Mike Caruso ‘67 is typical of many Americans when he says that he will never forget where he was when he heard the news that President John F. Kennedy was shot.
Lehigh’s only three-time NCAA wrestling champion was coming out of a freshman history class in Coppee Hall when he noticed small groups of students standing around in stunned silence.
“Someone just said, ‘The president was shot,’ and we all just stood there,” Caruso recalls. “There was no hubbub, no conversation—just dead silence.”
The eerie mood continued on campus the rest of that weekend, 40 years ago, when students at Lehigh mirrored the reaction of stunned Americans who tried to comprehend the meaning and gravity of the assassination of the nation’s 35th president.
Several Lehigh alums shared their memories of that event, when time seemed to stand still as millions of Americans clustered around television sets to watch the grainy black and white images that are forever burned into a collective national conscience.
“I still see the pictures in my mind,” Caruso says. “I see Jackie sitting in the car next to the president. I see the look on her face as he was shot. I see LBJ being sworn in. I see the body being brought back to Washington and the blood on her dress. I see the funeral procession, young John saluting his father. It struck us all as a very personal tragedy. It gave us images of human suffering that still resonate.”
Paying their respects in Washington
Charles “Jake” LaMotta ’64, then-captain of the Lehigh football team, was going to a bank on South Side Bethlehem with a group of Phi Sig fraternity brothers when a news report came over the car radio that shots had been fired at the president’s motorcade. Within minutes, the group heard that John F. Kennedy had been pronounced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital.
“I’ll never forget it,” LaMotta says. “We went back to the fraternity house. It was a really warm day, especially for November. Everyone was standing around their cars in the parking lot, just listening to the radios.”
As with many sporting events around the country, the traditional Lehigh-Lafayette game was postponed, and LaMotta was photographed by The Brown & White
, staring at the empty field at Taylor Stadium. (One week later, LaMotta would score the winning touchdown late in the rescheduled game against Lafayette, giving Lehigh its only win that season.)
“Once we knew we weren’t going to play, a group of us—I think about six brothers in all—decided to go to D.C. to pay our respects,” LaMotta recalls. “We hopped into a Hudson—black, I think—and drove straight through.”
Once there, LaMotta’s group stood in line on the brisk November day when JFK’s horse-drawn caisson rolled through the streets of Washington on its way to Arlington National Cemetery. From their vantage point, LaMotta and his friends saw the black-clad widow as she walked hand-in-hand with the slain president’s brothers, viewed the riderless horse, and witnessed a series of world dignitaries and leaders parade before their eyes.
“It was very striking, I do remember that,” says LaMotta. “And once they passed us, we jumped in the car and got over to Arlington.”
Although they weren’t close to the burial site, the group did have a good enough vantage point to view the entire ceremony from afar.
“I still remember how poised Jackie was,” he says. “To think that she could carry herself that way after all that she had been through—it was pretty amazing.”
”Like we all had the same nightmare”
Howland “Buzz” Davis ’65, ’66, was coming out of a government class when word of Kennedy’s shooting was spreading across campus. Unlike many other students, Davis had several opportunities to meet JFK in person, and news of the assassination struck him particularly hard.
“He came to speak to an assembly at the Brooks School in North Andover, Mass., because our government teacher was pretty high up in the state Democratic party,” says Davis, who remembers the president as extremely articulate, charming, and impressive.
“He also used to visit the Carlyle Hotel in New York City often, and we lived at Park Avenue and 76th Street. So when we knew he was coming, we’d go down there. You could get close enough to him to shake hands.”
A member of the ROTC at Lehigh, Davis was required to serve as an usher at a memorial service held at Packer Memorial Church that weekend.
“We were told that our demeanor was to be perfect, and it was,” he says.
Davis spent the rest of that weekend huddled around a television set at McClintic-Marshall House, where fellow student Jim Tiefenbrunn remembers the mood as somber.
“In that era, most residential buildings only had one or two television sets located in the lounges,” Tiefenbrunn says. “That weekend, the lounge was filled the entire time, and really jammed for the funeral services. It was reminiscent of the number who watched President Kennedy’s speech in 1962 on the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
In Tiefenbrunn’s recollection, some students adopted a “business as usual” approach and continued to work on the dorm displays that were a major part of Lehigh-Lafayette festivities.
“Maybe this was youthful ignorance of the importance of the tragedy, or maybe it was a desire to keep busy and avoid facing the emotional challenge,” he says. “But then it really hit everyone when the football game and the bonfire were cancelled.”
Forty years later, Caruso and many others still say they are haunted by the enduring images of that four-day period.
“It was like a bad dream, like we all had the same nightmare,” he says. “The pictures are trapped in time, and are just as moving and poignant today as they were then. It’s something you never really forget.”