Remembering President Kennedy in Cecil County in Nov. 1963

Early this Saturday morning (Nov. 22), we traveled down to Wesley College for a campus tour since that is one of several institutions Kyle is considering for his undergraduate studies. While visiting the library two staffers started talking about how hard it is to believe that 45-years have passed since word flashed across news outlets on the Delmarva Peninsula that President Kennedy had been assassinated.  That conversation caused me to think back to November 22, 1963, in Cecil County.  I was in Mrs. Gray’s sixth grade class that cold November so long ago. 

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Dedicating the Expressway
   On Nov. 14, 1963, more than 5,000 people gathered at the Mason Dixon Line to watch President John F. Kennedy, Maryland Governor J. Millard Tawes and  Delaware Governor Elbert N Carvel dedicate the Northeastern Expressway, the area’s first modern day toll road.  A helicopter brought the nation’s leader to the famous old line  where a speakers stand was set-up for the ceremony.  The Delaware National Guard played “Hail to the Chief” while the president walked to the stand to offer remarks.  After snipping the ribbon and unveiling a marker on the state line, the president shook hands while returning to the helicopter.  At the door of the craft he waved to the crowd before disappearing inside.  While the bird faded into the eastern horizon, the area was bathed in a dramatic sunset as people
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Governor Carvel, President Kennedy, and Governor Tawes prepare to cut the ribbon -- (Cheeseman Photo)

headed back to their cars on this chilly Thursday afternoon, the Morning News reported.  The chopper flight took him to the Wilmington Airport where he climbed aboard a DC 8 for a trip to New York.  Our 35th president’s 62 minutes visit to the region was over. 

    As traffic began zipping along the superhighway for a fast trip through the county, people realized that the dream of many years was a reality. For years plans had been underway to provide a second thoroughfare to absorb some of the increased traffic on Pulaski Highway (Route 40). Economic development experts talked with great excitement about the opportunities the new road would bring to the county. Motorists were excited for they could rush along without one traffic light halting a journey between Baltimore and Wilmington. On Route 40, which ran parallel to the new Interstate and had served as the main route for auto travel along the northeast corridor, service stations, motels, and restaurants reported that business was off nearly half the weekend after the fast road opened.

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A brochure for the new expressway.

November 22, 1963  

   There was such optimism in the nation as the morning of November 22, 1963, dawned on the Chesapeake Bay.  Elkton Patrolman Jerry Secor signed on duty at 7:00 a.m., noting in the police blotter that a thick fog blanketed the town.  On this Friday shift things were quiet as he responded to two unremarkable calls, duly chronicling them in the official record book. Then abruptly at 1:30 p.m. everything changed in this Eastern Shore town and the town.  Officer Secor, in a careful hand, wrote on the docket:  “President Kennedy shot and killed in Dallas Texas.”  For the remainder of that hearbreaking day, there is something about the unsettling quiet reflected in the complaint log as a deep dark, sadness penetrates the town and few calls come in for the remainder of the overnight shifts.  Law-breaking had apparently come to a standstill as everyone stayed glued to television sets, trying to comprehend the terrible event in Texas.

   Two operators worked the Armstrong Phone Company Switchboard in Rising Sun. Perodicially lights on the board flickered on indicating someone had picked up one of the old hand crank telephones to make a call so the operators would answer “number please.”  The call volume was routine as they juggled cords and plugs on the last day of the work week as the lunch hour rolled around. But in a flash the entire board lit up, alarming the operators. Something similar happened when one of the women activated the fire siren for people would call to see where the fire was.  But this time it was different for everyone on the network, it seemed, picked up receivers at exactly the same time. Answering as many calls as they could, they heard upset people saying did you hear the news, the president has been shot or connect me with so and so as callers reached out to talk about the unfolding tragedy. Sometime after newscasters announced the president had died, an erie silence settled over the telephone network as people headed home to be with family at this sad time and to monitor the newscasts
   Since it was the middle of the workday many people first received news from the radio. At Elkton’s top 40 AM Station, WSER, the mid-day disc jockey worked the turntable playing the hits of ’63 when a network flash interrupted his entertaining routine.  Once the first flash got everyone’s attention, listeners huddled near receivers at home, work, and in cars to hear the latest.  As the hours unfolded the network kept up a steady stream of bulletins and flashes.
   Les Coleman, had opened the county’s first station, but was working as a sales representative at WDOV in Dover that day.  When he checked with the station, they told him that they were going to pull all commercial programming.  Les recalled in a conversation with me a few years ago that his job that afternoon was to call advertisers and let them know what the station was doing. 

   At Gilpin Manor Elementary we were informed about the tragedy shortly before regular dismissal. Of course all the children on Mrs Sprat’s bus were talking about it, trying to comprehend the meaning of it all. Throughout the county, it was particularly quiet as that unusually dark night got underway, perhaps not unlike the evening of 9/11, as people rushed home to learn more details of the tragedy in Dallas from broadcasters. Activities throughout the county quickly ground to a near halt as bewilderment and disbelief paralyzed Cecil and the nation.

   Practically everyone recalled that only eight day earlier the president had visited the county to open the northeastern expressway. In 1964 I-95 was officially renamed the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway.

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(NOTE:  Be sure to click on the links to hear some interesting audio from Wilmington Radio Station, WDEL’s broadcasts in Nov. 1963.  The audio is courtesy of www.oldwilmington.net, a fascinating site containing photographs, ephemera, sounds, and much more about Wilmington Delaware.  We’ve mentioned them before and thank them for permission to use a partial segment of their audio.  Check out the web site for it contains more audio and lots of other things we find fascinating.)

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