What Cincinnati Was Like During the Kennedy Assassination

By Steven Rosen

(Published in Cincinnati Enquirer, 11-24-13)

Kennedy Assass CincinnatiFifty years ago this past Friday – Nov. 22, 1963 – came a day that changed life as we knew it.

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated during a motorcade in Dallas, and everything that has happened since has been colored by what happened then. Our way of telling time and remembering American history can be divided into pre- and post-Kennedy’s murder. You can even divide the day, itself, into pre- and post-assassination. The shooting occurred early that Friday afternoon, at 12:30 p.m. Dallas time (Central Standard Time).

Everyone alive and old enough to be aware of what happened has a personal remembrance.

But there is also a collective memory that can be drawn from what was happening at the time. With that in mind, it’s fascinating to see what Cincinnati in particular and the nation in general were like just before that event and just afterward.

There are numerous sources available to tell that story – this article used, among other sources, reference archives at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, The Enquirer, the University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Art Museum; Cincinnati’s City Bulletin; an old WSAI-AM Top 40 countdown (courtesy of Dusty Rhodes, former disc jockey and now Hamilton County Auditor); Billboard Hot 100 charts and other sources.

The morning Enquirer’s front page on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, was dominated by news of a scandal – “Queensgate ‘Payoff’ Probed” was the across-page-one headline. The story revealed a police investigation into a salvage company giving kickbacks to city employees from its sales in the “$40 million Queensgate urban renewal project.”

Just below the headline, space had been made for a late-breaking bulletin – one youth was killed and three others injured in an early morning auto accident near Mount Lookout Square. The out-of-control car had landed upside-down in the yard of a police dispatcher.

Coverage of the presidency that day was already speculating about the November 1964 election. It assumed Kennedy would seek a second term. The editorial cartoon by L.D. Warren featured a very small Kennedy, dressed like a rodeo rider and trying to hold onto a recalcitrant horse, pleading to a nearby tall, lean and lanky Lyndon B. Johnson (his vice president): “Don’t leave me, Lyndon … I’ll need your saddle.” The saddle Johnson is holding is in the shape of his home state and is labeled “Texas’ 25 electoral votes.”

And in another story, reporter Margaret Josten asked prominent local women whether a woman could ever be elected president. It was prompted by speculation that Margaret Chase – a Republican senator from Maine – might seek that party’s 1964 presidential nomination.

One of those interviewed, Monica Nolan, had recently lost in her own run for a City Council seat. “Why don’t you ask me why a woman can’t get elected to City Council,” Nolan said, before noting the lack of women in local congressional and legislative posts.

But there was more to Cincinnati life that day than a daily paper’s political speculation and hard news. The University of Cincinnati Bearcats were preparing to host (on Saturday) the Miami University Redskins in the diamond-anniversary installment of their long-running rivalry. The Cincinnati Art Museum was preparing for that day’s opening of its newest exhibition, Religious Prints of the XV-XX Century from the Museum’s Collection.

According to Mary Wood, the Cincinnati Post’s TV writer, Sunday’s upcoming episode of Lee Marvin’s new series, “Lawbreaker,” would salute the Cincinnati Police’s efforts to locate a local man whose rare blood type was needed to save a baby in Virginia. (That series is considered a precursor to today’s reality shows.)

At the Albee Theatre, Downtown’s greatest movie palace, employees were preparing to open “Palm Springs Weekend,” about a romance between college students during spring-break weekend. One of the stars, Troy Donahue, was in town for the opening – WLW host Bob Braun was to introduce him to the crowd that night.

AM radio station WSAI, the city’s rock ’n roll powerhouse, was busy playing the 45 rpm vinyl singles from its Fabulous Forty countdown for the week ending on Nov. 22. The top song was a down-home mid-tempo ballad by a Louisiana duo – Dale & Grace’s “I’m Leaving It Up to You.” Also in the Top Ten was a local favorite, Fraternity Records’ blues-rock guitar virtuoso Lonnie Mack, with the vocal “Where There’s a Will.” (Also that day, a discount store – a novel business at the time – called Ontario was celebrating the grand opening of its Western Hills store by giving away 10,000 45 rpm records, three per customer.)

Also in the WSAI Top Ten was a song that would become very big in the weeks following the assassination as the public sought calm – the decidedly non-rock “Dominique” by the Singing Nun. And nationally, the top album the week of JFK’s death was folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary’s “In the Wind,” which contained their hit version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The trio, which embodied the polite liberalism of the Kennedy era, also had two other albums in Billboard’s Top Ten.

Since the Post was an afternoon paper, its 7 Star Final on Nov. 22 was able to print “JFK Shot by Assassin.” It managed to get a two-paragraph wire story into print.

It wasn’t until Saturday that both papers began to report event cancellations as well as reactions of shock and sorrow from local officials. Downtown stores closed until roughly after Monday’s state funeral. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra switched programming – canceling a Pops concert in favor of memorial music for the slain president. And much more.

On a side note, the Saturday Post also reported that the bubble top for Kennedy’s limousine – which had been removed – was customized by a Blue Ash firm, Hess & Eisenhardt.

One of the more controversial responses to the assassination was the decision by University of Cincinnati Athletic Director George Smith to go ahead with the Saturday game because, he said, “It would be the thing President Kennedy would have wanted” since he was a football fan. However, less than three hours before kickoff, the university moved the game to Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, due to overwhelming public protest. Coaches of both teams expressed relief to Enquirer reporter Bill Ford.

“There is little enthusiasm on our team for playing a football game,” said Miami’s coach, Bo Schembechler (who went on to greater fame at University of Michigan). The NFL, which had no Cincinnati team, infamously went forward with its Nov. 24 schedule.

Some would say the country has never fully recovered from the assassination. But people tried hard. At his Dec. 1 inaugural address to City Council, Mayor Walton Bachrach began his grief-stricken but optimistic remarks this way:

“These are difficult and trying times for all of us. Events of the last 10 days have left us with heavy hearts but also, I am hopeful, a firm purpose of rededication to the principles of government that have molded our Republic – from the municipal buildings of our cities and villages to the halls of Congress –- into the most effective governmental instrument in the world.

“Though our grief is great and our concern for the future of the Republic considerable, we must – at all levels of American government – move forward with the greatest possible speed to accomplish those ends for which government exists. We must not falter or tarry. We must go ahead.”


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