After John F. Kennedy was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963, perhaps the best story written was by legendary New York newspaperman Jimmy Breslin, who interviewed the gravedigger to illustrate how the president's death affected even ordinary, everyday people in the country.
Following that idea, we decided to solicit memories from St. James locals who were alive at that time, to get their recollections of that dark period in American history.
Donovan Mickelson, who has lived in St. James for nearly half a century and served as the town's police chief, said he still has vivid memories of the day the president was assassinated.
“I was farming with my uncle who had a stroke the year before, and I was plowing in the cold about a 1/4 mile west of the house. It was very cold out, and we didn't have a cab, just a canvas heat houser,” said Donavon Mickelson. “My uncle came driving out in his old Ford pickup to where I was at and told me that he would take over the ploughing and that I should go in and watch the television. He had tears in his eyes, and he said, 'They just shot the President!'”
“I said, 'What?' and he said, 'They just shot President Kennedy.' I got in the pickup and drove up the dirt path to the house where my aunt and her sister-in-law were in shock and tears,” Mickelson said. “I spent all the time I could in front of the old black and white TV set and eventually watched the shooting of (Lee Harvey) Oswald by Jack Ruby.”
“I was about 20 years old at the time, and it was a sick and scary feeling, and one of the biggest news events I had ever seen,” he concluded.
Current St. James resident Jerry Gersch had a unique perspective on the Kennedy assassination, because he was in the military at the time--stationed in Missouri at Fort Leonard Wood, where he was doing his basic training. During a short break, he and other men were relaxing in the recreational room in the barracks.
He was sitting on “one of our soft, comfortable chairs” reading the military magazine “Stars and Stripes” while others were watching a ballgame on television. When a bulletin came on saying the president had been shot, “the room went dead quiet,” and the eyes and ears “of every troop in the room” were on the TV.
“About 10 minutes later, the platoon sergeant came in, blew his whistle, and told us we were on a military lockdown, and we were on a stand-by alert,” Gersch recalled. “We were then given orders to get our weapons and to fall in formation, (and) we were then told to stand by for further orders, and to draw our supplies and ammo.”
Page 2 of 4 - “We were getting pretty nervous at this time, (because) we weren't sure if we were facing an enemy or not,” he continued. “Later on, we heard that it was Oswald, and we got the order to stand down.”
But, the nervousness wasn't over, yet.
“The rest of that week was pretty tense for us, because Korea was at the end, and they were still sending some of the guys there, and Vietnam was getting hot,” he explained. “A lot of the time, you didn't know what was going on.”
Jim Riesenberg was also in the military at the time of the assassination.
“The story starts in February of 1962. I am fresh out of high school, out of work and still in the Selective Service System pool--and about six months from my 19th birthday,” he said. “With a fascination for airplanes and flying, I am contemplating a Navy career.”
“Having previously communicated with the recruiting office, they knew who I was. Harold Glampe, MMC ,US Navy recruiter, rolled into the yard one Saturday afternoon and indicated the Navy was testing at the St James city hall , and if I got a qualifying aptitude test score, I would be 'guaranteed' a job in aviation,” he continued. “My score qualified, and I was given a 'vast array' of options: engine mechanic, structural mechanic, ordnance man, electronics, electrical, parachute rigger, air traffic controller, (and) Aerographer, among others.”
“I chose 'AD' Aviation Machinist Mate-Jet for jet engines ( back then it was J-for jet engines, R-for reciprocating engines, and H- for helicopter),” he added. “After boot camp, it was orders to AD J 'A' school at the Naval Air Technical Training Command (in) Memphis, Tenn. (imagine that, a recruiter's promise becoming a reality!)
“With successful completion of 'A' school, I not only get my third green stripe ( Airman E-3), I get the winged propeller patch to sew on above the green stripes, (and) two weeks leave and off to Utility Squadron 7 ( VU-7) at the North Island Naval Air Station,” Riesenberg said. “What did they do there ?”
“They were considered a R.A.G. ( Replacement Air Group) outfit, (which) usually meant what nobody else could or wanted to do,” he explained. “We had 40 planes, the F-8 'Crusader' being the most modern. We had the Navy version of the 'Fury,' T-33 Shooting star, C-45 transport, Beechcraft SNB-5P, and the Douglas B-26 medium bomber.”
“After getting known and finding my way around the hanger bay, and talking about air crew training, the B-26 was (at least at that time) the only craft that most enlisted men could qualify in,” he said. “Why not, I am going to be in the mans Navy until February of 1965, (I) might as well enjoy it.”
“Going through the familiarization process, physical, and actual training (are) all a part of the process,” he said. “What I remember most about the day was the fact that I failed my hearing test and my quest to be an air crew member came to an end ( and for that part, so did my plans for a Navy career).”
Page 3 of 4 - “Everything on the base ( with the exception of the NORAD squadron) was shut down. Flight operations ended, facilities were secured, and we basically shut down and went to holiday routine,” he said. “Those who lived off base went home, (and) if you were assigned to the days duty section, you stood your watch. It was a very different atmosphere, not unlike a Saturday or Sunday.”
“As far as my Navy career, I changed my focus from flying to radio announcing and country music,” he concluded. “I have never given up my fascinations of and for airplanes--especially those with tail hooks.”
Though she was only two-years-old and didn't turn three until that December, Linda Krueger Lenz said she vividly remembers the famous funeral that took place following the president's death.
“I remember watching the funeral procession on our black and white TV with the casket being pulled by horses,” she said. “It has always been a very vivid image in mind.”
Like Lenz, Dennis Stade was also very young--only three--and the funeral also made an indelible impression on him.
“I have a vivid memory of the funeral on TV,” said Stade, who teaches history at Butterfield-Odin Public School. “I remember my parents being really, really sad.”
Of course, as a three-year-old, “I wasn't happy because cartoons weren't on that Friday (preempted by news coverage of the president's assassination),” he recalled. “I watched lots of TV (that weekend), because my parents were watching it.”
Many people viewed the president's death through the prism of school.
“It came over the intercom, and they sent us home,” said Nathan Fast, who was in seventh grade in Mt. Lake at the time. “In the halls, there weretears all over the place; the older students were just devastated.”
CBS was the only station available on the farm where Fast lived, so that was the feed he and his family watched that weekend. He recalled hearing “Eternal Father Strong to Save” seemingly on an endless loop during the coverage.
The hymn, traditionally associated with seafarers and the navy, was apropos, since JFK's family did plenty of sailing, and he served with distinction in the Navy.
“They played that over and over,” said Fast, who is now on the Butterfield-Odin faculty. “I was only 12, but seeing the funeral really struck me.”
Barb Salem said, “(The news) came across the intercom, and our first-grade teacher ran out crying, so we knew it must've been really serious. I remember seeing his kids on TV, and thinking it was so sad.”
LuAnn Augustin was in third grade, and she said she's never been in a quieter classroom than she was that day.
“It was deathly quiet--you could hear a pin drop--and I giggled, because the silence made me so nervous,” she remembered. “The teacher was really mad, and, on TV, it was the same stuff over and over again, and you wanted something--anything--else.”
Page 4 of 4 - Lucille Ammann was in a catholic school in St. James, and--because the president was also catholic--the news of his demise was shattering.
“We all went to the gym, and we had to pray,” she said. “Someone brought in a little TV, and we all huddled around it to watch.”
Since her father was a farmer, “he was always outside doing things,” she said. “But, this time, he stayed inside watching TV.”