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Elkhart residents share stories, talk about how Kennedy assassination affected them

Elkhart locals talked about how president John F. Kennedy's assassination affected them.
Posted on Nov. 21, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.

ELKHART — Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, is one of the most iconic dates in American history. But for many, it was more than just history.

“For us it was a tragedy,” Elkhart resident Paul Thomas said. “For (younger generations) it's just another president's assassination.”

Thomas, the city's historian who has been an Elkhart resident for 90 years, said news didn't travel as fast as it does now. Live coverage was attainable only through television and radio. And some people didn't have television back in 1963.

Few people saw images of the scene and the media instantly, and some didn't find out about the president's death until much later.

Thomas said the president's assassination shook the community the same way it shook the country. People mourned Kennedy's death regardless of their political opinion or religious affiliation.

“It affected them spiritually, and morally. It didn't take their jobs; it didn't shake the economy,” he said.

Thomas said he was 30 years old when he heard news about the president being shot. He was working at a shoe store he owned at the time, Paul Thomas Shoes.

“We didn't have televisions at the store so we heard it on the radio. We were rather shocked,” he said.

JAMES CATALANO

It was also a Friday 50 years ago, when James Catalano had one of the most frightful, tragic and defining days of his life.

Catalano was 10 years old when President John F. Kennedy was killed. He was at school giving a presentation about his recent visit to Washington D.C. when the principal came into the classroom.

The teacher, in tears, and the principal, choked up, told the students to go home immediately.

Catalano said he remembers running home and seeing people along the side of the road crying. Some drivers had pulled over, half off the road, listening to the radio.

For Catalano it wasn't difficult to connect the apocalyptic sight with events that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis from just the year before.

“We didn't know what was going on when we were told to run home,” Catalano said. “And so we are thinking, 'Oh my God, are we going to be incinerated with a nuclear bomb?'”

Catalano ran into his house, where he saw, almost immediately after his arrival, Walter Cronkite taking his glasses off and saying the president was dead.

“And that was the first death I had ever experienced,” Catalano said. “No one in my family had died. When you are 10 that's not that uncommon. So this was like a family member dying.”

Catalano grew up in Meadville, Pa. He has lived in Elkhart County for more than 30 years and works at Conn-Selmer Inc.

In October 1963, Catalano visited Washington D.C. because his mother, who was active in an organization that supported programs for children with mental disabilities, had been invited to a gathering.

Catalano visited the city around the time Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act, the last piece of legislation the president signed, according to The Associated Press.

“And, we're talking about a fleeting second here, where all of a sudden there was a flurry of people, and there was the president of the United States, just maybe 20 feet away from us, just walking through the crowd,” Catalano said.

The president walked swiftly to the limousine and left in an instant. But that fleeting second was enough to leave an impression on a 10-year-old child who already felt a strong connection with the first family.

Catalano's father was a Navy veteran from World War II, and his family was Italian Catholic. Like Kennedy, Catalano had a sibling who had a mental disability.

That may be why Catalano's family was so devastated when they learned the president died.

Thanksgiving and Christmas that year were somber for the Catalano family.

“I was thoroughly sad and depressed, because we lost our president,” Catalano said. “He was the hope for our future. He was young and vibrant. And he had a daughter who was close to my age and so we connected with these people in such tremendous ways.”

For Catalano, the news was so negative and heart-wrenching the following months. That was until Feb. 9, 1964.

That was the day the Beatles were introduced at the Ed Sullivan Show.

“It almost made you forget your misery,” Catalano said. “And I was sort of like, 'That's what I want to do!' And my parents looked at me like, 'What are you talking about? You can't do that.' And my story is that I did!”

Catalano became a musician and eventually got a full-ride scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, where he became an assistant to the band director.

After working as a band director at Jimtown High School, Catalano got was hired at Conn-Selmer Inc., a company that was known as Selmer at the time and that eventually bought Ludwig Drums.

Making good use of his musical education background, Catalano gets music dealers interested in the product and advertises it in ways that get consumers interested in playing instruments from that brand. A way of getting consumers interested is through celebrity association.

“(I've worked) for the last 31 years as a marketing person for the Ludwig Drum company, which were the very drums Ringo played in 1964, and still plays,” Catalano said.

And yes, Catalano has met Ringo Starr.

JOHN ALBRECHT

John Albrecht keeps newspapers chronicling President Richard Nixon's resignation in his drawers. In his kitchen, he keeps a collection of ceramic gnomes, and in his living room he displays NASCAR models from over the years.

“I'm not a hoarder, but I'm a pack rat,” he smiles in his kitchen.

Albrecht has also collected memorabilia of Kennedy, items that came out when he ran for president, like buttons and glassware, newspapers published the day after his assassination, and books and magazines published as tributes afterward.

Albrecht wasn't very involved in politics when he was in high school. But he did see Kennedy during the president's campaign.

Albrecht attended a fundraiser for Kennedy's presidential campaign in Harrisburg, Pa., and though he did not personally meet Kennedy, he can say they shared the same room that night.

A few years later, he was working at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles when the news started coming through the radio.

While many employees gathered round the radio in a room where the BMV kept file cabinets, Albrecht ran to his car to listen to his radio.

“It was a sad day,” he said. “A lot of people didn't like Kennedy, a lot of them condemned him for his ways.”

But he was the president, Albrecht said, and his death had an effect on many in many ways.

“It affected a lot of people in different ways. I mean, he put a man on the moon.”


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