Local News

Saturday, Nov 16 2013 09:00 PM

JFK 50 YEARS LATER: Californian archives capture Kern County's grief

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    The Californian's front page on Nov. 22, 1963.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    The Californian's front page on Nov. 23, 1963.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    More Californian coverage of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, this from Nov. 23, 1963.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    The Californian's local coverage of events surrounding President John F. Kennedy's assassination.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Continuing Californian coverage of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, this from Nov. 25, 1963.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

"Someone shot the president!"

These and similar words were on the lips of millions of Americans on the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, when the news flashed across the airwaves that President John F. Kennedy had been fatally wounded by gunfire in Dallas.

The 50-year-old archives of The Bakersfield Californian make it clear that Kern County residents reacted much like other Americans -- with expressions of confusion, disbelief, anger and sorrow.

"The entire Bakersfield community is as shocked as any community in America," then-Mayor Gene Winer told reporters. "Certainly we all feel deeply for the president's immediate family."

Soon after the news broke, many local Catholics converged on their parish churches to pray for the nation's first Catholic president and his family -- and for a nation in crisis. The same afternoon, students at St. Francis School took part in a Rosary service at the Pine Street campus.

This reporter, a young third-grader at St. Francis that year, was among them.

State Sen. Walter Stiern, whose district included Kern County, called the murder of the president "the Dallas outrage," a tragedy that "took a brilliant, outstanding American at the peak of his career."

Businesses in parts of downtown Bakersfield came to a halt as waitresses, salesmen, store clerks and customers stood rooted to the spot, listening as radio reports continued to stream in. Many had tears falling from their eyes as the worst was confirmed: The president was dead.

In Lamont, Faye Gribble, superintendent of the local school district, said children and teachers reacted with shock at the news. Flags were lowered to half-staff, and even kindergarten children, she said, seemed to grasp the terrible significance of the news, though they could not fully comprehend it.

Sharp political differences seemed to lose their relevance.

The Rev. Ralph Bolick, executive secretary of the Greater Bakersfield Council of Churches, called Kennedy's assassination "a tragedy beyond words.

"While I have not always shared some of his political views," Bolick told The Californian, "I have had great admiration for his statesmanship and his willingness to risk his political and physical life in his fight for the rights of all mankind."

Bakersfield resident Dan Bennage said political differences must be settled by the ballot box, not at the end of a gun.

The assassination of the 35th president of the United States was certainly one of the most important national events since Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor 22 years before.

But Shauna Niederhauser, who lived on Primera Vista Drive in east Bakersfield, viewed it in more immediate and personal terms.

"It's the saddest thing I have ever heard," she said.

Some locals called for retribution against those responsible.

Their words were strangely prescient as two days after the shooting, accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was shot and killed by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby while Oswald was being escorted to a car for transfer to the Dallas County Jail.

In the immediate aftermath of Kennedy's violent death -- an assassination that tragically echoed the murder of another American president nearly a century earlier -- Arvin High School Principal Edwin DeMello suggested Americans turn the lens inward, to examine the society we have created and the content of our own hearts.

"Certainly we are not as civilized as we often claim to be," DeMello said, "when this sort of thing can happen in our midst."

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