Tri-Citians remember Kennedy assassination 50 years ago

Craig Craker, Tri-City HeraldNovember 21, 2013 

Jim Qualheim was 12 years old when John F. Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago. Despite his youth, he felt an intimate connection to the fallen president.

Qualheim and his family had papered neighborhoods with leaflets during Kennedy's 1960 campaign for president. The Richland youngster also attended the ceremony at the Hanford nuclear reservation when Kennedy spoke to a crowd of 37,000 people, just two months prior to being killed.

After the stunning announcement crackled over the loudspeakers at Marcus Whitman Elementary School on Nov. 22, 1963, Qualheim realized the enormity of what had happened when he walked home and found his mother, Frances, weeping.

"You see your mom and older sisters huddled around the TV crying and it kind of hits you all of a sudden," he said. "You don't understand the magnitude until you see the way grownups are acting. It was kind of overwhelming."

Qualheim, who is in charge of ASB and leadership at Richland High and is a longtime track and field coach, was so affected by JFK that he kept in his garage a "Kennedy for president" campaign poster.

Qualheim remembers when the president came to visit Hanford on Sept. 26, 1963, like it was yesterday. His dad, Bob, worked at Hanford and secured seats for his family at the ceremony.

"I remember seeing him up there, saw our priest on stage, saw the helicopter come down ... it was a big deal," Qualheim said. "You look up and see the president ... it was really neat."

Many Tri-Citians felt a personal connection with Kennedy because of that visit.

Brian Kilbury's father, Charlie, was a longtime state legislator, Pasco mayor, city councilman and civil servant and was on the platform when Kennedy spoke at Hanford.

"They had met and (my dad) kind of knew him personally, so I'm sure that made it harder for him to bear," Kilbury said. "At the time, I was concerned where the country was going when this happened, what were you going to do after Kennedy? My father assured me that everything was going to work out OK."

Kilbury, of Pasco, attended Columbia Basin College at the time of the assassination. He was out shooting baskets when JFK was killed. He remembers walking home and finding his family gathered around the TV.

"I noticed right away that they had a somber look on their face and they were very concerned," said Kilbury, who went on to have a 38-year career with the BNSF Railway. "As I came through the hallway, my sister said to me that President Kennedy had been shot. I couldn't believe it at first. I was in shock."

The news spread that shock and fear throughout the Tri-Cities, which immediately shut down for the weekend, as families huddled around TV sets to watch the news, according to Herald archives.

"We were thinking, like, 'God, how could that possibly happen here,' " said Ray Stein of Mead, a football and basketball star at Richland High at the time. "It was just a big shock. It wasn't like people were getting assassinated or there were terrorists or anything like that. People could just hardly believe it."

Stein, who later starred as a basketball player at Washington State University, worked for General Electric and then was a math teacher at Spokane's Central Valley High for 20 years, remembers when he heard the news in study hall.

"I remember my teacher saying, 'Can I have everybody's attention? There has been a shooting in Dallas. The governor of Texas has been wounded and the president is dead,' " Stein said. "That was all he could get out. I'm kind of choked up just saying anything about it.

"I remember there was just a gasp and everybody was just quiet and just felt sick."

Longtime Pasco High teacher Gary Hackney said how he felt when he heard about Kennedy's assassination has bothered him for years.

Hackney was a freshman at Central Washington University that fall and he and the rest of the wrestling team were in vans getting ready to drive to Canada for a tournament.

"Our first thought was we were hoping that they wouldn't cancel the tournament," he said. "I remember it like it was yesterday, part of that may be because of guilt. Because I should've felt worse that the president was dead and not that the tournament was or wasn't canceled."

Hackney went on to be a special needs teacher at Pasco High until 2002, and still coaches girls wrestling. He said Kennedy had a profound effect on him, especially the famous line from his inaugural speech: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

The president's death was a harsh and immediate transition into the adult world for the four young men.

"Watching the funeral and the procession and the son saluting, you really learn about politics and your nation all of a sudden," Qualheim said. "That was the first time I really knew what was going on."

Craig Craker: 582-1509; ccraker@tricityherald.com

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