The church and hall were booked, the food, liquor, and flowers ordered. Last-minute details were being attended to. Flashing back to that distant Friday, Vanda Skuras remembers that she had the day off from work to prepare for her Saturday wedding, but the 22-year-old bride-to-be still needed to drop into the office.
“I was working for a brokerage firm in the Penobscot Building,” the Grosse Pointe Woods resident recalls. “It was payday, so I swung by to pick up my check.” Instead of encountering a final round of congratulations and good-natured ribbing from her co-workers, she came upon a cluster of employees with shocked and drawn faces. “Everybody was huddled around the stock ticker. I asked what was going on and they said President Kennedy had been shot.”
At Eastern High School, Vanda’s fiancé, English teacher Deno Skuras, was being feted in the teachers lounge when word came over the P.A. system.
“The party stopped immediately,” says Deno, today an attorney. “Everything stopped.” Vanda drove home to Trenton. “I took Jefferson and there was no traffic,” she says. “It was quiet, very eerie. I was listening to the radio all the way and that’s when I learned the president had died. It seemed like the end of the world.”
The following morning, at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Trenton, the freshly minted Vanda Skuras was a vision in white, stepping out into a world suddenly trimmed in black. “We decided we weren’t going to change our plans,” Deno Skuras says. Fifty of the anticipated 300 guests didn’t show up to celebrate the newlyweds at Roma Hall. “There was a pall,” he says. “But it was still relatively exciting.” Vanda adds: “It was an Italian and Greek wedding with a large number of immigrants. With this group of people, the president’s death was very emotional.”
Every generation or so, America has a punched-in-the-gut moment, a tragedy so overwhelming and culturally significant that a date stamp is indelibly branded into the national consciousness. Pearl Harbor Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, is remembered as “a date which will live in infamy” and the kickoff to the country’s involvement in World War II.
The unimaginable scope and horror of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are condensed to the shorthand of “9/11.” Sandwiched between these two events is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, an equally seismic moment that, a half-century later, seems to resonate most strongly with the baby boomers who were too young to vote him into office. “I remember that day, that whole weekend, like it was yesterday,” says Royal Oak resident Nadine Scodellaro, then a sixth-grader growing up in Southfield. “So much sadness and tears — just unbelievable. And anger. It still makes me cry when I think about it. I was 11 and President Kennedy was killed on my brother’s 13th birthday. All of us were glued to the TV all weekend. The first time I ever saw my dad cry was during the president’s funeral.”
‘Man for Young America’
JFK and the Kennedy years exist in that sweet spot of history, a time when America’s “greatest generation” had saved the world, then strived to rebuild it in its image. Citizens still believed in their leaders and institutions. The country’s optimism and energy were personified by the charismatic president who dared others to dream big, whether it was NASA putting a man on the moon or students digging a well in an African village. He was “the man for Young America”: a war hero, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and possessor of a keen wit and intellect.
During JFK’s 1960 presidential run, Ann Spybrook of Roseville belonged to that small army of straw-hatted campaign workers known as “Kennedy girls,” a term that didn’t seem suggestive then, thanks to the media’s keeping of a blind eye to the Massachusetts senator’s many dalliances. “I remember when he walked through the door of the Book Cadillac,” says Spybrook, then a 21-year-old student at Mercy College. “He was much taller than I thought he’d be — and so handsome.” Kennedy drew 100,000 at the traditional Labor Day rally in Detroit’s Cadillac Square. A few weeks later, during a brief, extemporaneous midnight speech at the University of Michigan, he asked idealistic students to consider volunteering their services overseas — a challenge that begat the Peace Corps. On Election Day, Detroiters went for JFK at a higher rate than voters in any other big city in the country. At 43, Kennedy was the youngest man ever to be elected president. Detroit attorney Jerry Cavanagh, an Irish Catholic in the mold of Kennedy, rode his coattails to become, at 33, the city’s youngest mayor.
The first president born in the 20th century was blessed with an almost impossibly photogenic family: his smart, elegant wife Jackie and toddlers Caroline and John Jr., nicknamed “John-John.” The images of “Camelot” (a term that wasn’t used until after the assassination) helped deflect criticism of Kennedy as he gingerly handled such thorny issues as the exploding civil rights movement and America’s deepening involvement in Southeast Asia. By the fall of 1963, he was gearing up for another presidential campaign. Part of that included a two-day trip to Texas, a state whose history of violence worried JFK’s aides. Assuming he won re-election (his average approval rating was 70 percent, which remains the highest of any post-World War II president), his second term would end in January 1969. There would be plenty of time to fulfill the administration’s expectations of great accomplishments.
A Bleak Day
Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, was a bleak autumn day in Detroit. Trees were bare. Here and there, piles of wet leaves waited to be burned at curbside and in the alleys. Temperatures were in the 50s. Ex-Gov. John Swainson, lunching downtown, described a sky filled with “low, foreboding black-gray clouds, and strange cloud formations,” according to a 1983 magazine article. That morning, in a meeting of shareholders at the Statler-Hilton, William Clay Ford bought the Detroit Lions for $6 million; some observers thought the price was too steep for a team six years removed from its last championship. The final weekend of the college football season was at hand, with Michigan set to host Ohio State while Michigan State prepared to meet Illinois in East Lansing, the winner going to the Rose Bowl. Meanwhile, Ward’s Automotive reported that the U.S. auto industry was on pace to set a single-year record for vehicle production while Michigan Gov. George Romney slammed fellow Republican (and presidential hopeful) Barry Goldwater for his support of right-to-work legislation. In the classifieds, the Detroit Police Department advertised for recruits (starting salary: $5,650); Stu Evans Lincoln-Mercury offered to put car buyers in a new ’64 Comet for $2,115; and Robert Hall featured boys suits “in the newest fall shades” for under $12. Denim was not yet a ubiquitous fashion choice, though “western dungarees” could be found at Shopper’s Fair for $1.97. The top attractions at local theaters and drive-ins were The V.I.P.s, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and John Wayne’s latest western, McLintock!. The new WKNR (“Keener 13”) music guide had just been delivered to record stores, hi-fi shops, and department chains like Korvette’s and Federal’s. At No. 1 for the week of Nov. 21-28 was the Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie.” The station’s “key song of the week” was by a local girls group called the Chevells: “Another Tear Must Fall.” The flip side was “It’s Goodbye.”
A thousand miles and a time zone away, big and friendly crowds greeted the president’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. He and Jackie Kennedy were seated in the back seat of the presidential limo: a 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible, built in Wixom, that had been customized at a cost of $200,000. Sitting in the jump seat ahead of the Kennedys were Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife. There was no armor plating or bulletproof glass. The portable bubble top wasn’t attached because the air conditioning didn’t work well when it was in place.
It was 12:30 p.m. in Texas — 1:30 Eastern Standard Time (EST) in Detroit — when pandemonium broke out. “We heard a shot and the president jumped up in his seat,” said a young man, according to a news report, standing within a few feet of the passing limousine. “I thought it scared him because I thought it was a firecracker.” Seven minutes later, Detroiters watching As the World Turns on WJBK (Channel 2) were startled when the screen abruptly switched from the live soap opera to a stark CBS Bulletin notice, accompanied by Walter Cronkite’s voiceover: “Bulletin … In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade. The first reports say the president was seriously wounded, that he slumped over in Mrs. Kennedy’s lap, she cried out, ‘Oh, no!’ and the motorcade went on … The wounds perhaps could be fatal.” Quickly, somber newsmen began appearing on every TV channel and weighty voices broke into radio programming, all relaying the same awful, unfathomable news.
Ed Golick was a second-grader at Logan Elementary on the city’s west side. “We were all watching a live program on Channel 56, the PBS station,” recalls Golick, today a media specialist for Detroit Public Schools. “We were half paying attention to the TV instructor when another man appeared on the screen and interrupted him, saying that President Kennedy had been shot. I remember there being an uncomfortable silence, then some of my classmates started sobbing, and then my teacher started crying, too. An announcement was made over the P.A. system that school was dismissed for the day, and that we should all go directly home.”
There was confusion and disbelief as the first sketchy reports came in. Windsor station CKLW was jammed with callers on both sides of the Detroit River wanting to know if popular TV movie-show host Bill Kennedy had been shot. Motorists listening on their car radio pulled over or drove aimlessly around. “I was in a dime store when they announced it over a loudspeaker,” Detroit Councilwoman Mary Beck said. “People just stopped in their tracks, stunned. A lot of them couldn’t believe it. Some said, ‘No, no.’ ” The flood of calls caused Michigan Bell’s switchboards to crash. John Swainson was finishing lunch at Schweitzer’s when a Republican friend passed the word. Swainson considered the source and convinced himself it was simply a poor joke — until he returned to his Lansing home and saw televised images of Jackie Kennedy “in her pink dress with the splotches of blood on it.”
There never was the slightest chance that the team of doctors frantically tending to the president could save his life. He had been shot through the throat and, moments later, suffered a massive head wound. (Gov. Connally, also struck, would survive wounds to his chest, thigh, and wrist.) At 2:38 p.m. EST, after a flurry of ominous but unofficial reports from Parkland Hospital, everybody’s worst fear was confirmed. The electronic message ribbon crawling across the front of the Detroit Bank & Trust Building informed passersby: “JOHN F. KENNEDY IS DEAD.” He had officially died at 2 p.m., Detroit time. “Within minutes there were no smiles on the downtown streets, where shoppers stood in shocked silence among the newly erected decorations for the season of peace and good will,” Louis Cook wrote in the next day’s Free Press. “Suddenly, everything else seemed unimportant. Letters lay half-finished in the typewriters. The auto lines ground on, but the men turning down the bolts worked on in heavy silence.”
People oblivious to the day’s events walked into stores to find clusters of sobbing clerks and dazed customers. “I asked what was wrong,” one shopper told a reporter. “They told me the president had been killed. I went outside then, and I just walked around for a long time. What can you say?” The City Planning Commission was in the middle of a closed-door meeting when a member was called from the room to take a phone call. He returned with the news. “One man just burst out crying,” commission member John Bigelow said. “The rest of us just sat there. Then we all got up and walked away. I don’t even know whether we officially adjourned or not. We just walked away.”
Metro Detroit Mourns
The wave of shock rolled over people of all ages, races, and denominations, but the grief seemed especially keen among the area’s million-plus Catholics. In parishes from Sacred Heart in Dearborn to Most Holy Trinity in Corktown, nuns and uniformed schoolchildren filed into church and said a rosary for the president, then prayed for his assassin. St. Aloysius on Washington Boulevard was “a scene of hushed and somber grief,” the Free Press reported, with several women wearing black mourning babushkas. As pews filled up and votive cups were lit, others struggled to get through the rest of the workday. The cast of Hello, Dolly resumed their rehearsal at the Fisher Theater, but it finally was canceled along with the evening’s performance. “We tried to go on,” said the show’s headliner Carol Channing, “but we just couldn’t.”
According to his autobiography, Berry Gordy, president of Motown Records, sat stunned inside his closed office. Distraught, he nonetheless kept his scheduled meeting with singer Marvin Gaye. Gaye also was upset — upset that more wasn’t being done to promote his new single, “Can I Get a Witness.” Words grew heated. Gordy finally ended the argument by sweeping everything off the top of his desk and yelling, “Don’t you realize that the president was killed today?”
The coffin bearing Kennedy’s body was flown from Dallas to Washington. En route, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was hurriedly sworn in as the 36th president. Most weekend events were postponed: the Ice Follies at Olympia, comedian Dick Gregory’s show at the University of Detroit Mercy, the entire college football schedule. The annual Good- fellows high school championship game went on as planned, with Denby beating Notre Dame, 7-0, on a misty Friday evening in half-empty Tiger Stadium. However, the usual TV and radio coverage of the game was pre-empted, as was all other regular programming through Monday night.
Within hours of the assassination, the country learned “a prime suspect” was in custody. Lee Harvey Oswald initially was arrested for gunning down Dallas policeman J. D. Tippit 45 minutes after the president was shot. It was soon determined that he matched the description of the man seen leaving the Texas School Book Depository, from where the shots that fired on the motorcade originated and a scoped rifle belonging to Oswald was found. Oswald, who worked at the depository, was a 24-year-old high school dropout and self-proclaimed Marxist who had spent almost three years in Russia before returning to the U.S. in 1962 with a Russian wife. On Friday evening, Americans got their first look at Oswald, who denied to shouting reporters that he had killed the president or Tippit.
Mystery surrounded Oswald
As Saturday brought more news about the suspected assassin and his background, Andy Sobieralski, a 27-year-old Warren mechanic, realized it was the same Lee Oswald he had served with in the Marine Corps a few years earlier. The men had trained as radar operators and were in the same air control squadron at Atsugi, Japan. “He was one of the weakest men in the barracks,” Sobieralski says. “Lazy. But he had a mouth on him.” Oswald was court-martialed twice: once for accidentally shooting himself in the elbow with a handgun inside the barracks, and again for assaulting a sergeant in a bar. In Sobieralski’s view, Oswald was “fully capable” of killing the president, both from a philosophical and a practical standpoint. “We all thought he was an oddball. I’d walk past him every day. ‘What you reading, Ozzie?’ It was always a book about Marxism.” Asked whether Oswald could have fired three aimed shots with a bolt-action rifle at a moving car within a span of 6 seconds — a feat that some believe was beyond Oswald’s ability — Sobieralski says, “Marksmanship training in the Marines is about as good as it gets.”
Due to his brush with history, Sobieralski has read extensively about Oswald. He believes there was a second shooter in Dallas, positioned on the infamous “grassy knoll,” the sloped area directly to the right of the president’s car when the bullets hit. He also thinks Oswald likely was part of some plot involving America’s Cold War enemies. He recalls a 1958 incident when the squadron was in the Philippines. One night, Sobieralski was rousted out of his bunk and ordered to replace a Marine sentry named Schrand, who had just been found dead at his post. The hangar being guarded was rumored to have housed one of America’s highly secret U-2 spy planes. Although investigators eventually ruled that Schrand’s gunshot wound was accidental and self-inflicted, rumors persisted that the squadron’s resident Marxist, who knew Schrand, was somehow involved. Was Oswald, who was already planning his defection, looking for information that would ingratiate him with Russian officials? “Maybe he was poking around and was discovered,” Sobieralski suggests. The enigmatic Oswald would carry many mysteries to an early grave.
Somber Ritualism and Bedlam
On Sunday, Nov. 24, the president’s body was taken with somber pageantry from the White House to the Capitol rotunda, where it would lay in state until Monday’s funeral. Tens of millions of television viewers watched the horse-drawn caisson bearing the flag-draped coffin slowly move down Pennsylvania Avenue. Later they saw Jackie Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy, just three days short of her sixth birthday, kneeling to kiss the coffin’s flag. The lines of mourners stretched for miles, with hundreds of thousands standing in the damp weather for hours for the opportunity to hurriedly walk past the closed casket.
In Dallas, Oswald was being escorted through the basement of police headquarters to an armored truck waiting to transfer him to the county jail. It was 12:21 p.m. EST when Detroiters watching WWJ (Channel 4), the NBC affiliate, saw a dark blur rush across their TV screens. Ann Spybrook remembers that she was leaving for church when a family member cried out, “Oh my Lord! He’s been shot!” A stocky figure in a suit and fedora, later identified as 52-year-old Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby, had just lunged at Oswald with a snub-nose revolver and fired it point-blank into his stomach. NBC was the only network to air the shooting as it happened, but the other networks quickly shifted their coverage from Washington to Dallas. CBS used its new slow-motion technology to replay the shooting, frame by agonizing frame — a surrealistic choreography that by dint of its horror and endless repetition burned itself into the national psyche. Oswald was pronounced dead at 2:07 p.m. The country seemed to be unraveling. The president had been killed, and now millions had just watched his accused assassin gunned down in the first murder committed on live TV.
As the networks switched back and forth between the solemn ritualism in Washington and the bedlam in Dallas, the National Football League went ahead with its full slate of Sunday games, including the Lions’ contest at Minnesota. Commissioner Pete Rozelle later admitted the decision not to postpone play was the biggest mistake of his career. Players had a hard time concentrating. The Lions and Vikings lost 10 fumbles between them as Minnesota eked out a 34-31 victory. The game was televised locally on WJBK, the only sports programming Detroiters saw in four days of assassination coverage. The networks, which normally went off the air an hour or so after midnight, continued into the wee hours with a commercial-free mix of news updates, features, and live coverage of the public viewing. “All night long the mourners are still visible, moving past the coffin under the great dome,” TV Guide reported. “They are still coming at 9 that morning.”
Monday, Nov. 25, was declared a national day of mourning. Schools and several major retailers, such as Hudson’s and Winkelman’s, closed for the day. Most other businesses, reluctant even during a time of national tragedy to lose an entire day of holiday sales (Thanksgiving was three days away and Christmas exactly a month off), shut down only for the hours of the state funeral. At auto plants, the day shift was sent home at noon. Churches and synagogues were full. Ten thousand people overflowed the site of old City Hall — now Kennedy Square — for Detroit’s official tribute. The weather was wet, cold, and blustery. Flags, which would remain at half-mast for an entire month, appeared starched against the gray sky. Most people spent the day in front of the TV. They saw the most poignant image of the entire weekend: John-John, on his third birthday, saluting his father’s flag-draped casket as it was brought down the steps of St. Matthew’s Cathedral.
In a country of 180 million people, an estimated 41.6 million TVs were tuned to the funeral. One of them belonged to Dearborn Realtor Vance Maliszewski. His daughter, Alice Maier of Howell, remembers him setting up his 8 mm home-movie camera on a tripod in the den. “There were no VCRs back then,” she says, “so if you wanted to copy a program you had to actually film the TV screen.” The footage that Maliszewski primitively lifted off his television a half-century ago survives, a vaporous segment tucked in among snippets of carefree family life.
No audio accompanies the fluttering frames, so the natural sounds of that day are missing: the bagpipes, hoof clacks, and muffled drums as the miles-long cortege moved from the Capitol rotunda to St. Matthew’s for Mass, then on to Arlington Cemetery. The reel’s disjointed chronology is slightly jarring. Earlier is footage of a beaming 7-year-old Alice Maliszewski in her Holy Communion dress. It’s the spring of 1963, and the world around her is soaked in Kodachrome and sunshine.
At 3:08 p.m., Army trumpeter Sgt. Keith Clark sounded “Taps.” The 35-year-old Grand Rapids native had played flawlessly at hundreds of military funerals. For this most important of all performances, he had stood in the cold for hours and was momentarily deaf from the 21-gun salute that had just been fired. On the sixth note, Clark strayed off-key. He was devastated, but the “broken note” seemed to capture the mood of a nation whose heart had been crushed. As William Manchester would later write in his best-seller, The Death of a President, Clark’s flub had the effect of “a swiftly stifled sob.” At 3:34 p.m., the president’s casket was lowered into the ground, after which Jackie Kennedy lit the “eternal flame” at the gravesite. Moments later, the bands, military formations, and crowds of dignitaries began to slowly disperse. In Detroit, the afternoon shift punched in and industry came back to life. America’s long vigil was over.
‘Assassination Changed Everything’
In the days and months that followed, Metro Detroiters joined people everywhere in trying to come to grips with the assassination. “I remember there were a lot of conspiracy theories — Cuba, the Soviet Union — and a lot of nervousness,” says Don Kolke, 73, of Clinton Township. “You know: ‘If they can kill our president, what else can they do?’ Things calmed down after the Warren Report came out.” The seven-member Warren Commission, which included Michigan Congressman (and future president) Gerald Ford, released the results of its probe in September 1964. It concluded that Oswald and Ruby both had acted alone, findings that have never been fully accepted by the public.
Memorials took various forms. Kolke, who hosted a children’s program on CKLW called Hercules that was pre-empted by assassination coverage, dedicated his first show back to the president. “It was live and all off the cuff,” he says. “I talked to the kids about what a fine man the president had been, talked about his accomplishments. I wanted them to know that, hey, we’re all going to get through this.” Candy Geer, a 15-year-old student at Grosse Pointe High, became a sensation when her poem, inspired by John-John’s salute, was unexpectedly turned into an illustrated book. Six White Horses sold tens of thousands of copies, was read into the Congressional Record, and moved the president’s widow to write the young author a personal note. Sculptor Marshall Fredericks, whose Spirit of Detroit monument was ringed by mourning wreaths, later spent two years working on a half-ton bust of the martyred president. It stands in the Mount Clemens plaza (now Kennedy Square) where JFK gave a speech during the 1960 campaign. Berry Gordy and his girlfriend, Margaret Norton, were expecting a baby at the time of the assassination; when the boy was born the following March, they named him Kennedy. (In the ’80s, Kennedy Gordy performed as R&B artist Rockwell.) “I was deeply saddened by the death of John Kennedy,” Berry Gordy reflected in his autobiography. “I believed him to be an honest man and a good man. I believed him to be a great president who had embraced and created hope for black people that had not been felt in modern times. A feeling of loss and shock hung over everything in those months of 1963 and early ’64.”
Until Dallas, the 1960s had been in many ways a continuation of the bland and orderly ’50s. Kennedy’s murder, however, was the gateway to that part of the ’60s that history remembers best — a divisive period of war, riots, psychedelia, and more assassinations. By the end of the decade, the turmoil had many Americans fearing that the country would implode. “To me,” says Nadine Scodellaro, “the assassination changed everything. How could something like that happen here? I adored Jackie and the kids and JFK. They were all so youthful. It had been a time of such hope, at least to an 11-year-old. And I couldn’t stomach having a geezer like LBJ as president after JFK.”
Lyndon Johnson had the presidential limousine painted black; he felt the public too closely associated its original midnight-blue color with the assassination. The Lincoln was retired in 1977 and donated to The Henry Ford in Dearborn, where its presence continues to inspire strong emotional responses among museum visitors of a certain age.
“I’m a romantic,” Vanda Skuras says. “The entire Camelot image was so perfect. … President Kennedy’s death kind of freezes him in time. We never had to see him grow old, or maybe go through a divorce, or watch him have to deal with all of the stories that came out afterwards. In our minds, he’ll always be this young and vigorous figure.”
Jack Ruby’s Detroit Connection
Soon after Jack Ruby fatally shot Lee Harvey Oswald, Detroiters learned of a local connection. Earl Ruby was a 48-year-old Birmingham resident who owned Cobo Cleaners on Livernois, near the University of Detroit Mercy. He was the youngest of eight children of Joseph and Fannie Rubenstein, all of whom experienced an unstable upbringing in Chicago. Elegant, soft-spoken, and successful, Earl was a sharp contrast to his older brother, a hot-headed blabbermouth who never repaid the thousands of dollars he had borrowed over the years. Nonetheless, when Oswald’s slayer went on trial, Earl was his staunchest supporter.
Why did Jack Ruby shoot Oswald? Earl always maintained his brother was not “mobbed up” or part of some grand conspiracy; he had simply used his connections to roam freely around the Dallas police station the weekend of JFK’s murder. Earl believed that Jack, an ultra-patriotic type who had served honorably during World War II, was genuinely distraught and had acted impulsively when the opportunity arose. In 1979, Earl testified before a congressional subcommittee that Jack had told him that “when Oswald walked out of that doorway he had a silly smirk on his face, as though … he really felt good about it, and that is when Jack lost control of himself and shot him.”
In March 1964, Jack Ruby was convicted of murder by a Dallas jury and sentenced to the electric chair. The verdict was overturned when the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the defendant’s request for a change of venue should have been granted. He was awaiting a new trial when he died of cancer on Jan. 3, 1967. An autopsy revealed 15 brain tumors, lending some substance to the defense’s claim that Ruby, whose mother had spent a dozen years in a mental institution, was suffering from “episodic insanity” when he shot Oswald.
Following Ruby’s death, there was a protracted legal battle over ownership of the murder weapon, a .38-caliber Colt Cobra, until a probate court finally ruled in Earl’s favor. Earl sold the revolver at a 1991 auction for $220,000, most of which went to settling his brother’s attorney fees and back taxes. On Nov. 24, 1993, the 30th anniversary of Oswald’s shooting, the gun’s new owner had Earl fire 100 rounds from it into a steel barrel painted ruby red; the bullets and casings were then sold to memorabilia collectors. Earl Ruby died in Florida in 2006, having contemplated the serendipitous nature of his brother’s infamous act. “If Jack had been 30 seconds later,” he said, “he would have missed Oswald.” —Richard Bak