Bonnie Sullivan Finley, Class of ’66, was “half-listening” to her geometry teacher, Mrs. Hughes, in Room B7 of Del Norte High School on a late Friday morning. Mostly she was thinking about a formal dance she would attend Saturday night.
The Crescent City American front page on Nov. 26, 1963. Courtesy of the Del Norte Historical Society
Her plans changed in a flash. It was Nov. 22, 1963, and she was going to spend the weekend with the rest of America, in front of a black and white television set.
“Suddenly I became aware of the quiet in the room and looked up to see a visibly shaken teacher trying to maintain her composure,” said Finley. “As she tried to make an announcement, tears were streaming down her face. She was finally able to share with us the message, ‘President Kennedy has been shot.’ A stunned silence prevailed in the room. I recall asking myself, ‘How could this happen? He’s the president of the United States.’”
Bob Cochran, Class of ’64, was also in a classroom when a student monitor walked in with news of the shooting. A radio was turned on, and the announcement of Kennedy’s death followed.
Cochran was soon driving home in his Chevy van for his own weekend of TV watching — which wasn’t as easy as it sounds on the remote North Coast.
“In Crescent City we had channels 6 and 3 out of Eureka by antenna,” said Cochran. His family toggled between Walter Cronkite on CBS and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC, finding whichever network was coming in most clearly at a given moment.
Other than that, the Del Norte experience a half-century ago mirrored the rest of the nation as TV news took a grip on our collective consciousness that it is only now starting to release in the Internet age. There was word of an arrest in Dallas, footage of a casket and a widow returning to Washington, D.C., the on-camera murder of the suspect, and finally, on Monday’s national day of mourning, the president’s grim funeral procession and service.
Newspapers were relegated to a secondary role, especially Del Norte’s two weeklies. The Crescent City American didn’t publish until the following Tuesday, and the Triplicate not until Thursday. Neither paper offered national news from the wire services, and the coverage of the monumental event was sparse even in terms of local reaction.
“DEL NORTE JOINS IN NAT’L MOURNING,” blared the American’s banner headline, but the article beneath it was labeled “an editorial” and mostly speculated about the motive of Lee Harvey Oswald.
The Triplicate, in the unenviable position of publishing six days after the assassination, featured a front-page photo of a packed sanctuary at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church during a high requiem Mass. Floating above the pews was a pasted-in photo of America’s first Catholic president, creating almost the effect of a comic-strip word balloon.
While there were also articles about Congressman Don Clausen describing the “dazed” atmosphere in D.C. and state Sen. Randolph Collier lamenting the “dastardly event,” a caption beneath the photo served as the newspaper’s full coverage of how the tragedy had played out locally. It noted that the region had come to “a virtual standstill” for several days and that “services for Mr. Kennedy were held all over Del Norte.”
In a nod to Kennedy’s youthfulness and New England accent, the caption said Del Norters would never forget “the great President some affectionately liked to say led this country with ‘vigah.’”
Its conclusion was one more reminder that local residents lived through the experience like typical Americans:
“Del Norters this week still appeared, along with the rest of the country, bewildered, numbed by what they could not bring themselves to believe.”