Where were you when Kennedy was shot? Everyone remembers

Several members of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School class of 1964 shared memories of November 23, 1963, including Bob Tankard (first row, seated left), Judy Frank Vunk (standing on left), Eleanor Fisher Neubert (seated, second from right), and Marcia Garvin Buckley (standing right). — Photo courtesy of Bob Tankard

Islanders recently spoke to Times correspondent Karla Araujo about their memories of November 22, 1963 — the moment they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot, and what happened in the hours and days that followed. Like most Americans, Vineyarders recalled with acute clarity not only where they were, but the sounds, smells, and sights around them. Most remembered being “glued to the TV” (listening to Walter Cronkite): the assassination was the first major American tragedy to be shared communally on television.

Eleanor (Fischer) Neubert, a 16-year-old high school senior from West Tisbury, was sitting in John Mayhew’s math class.

“It came over the loudspeaker…John Mayhew went silent and he had tears in his eyes…We just sat there stunned. President Kennedy and his family seemed like family to us. He was the same age as my mother; I remember thinking about that at that time.

“I remember coming home; my parents wanted to talk to us about it — they were very upset. [The days after] were very somber, quiet.”

Now 66, Ms. Neubert still lives in West Tisbury. She is the manager of the Ag Fair and of functions at the Ag Hall, as well as a teacher’s assistant at the Chilmark School.

Barbara (Thomas) Murphy was 17, also a senior in John Mayhew’s math class at the high school. She lived in Oak Bluffs. “The hallways were totally silent. It was horrifying. I was political at that age and thought Kennedy was the best thing in the world. It was scary. Threatening. Awful in every direction.

“We stayed home and watched TV. I don’t think we had school. We watched it all unfold on TV. I saw Oswald shot by Ruby. It was a turning point in life — the beginning of wondering what reality is and whom can you trust. For the first few days after the shooting everyone in Oak Bluffs seemed to stay close to home. It didn’t seem right to go out and enjoy yourself. It was right before Thanksgiving too — a strange time in our lives.”

A retired high school Spanish teacher, Ms. Murphy now lives in Chilmark with her husband Chris Murphy.

Chris Murphy, also 17, was a senior at the high school and lived in Chilmark. “I was at home, sick that day, and had just gotten into trouble for something. A friend of the family, Shirley Mayhew, called to tell my parents. I took the call because I was the only one home. I remember the moment very clearly. I have no memory of what happened afterward. It was a big event, but it’s taken on a bigger meaning over time.”

Mr. Murphy, a retired fisherman, lives in Chilmark with his wife, Barbara.

Another member of that senior class, 17-year-old Bob Tankard, from Oak Bluffs, remembers: “I’d just gotten out of PE class at what was then the new regional high school, and walked into Physics class. The teacher was Maury Dore who was also the football coach.

“When I walked into class, everything was quiet. Mr. Dore had just announced that the President was shot. Mr. Dore was a big strong guy but his eyes were as red as a piece of candy…He walked into the lab room and closed the door behind him. No one spoke. No one moved. People put their heads down on their desks.

“Everyone was in total shock. He was the first president that we could identify with. He was young and had lots of enthusiasm. We saw a lot of him on TV and the media made him feel very present in our lives. As an African American, he was especially important to us. He was working on civil rights issues along with Bobby and Martin Luther King. I wondered, who’s going to do that now? Plus he was a Massachusetts guy…It hit home to a lot of us. He took us through the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a young guy, I remember thinking then is this is going to be the end of the world?

“It was such a shocking event, I don’t remember the rest of classes. Football practice was cancelled. I remember that because we were getting ready to play Nantucket.

“I remember talking with people about how we never thought anyone would ever make an attempt on our President’s life…We started wondering what Oswald’s motives could have been. How could he have shot him repeatedly from that place? I remember my mom and sisters breaking down and kids I grew up with breaking down. The pain was so great. Guys had to be macho — we had to hide. We didn’t have a lot of heroes. President Kennedy was a hero. He was like a friend.

“The Island had a very small winter population back then. But it seemed to have an effect on everyone. He was a Democrat but it didn’t make any difference. Everyone felt the injustice. Someone was taken away from all of us…There were sad faces all over the Island.”

Bob Tankard is a retired teacher and Principal of the West Tisbury School, an educational consultant and the VP of the Sharks baseball team. He and his wife, Donna, live in Vineyard Haven.

Judy (Frank) Vunk was 16, living in Vineyard Haven and attending the high school.

“I was in Boston for a college interview, waiting to go in. I think it was Dean Junior College. I overheard some people nearby saying something about the shooting. I thought I had misunderstod. I have a clear picture of sitting there, overhearing the words. It’s my only picture. I don’t remember anything after that.

“[I felt] disbelief, shock. Prior to his death he was the only president I found interesting. I would listen to his press conferences.”

Judy Vunk is a retired social worker, now living in Edgartown.

Oak Bluffs resident Maury Dore was 31 and also at the new regional high school.

“I was in [fellow science teacher] Doug Stewart’s lab at the High School. I was football coach and a math and science teacher…I think it was announced over the loudspeaker, and I went for a walk down the corridor. I was pretty much shaken up. It was like a brother or sister had died.

“We watched everything on television. They repeated it again and again. I can’t believe it’s been 50 years.”

Since selling Edgartown Marine, Maury Dore has operated a small personal farm in Edgartown.

Ruth Stiller, of Vineyard Haven, was 41 and a secretary at the Tisbury School.

“I heard it on the radio. I kept hoping it wasn’t true. I remember thinking it can’t be. I thought, oh God, I can’t believe this is happening…My daughter Gayle was so upset. She just couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“We all kept saying, ‘Why did this have to happen? Why President Kennedy?’ We couldn’t stop moaning about it. It was such a horrible episode in our lives. I can’t remember liking a President that much. He was such a nifty person. Fifty years seems to have gone by so quickly.”

Ruth Stiller is 91, retired, and still living in Vineyard Haven.

Gayle D. Stiller was 13 at the time, in junior high at the Tisbury School. “I was in English class. Nobody made an announcement. Rumors seeped in. The teachers didn’t want to say anything because they were uncertain. Was he shot? Killed?…We were dismissed early. My mother, Ruth Stiller, was a secretary at the school. I headed home to our house on William Street which was only a five-minute walk, in time to turn on the TV to see Walter Cronkite make the announcement that the President was shot.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. A classmate said something nasty like, ‘I hope he’s dead,’ and I remember thinking she was horrible. My mom came home — I had two sisters and a brother who were younger — and I was very upset and crying. I asked her what would happen to Jackie and the kids. We had just seen the President on TV with the White House turkey the week before. My mother reassured me they’d be fine and that there was nothing we could do to help them. That we should just try to resume our normal life. I walked to Hebrew school with my sisters that afternoon, but when I got near there I just couldn’t do it. I walked them back home.

“I felt sad, depressed. The whole Island seemed that way. I remember it rained that weekend. The world seemed so gray — rainy, drizzly. It felt like nature was weeping for us. School was cancelled that Monday. We stayed home and watched the funeral on TV. It all became a TV event. We were glued to our black and white set. I was watching when Oswald was shot. I remember yelling to my mom who was cooking in the kitchen. It was hard to believe that we were watching it unfold…. It was overwhelming, even for a 13-year-old.”

Gayle Stiller is the Procedures Clerk at the Edgartown District Court. She lives in Oak Bluffs.

In Vineyard Haven, 12-year old Jeffrey Serusa was sitting in detention at the Tisbury School.

“They broadcast it over the PA system. I stayed in detention, then went home. [I was] shocked, as everyone was. Couldn’t believe it happened. I remember just everyone being so stunned. It took away our innocence.

“We were glued to the TV. There was no regular programming for three days and we watched Walter Cronkite. I remember six days later, I was home sick and saw Oswald get shot on TV.”

Jeffrey Serusa is a gallery owner and fine art photograher in Vineyard Haven.

Lorraine Clark was 25 and living in Vineyard Haven. “[I was] in the kitchen, having lunch with a friend. A neighbor ran in and told us, so we turned the TV on. We watched it all day. [I felt] devastated — I’m a good Democrat. The next day, we went to a special service at the Episcopal Church.”

Lorraine Clark is a receptionist at M.V. Hospital, in charge of the Red Stocking Fund with Kerry Alley, and Chairman of Lobster Rolls at Grade Church.

Shirley Mayhew of West Tisbury was 37, and in her kitchen when she heard the news. “My daughter came home from school and told me. I didn’t believe her. I turned on the TV to learn more. I think I started to cry. I spent the weekend glued to the TV set. I was watching when Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby. I watched the parade of horses, the casket. The whole thing. It was unimaginable. Nothing like that had happened in our lifetime. I could cry now just thinking about it.”

Shirley Mayhew lives in West Tisbury and writes magazine features and newspaper articles. She is working on a memoir.

On November 22, 1963, Eddie Ben David was 28, working at Jim’s Package store and living in Oak Bluffs.

“The Island was like at a standstill. It was so solemn. [I felt] devastated. How can you explain anything like that? The country has been topsy-turvy since. I have all of JFK’s books. I met him once. The Kennedys are good people.”

Eddie Ben David still lives in Oak bluffs and is a dockworker at the Steamship Authority.

Nancy Morris of Vineyard Haven was 23 that day.

“I had a relatively new baby at the time, born in May. The phone rang; it was my sister-in-law. She’s British. I remember her saying, with her accent, ‘The President has been shot. The President has been shot.’ It’s funny, I clearly remember sitting on the radiator when I answered the phone.

“I turned on the TV right away. At first, there was puzzlement, then shock, disbelief. A terrible sadness and a feeling that this can’t be happening. [There was] constant chatter with friends and family about it that day.

“Because the TV was on all the time, I saw the rest of the shootings. We were eyewitnesses to history.”

Nancy Morris still lives in Vineyard Haven, semi-retired, doing some antiques dealing.

Marcia Garvin (Buckley) of Oak Bluffs was 17.

“The day he was shot I was in my typing class. The principal came over the loudspeaker and says, ‘The President has been shot.’ Of course, that was shocking enough. The next thing that came out of his mouth was, ‘And he was shot by a black man.’ I just froze.Shot by a black man? They saw a black man running through the crowd and that was what he was saying. I went, ‘Wow!’ The next thing I felt was fear because I thought, ‘Is someone going to just come at me now? I’m the only black person here in the class and there’s not too many of us walking around the school.’ My mind started going like that and, of course, we’re crying when we’re hearing about it. We got on the bus and I still was feeling really low. I came home and I told my father. I said, ‘They said a black man . . .’ He said, ‘A black man? There’s no black man that shot the President! Where did they hear that? How did they get that?’ I told him what the principal said so he got on the phone – I remember him ranting and raving. I thank God for that. That helped me a lot because it was really devastating to come home with that feeling that your race killed the President.

Marcia Garvin Buckley is the Pastor of the Apostolic Church in Oak Bluffs. This quote is excerpted from a 2007 interview with Linsey Lee, Oral history Curator at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.