On November 22, 1963, people living in Cecil County were stunned as they heard the seemingly implausible news bulletin that an assassin’s bullet had struck down President John F. Kennedy. Just eight days earlier, lots of residents watched as the energetic leader came to the county to dedicate the Northeastern Expressway. After landing in a helicopter, they witnessed “the vibrant, young, energetic executive” cut the ribbon opening the Interstate and unveiling a Mason-Dixon Line Marker. During this brief 62-minute stay some recalled that he moved over close to the crowd to shake hands. Then before lifting off, he paused at the door of the craft and with that familiar smile and a wave of the hand said goodbye to the friendly crowd of over 5,000, before disappearing inside. While the copter faded into the eastern horizon, the area was “bathed in a dramatic sunset as people headed back to their cars on that chilly afternoon while he headed to public events in New York.
As traffic started zipping along the superhighway, without one light halting the fast trip, the Cecil Democrat proudly noted that this was not his first visit to Cecil. But it had been the first since he was elected to the nation’s highest office. “When we consider the thousands of counties in the United States, we realize what an honor it” was for the “President to come the county where we live,” the newspaper proudly wrote.
There was such optimism in the county as the late November morning of the 22nd dawned on the Chesapeake Bay. At 8:00 a.m. that Friday Patrolman Jerry Secor signed on duty, noting in the police blotter that a fog blanketed the town. On his watch things were subdued, the officer responding to two unremarkable calls, which he duly chronicled in the official record book, a source that provides a cops-eye view of activities. The policeman also escorted a DuBose Funeral Home detail, arrested a man for shoplifting, and recovered a stolen car.
But abruptly that afternoon everything changed in the town and the nation. as Officer Secor, in a careful hand, dutifully penned an entry in the official Police Blotter: 1:30 p.m. “President Kennedy shot and killed in Dallas Texas.”
For the remainder of that heartbreaking day, there is something about the unsettling quiet reflected in the complaint log as a deep dark, sadness penetrates the community and no calls come in for the remainder of the afternoon and the overnight hours. 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. Periodically 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 to someone about the unfolding tragedy. Sometime after newscasters announced the president had died, an eerie 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 mid-day 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 helped open Cecil’s first station, but was working as a sales representative at WDOV in Dover that day. When he checked with the Dover station, they told him that they were going to pull all commercial programming. His job that afternoon was to call advertisers and let them know that the station was pulling all commercials until after the funeral, Les recalled in a conversation a few years ago.
In the schools the children were generally informed about the tragedy shortly before dismissal. Of course the children were all talking about it, trying to comprehend the meaning of it all. Throughout the county, it was particularly quiet as that unusually dark, unsettling 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 and be with family.
Activities throughout the county quickly ground to a near halt as bewilderment and disbelief paralyzed Cecil and the nation. As people dealt with the deep sadness they felt, the Bainbridge Naval Training Center sounded a single gun salute every half hour from sunup to sunset, until the final tribute of a 23 gun salute rang out at the time of the funeral.
In Chesapeake City, a couple living along the canal, said they’d never forget the day. Just before the news broke from Dallas, two federal men in dark suits knocked on their door. Representing the Army Corps of Engineers, they were there to discuss the purchase of their property in Bethel as the canal was being expanded.
Back in the county seat, H. Wirt Bouchelle, the county’s weatherman, dutifully recorded Friday’s meteorological conditions, confirming the observations of the police as they started the 8:00 a.m. shift. The temperature climbed to an unseasonably high of 63 degrees F., while sinking back to 40 overnight. There was no precipitation that gloomy day in Cecil County.
For three consecutive weeks pictures of President John F. Kennedy had headlined the front page of the Cecil Whig in November 1963. “Never before in the 123 year history” of the newspaper had such a sequence occurred, the editor wrote. In the first editions the weekly announced the forthcoming appearance of the chief executive at ceremonies for the new road, an announcement that was “greeted by many with a feeling of great anticipation.” The second article gave the account of the Presidential visit and told of the reaction of the crowd and their feelings about being there to “great him so warmly.” The third and final article expressed, as best the editors knew how, the “shock and deep feeling of grief at the untimely death of our President,” an editorial stated.
Cecil County joined the rest of the nation in expressing shock and sadness as people quickly returned home and gathered their families close while watching the television for more news. Many who had been so excited about seeing him eight days earlier called the unsettling loss “incredible” and “unbelievable,” the Cecil Whig reported.
On that day a half-century ago, the deep gloom that settled over the county is still recalled by so many.