JFK remembered in the Midstate

He was handsome, vibrant, and Catholic.

That mattered to students at Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg.

“He had a beautiful wife,” remembered Claire Bianchi, a McDevitt freshman in 1963. “He had a family. He was everything we could relate to and he was vibrant. He held promise for all of us.”

Promise that was shot down in an instant by a sniper in Dallas on November 22.

Walter Cronkite delivered the horrible news to a stunned nation.

“From Dallas, Texas, the flash and it's now official,” Cronkite said while removing his dark glasses. “President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard time.”

It was as if Oswald's bullet pierced Bishop McDevitt's red bricks.

“The kids basically gasped,” Bianchi said. “We cried. We were totally in shock, stunned.”

John Brixius was a young history teacher on that day.

“The auditorium was awash in tears,” Brixius said.

But there were happier times. In September, 1960 the candidate campaigned in downtown Harrisburg.

“John F. Kennedy was standing directly across from here in this alleyway,” said Billy Kaldes, pointing to a corner that's now home to the Hilton Hotel.

Kaldes family owned The Spot restaurant in what is now Harrisburg's City Hall.

Seven thousand filled the area in front of the restaurant for Kennedy's stump speech.

Billy's mom is in the photo at the very back. His father, Jimmy, never forgot JFK's visit.

“He was so excited he had tears in his eyes,” Billy said of his late father.

Of course, in just over three years the tears would flow again. This time for tragedy not triumph.

“It was a rude awakening to the real world, I guess you could say,” Bianchi said.

And perhaps a rude awakening to all those who still viscerally feel that dark day is the fact that to students today the JFK assassination has all the significance of Lincoln's assassination.

It's an historic footnote but hardly heartfelt or personal.

“They have not a clue,” said Sister Mary Anne Bednar, McDevitt's principal. “You forget because to you it was so real. I remember it vividly. But students today have no idea.”

“You have to be probably over the age 60 to know anything about John Kennedy and his family,” Bianchi added.

But Brixius, who taught history as history unfolded in his classroom that day, gives the Kennedy legacy an incomplete.

“The man was not given the chance to do what could have been done, or that he wanted to do for, the good of the country,” he said.


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