p.m.
My very Republican Dad hatched a plan to honor his fallen leader, the Democrat Jack Kennedy — at Sam Prescott’s expense. My Dad and I drove to the mill earlier then usual on Monday morning. There Dad met each worker as they drove into the parking lot. Dad quietly told each of them to punch in at the time clock and then go home. Dad and I waited in the office until noon when Sam got out of bed to make his usual telephone call to see how things were going. Dad told Sam that all the men were at work. In the background, the owner could hear the usual sounds of a busy mill. In truth there was only one saw working and I had just started it up at 11:59 a.m. Dad also fudged the daily inventory sheets to indicate the usual number of wooden garden labels were turned out that day.
Dad then asked Emile Rice, an elderly Derry Village neighbor, if he would join the conspiracy by sneaking into the building by an unlocked back door. Then, he was to punch out all of the time cards exactly at 5 p.m. When Sam arrived — as he did every day at 5:05 — he found the main door locked. Inside, he found that the time cards stamped to indicate that all the men had given him a full day’s work plus their usual hour of overtime. He was happy and never found out that he had given 40 workmen a day off with pay so they could honor their fallen president. I was real proud of my Dad that day.
Few who watched the president’s funeral will ever forget watching the world’s leaders walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, the sound of the muffled drums; little John’s final salute to his Dad; or that look on face of Jacqueline Kennedy — like that of the Virgin Mary in the Pieta by Michelangelo.
The editor of the Derry News that week wrote: “The death of John Kennedy was the death of a superior man but still only a man. The nation paid respectful homage this week not only to that man, but to the powerful institution of the presidency ... The passing of President Kennedy came to remind us of ourselves, of our national direction and of our institutions. It brought this nation together for the past five days in thoughtful introspection as might only happen once in a lifetime. And so in passing, this tragic, untimely death might still serve some purpose — if we will but let it.”
I am now 49 years older. The teenage boy in the loading dock of Benjamin Chase Company is now a grandfather four times over. My Dad — and I suppose most of the mill workers — have now passed away. A lot has happen in my life since 1963 — college, a war, marriage and a million, million other things; some remembered, most forgotten. Despite all that, I — and millions of other middle aged and elderly Americans — will always pause to sadly remember the events of that warm November Friday in 1963. Those events of that horrible day in Dallas seem like they had happened only yesterday.
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry and plans to hold office hours at the municipal center. He is the former chairman of the Derry Heritage Commission. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.