BRATTLEBORO -- Former Town Manager Corky Elwell remembers exactly what he was doing on Nov. 22, 1963.
He was working in his office at town hall in the municipal center when someone at the Brattleboro Fire Department called with startling news: President John F. Kennedy had been shot. Shortly after, the fire department gave Elwell another call -- this time to tell him the commander in chief was dead.
"I was in total shock, of course. This had never happened in my lifetime," he told the Reformer two days before the 50th anniversary. "Kennedy was such a domineering and inspiring figure. I was, at that time, about 35 years old and I related quite closely with his aspirations and with the programs he was promoting."
Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was killed while riding in a roofless vehicle as part of a presidential motorcade on his way to speak at the Dallas Trade Mart in Texas. The shooting ushered in the first moment of widespread panic and nonstop news coverage in the era of television. The Reformer reserved much space in its Saturday, Nov. 23, edition, for stories about first lady Jackie Kennedy's reaction, Lyndon Baines Johnson's inauguration and the arrest of suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
Elwell, a town manager for 29 years, said it was a terrible day for everyone in the area and a non-religious public service was held at Main Street's First Baptist Church of Brattleboro so people could come together to express their feelings and comfort one another. He said he had always admired Kennedy's speaking skills and how dynamic he was.
Tim O'Connor, a longtime Brattleboro lawyer, recalls working in the law office of Edward John on Putney Road (now the location Thomas W. Costello PC) when John's wife came running down the corridor, from where she and John lived in the back section of the building, saying the president had been shot.
"We went into the living room and watched (the news) the whole day," he recalled. "It was just one of those unbelievable things -- that something like that could happen in this country."
The assassination was especially difficult for O'Connor, who only about three years earlier had attended Kennedy's inauguration in Washington, D.C. O'Connor told the Reformer he was in his final year at Georgetown University Law Center and was with a buddy when Kennedy, the first and only Catholic elected to The Oval Office, uttered the now-famous words: "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."
"The other nice touch is that Robert Frost, the poet laureate of Vermont, did a poem for the president," he said. "It was a real Vermont day, to the extent that they had about six inches of snow and they didn't know what to do."
O'Connor, a longtime Democrat, said the party was going through a renaissance and gaining popularity in Brattleboro due to Kennedy's enthusiasm and charisma.
"He just portrayed, ‘Be a good, decent, fair person. Say what you've got to say and do what you think is right and people will listen. They may not always agree, but they will listen,'" he said. "(The assassination) was kind of overwhelming to be honest with you. Even though 50 years have gone by, with what they have done the past two weeks on TV, you kind of get caught up in it again because you remember things you had forgotten about, what happened and who did what."
The Kennedy family is no stranger to tragedy, as JFK's brother, Robert Francis Kennedy, was killed by an assassin's bullet in 1968, two months after Martin Luther King Jr.
U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Mass.), Robert Kennedy's grandson, released a statement about the 50th anniversary of JFK's death.
"From conservation to education to social justice, President Kennedy advocated for a citizenry that cared for, invested and engaged in the country they were lucky to call home. He believed fiercely that our American values must be earned and nurtured so that they would not fade away," it states. "He challenged all of us to achieve a better and bigger future for our country: where man would walk on the moon; where individuals with disabilities could enjoy opportunities, not indifference; where skin color would not disqualify you from democracy or basic human decency; and where hundreds of citizen ambassadors across the globe could sow the seeds of peace."
Countless people around the world recall where they were the second they heard about the shooting. But few can say they were a seventh-grader at the time and grew up to be regarded as a national expert on the subject. That distinction goes to Bill Holiday, a social studies teacher at Brattleboro Union High School. He was a 13-year-old student at Brattleboro Junior High (now Brattleboro Area Middle School) and he remembers Principal Everett Dimick (the father of future high school teacher and cross country coach John Dimick) using the public address system to tell students and faculty members the president had been killed and that school was over for the day.
"I did what I imagine millions of Americans did -- I went home and turned on the TV, which (my family) hadn't had for too many years," he said.
Facts and conspiracy theories have gripped the nation since that fateful day in Dallas. Many people believe Oswald could not have acted alone and the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination, was flawed in some way. So the questions remains: Who really killed JFK?
Holiday will tell you "that's a three-second question with a two-week answer."
He has been associated with JFK Lancer, which brings together researchers every year for an annual conference in Dallas and tries to keep the conversation going. Many people, including Holiday, have their own opinions of what transpired exactly 50 years ago today, but there are also plenty of ironclad facts.
Holiday said Kennedy was in Dallas, on his next-to-last stop in Texas. He had already been to San Antonio and Houston and was set to go to Austin. The president was supposed to give a luncheon speech at Dallas Trade Mart, but never made it there. The vehicle he was riding in with his wife, Texas Gov. John Connally, Connally's wife Nellie and two Secret Service agents entered Dealey Plaza and the assassination was captured on the now-famous film shot by Abraham Zapruder. Kennedy is seen clutching his throat and an impact explodes the back of his head before the vehicle, with Secret Service Agent Clint Hill climbing onto the truck, speeds away to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where the president was eventually pronounced dead. Holiday now has one of the original copies made from Zapruder's camera to study the shooting.
According to Holiday, the Warren Commission says Oswald was on the sixth floor of the southwest corner of the Texas School Book Depository and fired three shots in 5.6 seconds with an Italian-made 6.5mm Mannlicher Carcano rifle he had purchased for $12.78 and received in the mail.
"The Warren Commission says that bullet entered (Kennedy's) back, exited his throat, continued forward, hit the governor in the ribcage, broke a rib and then collapsed his right lung. (The governor) nearly died," Holiday said. "The bullet entered just underneath (Connally's) nipple, the Warren Commission says, it then continued forward, shattered his right wrist, which required multiple surgeries in his life to get it back to working right, and then did a 90-degree swing over to his left thigh. And the bullet was found, according to the Warren report, either on the stretcher or it had fallen off the stretcher, was picked up by the head nurse, Doris Nelson, and she handed it over to the Secret Service. You can find online, easily now, that it is Warren Commission Exhibit CE-399. It's called 'the magic bullet' because it is in pristine condition."
Holiday said the government took the rifle Oswald supposedly used and fired four shots into the wrists of cadavers to see what happens when a Mannlicher Carcano bullet hits a human.
"Each looked like a mushroom. That information was held from researchers for eight years," he said. "Yet this other bullet did all that damage in near-pristine condition. It just doesn't make sense."
Holiday, who has been to Dallas more than 12 times to speak at JFK Lancer conferences, has also spoken with Dr. Ronald Jones, who was part of the medical team that tried save Kennedy's life at the hospital. Jones, Holiday said, believed the bullet hole in the president's throat was an entry wound, not an exit wound, meaning the shot must have been fired from in front of Kennedy. Holiday has also met ambulance driver Al Rike, who along with another man, wrapped Kennedy's head in cloth and put his body on a layer of bed-wetting sheets in a casket.
"They closed up the casket and the body was taken to Dallas Love Field (Airport). Paul O'Connor receives the body at Bethesda (Naval Medical Center), among with others, to do the autopsy and it shows up in a shipping casket ... and it's in a Vietnam War-era body bag with a zipper," Holiday said, implying the president's corpse was tampered with in transit. "Common, ordinary procedures were not done in that autopsy -- like a sectioning of the brain, for example, which would have told us exactly what had entered his head."
William Greer, the driver of the vehicle Kennedy was in, was highly criticized for slowing down to a near-stop and accelerating only after the fatal shot had hit the president. Some of the wildest conspiracy theories suggest Greer actually pulled the trigger himself, a notion Holiday says is absurd and removes credibility from actual alternative theories about the shooting. As crazy the theory is, however, Holiday says many Secret Service agents hated Kennedy for his Catholic faith, elitism and wealth. Holiday also said Secret Service protocols were violated that day.
Also, Oswald's fingerprints were never found on the sixth floor of the book depository -- though some from Malcolm Wallace, who Holiday described as one of Johnson's henchman, were.
No matter what conclusion anyone reaches on their own about the assassination, its aftermath still has a ripple effect on the country a half-century later.
"It destroyed a time-honored credibility I think the United States government had. A lot of people might have disagreed with the government, but it was respected. I think it was respected certainly through the entire first half of the 20th century, generally. If meat was USDA inspected, it was all set -- the government had looked at it. And that was gone," Holiday said, adding that it is vital to pick at any threads in the official story. "Anytime, in a democracy like we have here, that the president, elected by a democratic majority, can be gunned down in a major American city in broad daylight and 50 years later we don't know who did it and what happened and what forces had conspired to take President Kennedy out, we should be asking questions. We should be asking questions of everything."
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.