How Seattle mourned President Kennedy
History, like politics, is local. So while the collective national memory of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 has been distilled to several seconds of color home movie footage of the motorcade in Dealey Plaza and Walter Cronkite choking up on CBS, a whole set of local memories is fading away.
Friday, November 22, 1963, was chilly and damp in Seattle, where the temperature had dipped to 39 degrees that morning. As elsewhere in the rest of the country, housewives (as they were unabashedly called then) were making preparations for Thanksgiving, now less than a week away. The Huskies and the Cougars were set to compete in their annual cross-state face-off, first dubbed “The Apple Cup” just one year earlier, at Husky Stadium the next day.
As the clock ticked toward 10:30 a.m. Pacific Time and JFK’s Lincoln came into sight of a sixth-floor window in the Texas School Book Depository, local deejay Mike Phillips held forth on music powerhouse KJR-AM, while dimming star Arthur Godfrey – who had first come to national attention describing FDR’s funeral procession 18 years earlier on radio – strummed his aging ukulele via CBS over on KIRO-AM. On television, it was “Movietime” on KOMO (actual movie now forgotten), the final moments of the game show “Concentration” on KING, a rerun of the old sitcom “The McCoys” on KIRO, and over on KCTS, eerily, something called “Julius Caesar, Part IV,” about another leader assassinated long before anyone had heard of Jack Kennedy.
JFK was no stranger to Seattle. He’d visited as a candidate in September 1960, giving a rousing speech at the old Civic Auditorium (since remodeled into the World’s Fair Opera House and now McCaw Hall) as Governor Albert Rosellini and Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson looked on. In spite of the state’s Democratic governor and senators, Republican candidate Richard Nixon carried Washington state that year by a few percentage points.
As president, Kennedy took part in the UW Centennial in November 1961, and was due to return to Seattle for the closing ceremonies of the World’s Fair in October 1962. He had made it as far west as Chicago on that trip, before heading back to the White House to nurse what his aides called a “bad cold” – which turned out to be more like a bad Cold War. The sneezes were a cover, so that JFK could prepare to address the nation regarding Soviet missiles in Cuba. JFK may have sneezed, but it was Khrushchev who ultimately blinked.
Less than two months before his final trip to Dallas, Kennedy returned to the Northwest for the last time. He spoke at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation east of the mountains, and gave what The Seattle Times described as a “plea for the preservation of public recreation areas in a speech before 20,000 persons, many of them wildly enthusiastic students” at Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium.
News of the shooting in Dallas spread rapidly throughout the Pacific Northwest, as first radio reports and then marathon TV coverage brought up-to-the-minute information to homes, businesses, and offices.
At City Hall, Acting Mayor Floyd C. Miller (Mayor Gordon Clinton was en route from a trade mission to Japan) ordered flags lowered to half-staff at 11:37 a.m., as soon as the president’s death was confirmed. Similar actions were taken at local schools, post offices, and other government buildings. A few blocks up the hill from City Hall at St. James Cathedral, the bells were rung for the president – the only Catholic to hold the office – as mourners gathered for an impromptu memorial.
In Olympia, Governor Rosellini immediately proclaimed a period of mourning, while State Patrol Chief Roy Betlach put his entire force on alert and assigned guards to protect the governor and his wife. “We don’t know what to expect,” Betlach told The Seattle Times.
As the afternoon wore on, more and more programs and events were canceled. The University of Washington closed two hours early at 3 p.m., while UW President Charles Odegaard postponed the Apple Cup until the following Saturday and all Homecoming activities were suspended. The Ingraham-Franklin high school football game at Memorial Stadium was postponed. KCTS canceled all programming and went dark for the evening. The annual Chief Seattle Council’s Cub Scout “Clamorama” – set to begin Friday night at Seattle Center – was postponed to midweek.
Kennedy was a decorated World War II Navy vet, and that branch of the service, well represented on Puget Sound, made elaborate tributes. On Saturday, as Kennedy lay in state in the White House, single gun salutes were fired every half hour at Pier 91 downtown, Sand Point Naval Air Station (now Magnuson Park) on Lake Washington, and at the Bremerton Navy Yard. The Army cannon near Fort Lawton’s flagpole also was fired every 30 minutes for the deceased commander-in-chief. A Seattle Youth Symphony concert went ahead as planned on Saturday night at the same Opera House where Kennedy had spoken three years earlier, with Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” dedicated to the slain president.
Like the rest of the nation, Seattleites watched Sunday’s proceedings in Washington, D.C., and Dallas – the procession of Kennedy’s casket to Congress, Oswald’s mortal wounding by Jack Ruby – on television, leaving deserted the streets and few establishments that remained open that weekend. Those who ventured out did so mostly to attend the masses and memorials held at St. James Cathedral, Seattle University, Bikur Cholim Synagogue, University Presbyterian, St. Mark’s Cathedral, Plymouth Congregational Church, and Greek Orthodox Church, among others.
On Monday, declared a National Day of Mourning by President Johnson, schools and government offices and most businesses closed for the day, as Kennedy’s procession and funeral were shown on television. One exception was Boeing, where 60,000 workers paused only during the burial at Arlington National Cemetery, but then returned to their work, deemed vital to America’s defense. A memorial service was held downtown in the Veteran’s Memorial Plaza of the old Public Safety Building, and six F-102 fighters in a cross formation flew over a ceremony at Paine Field.
As Tuesday, November 26, dawned, Seattle and the nation began the long slow process of getting back to normal. The following Saturday, the Huskies did their small part – since not only history and politics, but sports is local, too – by beating the Cougars 16-0 in Montlake to take the 1963 Apple Cup.
A slightly different version of this article originally appeared on Crosscut.com, a daily news site dedicated to Northwest political, business and cultural issues.