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The Daily
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Madison remembers JFK
How the city faced the president's death
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Credit:Cecil Stoughton/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Wednesday, Nov. 20, 1963
Cloudy, humid, high 48

President John F. Kennedy begins his last full day in the White House with a Western Union telegram to UW-Madison President Fred Harvey Harrington. Kennedy congratulates Dr. Harry Waisman and his colleagues at the UW Orthopedic Children's Hospital on that afternoon's dedication of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Memorial Laboratories, funded in part by a $255,000 grant from the Kennedy Foundation. Kennedy, whose sister Rosemary had developmental disabilities and was given an early, primitive lobotomy in 1941, salutes Waisman on his efforts to "conquer the vast field of mental retardation and its attendant problems."

In a six-hour visit that afternoon, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and brother-in-law R. Sargent Shriver, director of the Peace Corps, tour the laboratories, attend a scientific symposium and hold a dedicatory luncheon at the Memorial Union.

"The room was abuzz with excitement," remembers Waisman's son, Don, who hung up Kennedy's coat. The Waisman Center, created in 1973, continues the groundbreaking research conducted at the Kennedy lab.

Thursday, Nov. 21
Cloudy, humid, high 51

On President Kennedy's last full day alive, testimony before the state Industrial Commission reinforces the reason for the recent March on Washington: The nine largest local companies employ only 47 "Negroes" in their combined workforce of 7,605. Several firms, including American Family Insurance, Madison Kipp and Madison Gas & Electric, have none.

Friday, Nov. 22
Chance of rain, humid, high 60

Madison wakes to find the president's political trip to Texas is front-page news -- large crowds, but some catcalls in Houston and San Antonio, with Dallas on tap for today.

Around 11:30 a.m., about 800 festive Badger boosters board a special 20-car Milwaukee Road train bound for Minneapolis and the UW-Minnesota football game. Eleven months after their thrilling Rose Bowl loss, Milt Bruhn's boys hope to salvage a disappointing season by at least keeping the Paul Bunyan Ax.

In downtown Dallas, two Madison men see President Kennedy in his last few minutes alive.

Lt. Bruce Koepcke, 22, UW 1963, returning home to Nakoma for a month's leave after completing officer training in Oklahoma, has enough time before his train to watch the motorcade. "I found a good spot right on the curb and waited" a few hundred yards from Dealey Plaza, he says from his home in southeast Pennsylvania.

George E. Holmes, 35, vice president of Holmes Tire and Supply, is wrapping up a weeklong business trip. He watches the motorcade from a nearby storefront.

About 12:25 p.m., Koepcke is 15 feet from the first family. "There was Jackie in her pink pillbox hat" and the president beside her, he recalls. "It was kind of neat, everybody was clapping, [the Kennedys] were waving to the crowd. Then they went two more blocks and veered off to the right" toward the book depository building and the grassy knoll.

Holmes' meeting breaks for lunch at a restaurant in a shopping center near Parkland hospital.

At 12:29 p.m., three pops. "It sounded like firecrackers. I didn't think that much about it," says Koepcke, who starts walking to the train station a few blocks past the plaza. He encounters a confused, frightened crowd.

"What I remember most is how chaotic it was, nobody really knowing what was happening, other than something was wrong, and it had to do with the motorcade," he says. "Because I was in uniform, people thought I would know something, but of course I didn't."

Holmes is still having lunch at 1 p.m. near the hospital where Kennedy has just died. When the announcement is made a short while later, men cry and a few women faint, and the restaurant empties. Holmes cancels the rest of his meetings and tries to fly back to Madison, but the airport is closed.

Koepcke doesn't learn what has happened until he sees the news on a television at the train station. A small set is brought on board for the 20-hour trip to Chicago. "It was a long, quiet train ride," he says.

Janice Starkweather Van Lysel's three kids are all home sick, and company is coming for dinner. She says, "I had been keeping an eye on my soap (As the World Turns) when the news came" at 12:40 p.m. in an audio bulletin from Walter Cronkite. Trying to hide her tears, the 29-year-old finally starts dinner -- but "totally forgot to make dessert." Later, with one eye still on the TV, she helps her husband get ready for his predawn departure the next day for the start of the deer-hunting season.

David Maraniss, 14, is in his ninth-grade homeroom at West Junior High School when principal Homer Winger makes the announcement. Aware he's from one of the few liberal families in the neighborhood, Maraniss is taken aback by how his classmates react.

"There were students saying, 'Oh well, so what, Kennedy was a commie anyway.' As stunned as I was by the assassination," Maraniss recalls, "I was even more stunned by the reaction. The west side of Madison was not really a liberal place back then," says the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner and Washington Post editor.

Twelve-year-old Mona Adams Winston's Lakeside Street neighborhood is different. A big television is wheeled into her seventh-grade classroom at Franklin Elementary, and other classes crowd in to watch. "I remember looking around the room and everyone was crying, even the boys," says Winston, recently retired to Mississippi from Second Harvest FoodBank.

Ben Sidran, 20, is at work, sorting records in the basement of Discount Records, 651 State St. That morning, the Daily Cardinal had published his review of Miles Davis' Seven Steps to Heaven, an event that apparently had no impact on him. "No memory of that review coming out that day, none," Sidran says.

He does remember the calendar on the basement bathroom door, where weeks earlier he had written "the cruelest month" on November's page (a riff on T.S. Eliot), drawn blood-red daggers and circled Nov. 22. "Why would I have circled the 22nd?" he asks. "That's just weird." He quickly rips it up and goes up State Street, wondering if the Friday night jazz series he had started in the Rathskeller was still on (it wasn't).

Fred Mohs, 26, is a senior at the UW Law School. Before his 1 p.m. contract class, Mohs recalls, "everyone was talking about the shooting, but then we settled into our lecture." An older student came into the class late, sat down for a minute, "and then stood up and announced to the professor that the president was dead. The professor paused and then said, 'Now, getting back to consideration'...pause...'what am I doing? Class dismissed.' Then like almost everybody else, I went home and turned on the TV."

Whitney Gould, 20, has a chamber music class in Music Hall. "As it became clear what was happening," the retired Milwaukee Journal architecture critic writes in an email, "everyone was in tears." Professor Gunnar Johansen, choking back sobs, says that the best thing to do is to listen to Beethoven, so pianist Johansen and violinist Rudolf Kolisch play the Kreutzer Sonata.

"I remember almost nothing else about that time, just the sad, haunting, passionate strains of that sonata," Gould says.

Shirley Baltuch, in home economics at East High School when she hears, had planned to celebrate her 17th birthday by going bowling with some friends at Bowl-A-Vard that night. "But like most businesses, they closed for the night, so I spent my birthday with friends being very sad," she posts on Facebook from Phoenix.

Laura Vancil turns 6 that day, and is surprised to be let out of school early. "Didn't fully understand why my birthday party was so sad," she posts on Facebook. "All of the moms were crying. It wasn't really a party. We all watched the TV set the entire time."

At 2 p.m., the UW football team leaves Madison by chartered plane for Minneapolis. UW President Harrington wants the game postponed or canceled, but Minnesota regents say it should be played "because of President Kennedy's deep interest in physical fitness and athletics." By the time the team lands, the Minnesota president has agreed with Harrington, and the game is set for Thanksgiving morning. Harrington announces that all weekend classes and social activities are canceled, and that some classes will also be off on either Monday or Tuesday, but not for the whole day.

By late afternoon, at least four campus religious centers have conducted special prayer and mourning services, with three more planned for the weekend and Monday. The Rathskeller is crowded but quiet. There's only a hushed murmur as people jam the main aisle and watch TV.

In the Capitol Rotunda, Owen Reierson, 24, is causing trouble again. He is out on bail from his Sept. 23 disorderly conduct arrest for disrupting a civil rights demonstration after the bombing deaths of four black girls in a Birmingham Sunday school. Reierson, 50 Koster St., loudly celebrates the assassination as "a miracle for the white race." Wearing a swastika armband and giving the Nazi salute, Reierson tries to distribute racist and anti-Semitic literature before he's again arrested for disorderly conduct.

By evening, it is raining hard.

Saturday, Nov. 23
Cloudy, windy, high 22

In the late morning, William D. Buenzli, 18, son of Dane County Judge William L. Buenzli, and five fellow freshmen at Whitewater State College suddenly decide to drive to Washington for the Nov. 24 funeral. "Somebody said let's go and we just did it, didn't even tell our parents," Buenzli recalls. "Kind of a crazy thing to do, but I'm glad we did it." With only $72 for food and gas, no change of clothes, and broken springs in the back of their '54 Ford, it's not easy traveling, but "very much worth it, absolutely."

Sunday morning, they watch the funeral cortege from the White House to the Capitol, visit the Lincoln Memorial and climb the 897 steps up the Washington Monument. Then they stand in line for hours with a quarter million others to view the president's bier in the Capitol Rotunda -- and see Mrs. Kennedy when she makes her unexpected return that night. "That was very emotional," says the retired postal clerk.

About the time Buenzli and his buddies hit the road, three Catholic weddings in Madison get underway, including that of Maureen Kay Schaefer, 21, and Benton Logterman, 24, both UW juniors, at Our Lady Queen of Peace. It's a small family affair, and "the wedding went off as planned," Maureen recalls. "Somehow the cake was there, and the people at the Embers were nice enough to open up for the reception, even though we were the only people in the restaurant."

Benton, then a three-year varsity rower, now retired from management posts at Ohio Chemical and Surgical, says the couple cut short their honeymoon because of the assassination. Rather than traveling around the state, "we spent most of our time watching TV" with friends in Wales, he says. "There was just kind of a pall over the entire event -- not the wedding itself, but what came after."

Madison police reportedly receive, but do not make a record of, a phone call from authorities in Dallas inquiring about Owen Reierson's activities and whereabouts.

Early Saturday evening, two young women from the Greenbush neighborhood also spontaneously decide to drive to Washington for the services. Pauline DiMaggio and Linda Donath, 20-year-old graduates of Central High, drive through the night and arrive in time to watch the funeral procession move from the White House to St. Matthew's Cathedral Monday morning.

Monday, Nov. 25
Cloudy and damp, high 44

Madison mourns on Monday, the day of the president's funeral, with religious and memorial services from morning to night. There's little else to do. Except for local banks and financial institutions, almost every store and business is closed, at least until early afternoon. The Gisholt Machine plant is open, but nonsupervisory workers can take the day off; Oscar Mayer workers observe a moment of silence at 11 a.m. Even the bars of the Dane County Tavern League shut down from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The bad guys also take a break. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., during the funeral and burial, there are only six police calls; 50 is the norm for that period. Police and firemen later learn they are excluded from Mayor Henry Reynolds' executive order granting compensatory time off for the few city employees required to work.

The Hotel Loraine coffee shop sets up some televisions to be seen from the lobby; across the street, another set plays in the pharmacy of the Wisconsin Power and Light building. A sound system on the Capitol Square blares patriotic songs.

At 8 a.m., a flag-draped catafalque stands before the altar of St. Raphael's Cathedral, 222 W. Main St., as more than 800 pack the pews and aisles for a Pontifical Requiem Low Mass.

A few hours later, a Madison man plays a key role assisting Boston Bishop Richard Cardinal Cushing at a Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C. He is Father Walter J. Schmitz, 56, an alumnus of Central High School, son of the founder of the Hub Clothing Store, and dean of sacred theology at Catholic University in Washington.

Hub founder Fred Schmitz's great-granddaughter Susan, future head of Downtown Madison Inc., is unaware of the family connection as she watches with her family. But her grandfather, Fr. Schmitz's brother Edwin, the current operator of the haberdashery, recognizes his movements and can see his face clearly.

Seeking solace for one martyr in the shadow of another, a silent crowd of 10,000 ascends Bascom Hill at 2:34 p.m., after the burial, for the state's official service at Lincoln Terrace. Carillon bells ring, somber and slow, till muffled drums herald the military ROTC units. The University Choir sings hymns, and Ray Dvorak leads the University Marching Band in the "Star Spangled Banner." In the crowd are Maraniss and UW junior Jeffrey Bartell, a future regent, who on Friday told his mother, "I'd rather it had been me that got shot."

An honor guard stands as UW President Harrington and Regents President Jacob Friedrick, representing Gov. John Reynolds, mourn what was lost. As many of his fellow students weep openly, William J. Campbell, president of the Wisconsin Student Association, calls on them to "take at least one stride toward becoming a profile in courage" in support of civil rights and the poor. "We can either meet this challenge or let it pass," he says.

Then the benediction, "Taps," and the drums beating retreat. The crowd quietly melts away -- just in time for the 5 p.m. reopening of the four downtown movie theaters.

Although city offices are closed all day, public hearings have been noticed, so the Plan Commission meets that evening. Ignoring strong objections from neighbors and area Ald. George Elder, the panel approves a 26-unit apartment building at 1033 Spaight St.

At 8 p.m., more than 1,500 overflow the First Congregational Church on Breese Terrace for a multi-denominational service convened by the Madison Area Council of Churches. "Something is wrong in our land," Rev. Alfred Swan declares. "We rely too much on violence, too many weapons are flashed before the eyes of the young and their methodology registered too deeply in impressionable, that sometimes become distorted, minds." Protestant and Jewish clergy alternate in reading Scripture and leading prayers, and many in the crowd cry as they sing "America the Beautiful."

Tuesday Nov. 26
Partly cloudy, high 40s

Dane County Judge William L. Buenzli orders Owen Reierson to the Central State Hospital at Waupun for a 60-day mental examination. "For you to derive pleasure and satisfaction from such a wanton act of malicious violence is evidence to this court that you may be deranged," Buenzli says.

Reierson says that he's entitled to his "political beliefs" and that the Rotunda crowd should be charged for threatening him. Attorney Wayne Martin quits representing Reierson because "he is now personally repulsive to me." Wisconsin officials discover Reierson is on parole from a robbery conviction in California.

At 7 p.m. the Madison Common Council adds a moment of silent prayer before the regular invocation, delivered this week by the Rev. Wendell Graham of Faith Baptist Church. The Mayor's Commission on Human Rights introduces its Equal Opportunities Ordinance. It bans discrimination in housing and public accommodations based on race, creed, color, national origin or ancestry, and in employment, with the added category of gender.

Most campus activities are still canceled or postponed, but some groups do meet, including the philosophy, chess and Hoofers clubs, and the Associated Women Students Coed's Congress. The Young Socialist Alliance presents a speech by national chairman Dick Roberts and a discussion of "the United States war machine under the administration of President Kennedy."

Thursday, Nov. 28
Minnesota beats Wisconsin, 14-0.

The Badgers, who had the ball on the Gophers' one-yard line as the first half expired, finish at 3-4 in Big Ten play. "It settled an old score," says Minnesota defensive tackle Carl Eller, a future Hall of Famer with the Minnesota Vikings. "I enjoyed this the most of any game I've played in college."

Feb. 18, 1964

Wisconsin authorities extradite Owen Reierson to California, where he resumes serving his sentence at San Quentin for second-degree robbery. Reierson dies in Washington, D.C, in 1986. He's 46 -- the same age Kennedy was when he was shot.

This story was reported from interviews, social media crowdsourcing and news accounts.

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