- Ada, Oklahoma

November 21, 2013

Locals recall day JFK died

Art Lawler Staff Writer


The Ada News

How fast does a half-century pass?

Ask anyone who was around the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

We mostly watched black-and-white television sets with 12-inch screens. Girls wore hoop skirts and fake hair buns. The boys wore thin ties, white shoes, drove white Chevy Impalas and rubbed greasy kids stuff through their hair.

Other than a dramatic change of hair color, a few thousand wrinkles, a complete change in social attitude, and the plethora of computers and cell phones, everything today is pretty much the same as it was 50 years ago.

Time, however, did stop that day — just long enough for each of us to snap a mental image of ourselves and our environment, one that remains in the mind’s eye these many years later.

Almost everyone who was alive on that day remembers exactly where they were when they got the news that the president had been killed by an apparent madman or maybe a cluster of madmen.

Harland Stonecipher, founder of Pre-Paid Legal (now Legal Shield), recalled that he was a school teacher in the Okmulgee school system on Nov. 22, 1963.

 “At first, I didn’t think too much of it,” Stonecipher said in a telephone interview. “It came over the PA system, and I just remember thinking, he’ll pull through. He’s the president and he has good doctors around him.”

 The denial Stonecipher felt turned out to be a thought process that millions of Americans were experiencing at exactdly the same time.

 The idea that the President of the United States could be murdered was as unthinkable as Superman dying from a mere bullet wound.

 “A few minutes later, (the administrators) came on again and this time they said Kennedy was dead,” Stonecipher said.

 “That shocked me. I had to sit down.”

 He remembered the students in his class looking at him but all he could do was sit there, speechless.

They had nothing comparable to fall back on in their own life experiences.

 “I felt it from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet,” Stonecipher said. “I couldn’t accept, or believe, somebody like him, a young and vibrant president, could be killed. It was the first time I had been much interested in politics and I liked Kennedy.”

George Gurley was then the 38-year-old editor of the Ada Evening News. He was out of the office having a cup of coffee when the news broke.

He remembered his city editor running into the café to tell him about a bulletin fresh off the wire.

There were unconfirmed reports that President Kennedy had been assassinated on the streets of Dallas.

“I was simply stunned,” Gurley said. Nonetheless, he had the employee hold off for a few minutes to determine whether it was a joke or misinformation.

 Then pandemonium broke loose in every newspaper and media outlet in the nation.

“Our phone began ringing off the wall with people wanting to know if it was true,” he said.  “They were actually calling us to see if it was true.”  Television was still in its early days; millions watched as the industry made it up on the fly that day.

Walter Cronkite looked and acted much like the nation’s father; surely he would tell us everything would be all right. Instead, he told us Kennedy was dead.

“It was a different time,” Gurley said. “At the end of the day, Dad would come home, sit down in a chair and read the evening paper.”

Gurley did get to fulfill one of his lifetime goals that day. Like Perry White at the Daily Planet, this Ada newspaper editor got to run back across the street screaming, “Stop the presses! Stop the presses!”

“It was the only time I got to do that,” he said. “We did put out an extra that day.”

Realtor Mack Mckee was between trips on a Navy destroyer, doing his part for Uncle Sam in 1963 as a Naval recruiter in Ada.

When he and the recruiting officers from the Army and Air Force got the news that their Commander in Chief had been murdered, tempers flared. Retaliation was mentioned.  

“I seem to remember the Army recruiter going ballistic,” McKee said. “We all felt his loss. That’s about all I can say.”

Later, McKee revealed a few of his own dark thoughts from those first days after Kennedy was slain.  

“I remember thinking I’d like to have taken a shot at the one who did it,” he said. “Somebody did that for me.”

What seemed incredible that November day seems all too commonplace today.

Fifty years later, maybe that’s what hurts the most.