We remember: 50 years ago today

Marie Havenga • Jul 21, 2015 at 1:31 PM

Some walked downtown sidewalks in shirt sleeves, soaking up unseasonable 61-degree air that was forecast to drop to near freezing the following day.

Diners slurped the daily $1.10 lunch smorgasbord at Denton's in Ferrysburg. Others scarfed down a 50-cent turkey dinner at McLellan's on Third and Washington. Pfaff's Pharmacy clerks bagged candlesticks for customers during a half-price sale.

Porenta's on Third Street displayed a $529 color television with cabinet. Down the street at Thieleman Auto, a 1961 Studebaker sale priced at $995 caught a few glances from passers-by.

Grand Haven officials were holed up in City Hall, pouring through details of a new master plan that set to chart a zoning course far into the future – the 1980s.

By all accounts, it was a normal Tri-Cities afternoon. Lake Michigan waves lapped at the shore, and reporters and editors at the Grand Haven Daily Tribune prepped the paper with a front-page story about President John F. Kennedy's visit to Texas.

Students at Grand Haven Junior High filed into the gymnasium for an art awards assembly. High school boys watched the clock, anxiously awaiting taking their best girl to the Jerry Lewis double feature at the Grand Theater that evening.

Then, without warning, 1,100 miles away, shots rang out. The president had been struck while riding in his limousine through downtown Dallas.

Walter Cronkite and radio stations blared the blinding news.

And this town reacted.

Stunned reporters at the Daily Tribune stared in disbelief, according to a newspaper account. They quickly killed the front page in progress and waited anxiously by The Associated Press teletype machine for updates.

An hour later, the president's death was confirmed and the presses rolled.

Over at Grand Haven High School, staff broadcast the shattering news across the public address system. Memorial services ensued in the classrooms.

“You could hear a pin drop,” said one teacher.

When the news hit St. Mary's Catholic School in Spring Lake, children, nuns and teachers dropped to their knees and prayed. Teachers at St. Patrick's School in Grand Haven marched their students to the church, where they all joined in saying the rosary for the now-fallen Catholic president.

The Grand Haven Junior High seventh-graders, by this time in the thick of their art awards presentation, thought a teacher was pulling their leg when they heard the news.

Al Burgess, a known jokester, delivered the message. The students waited silently for the punch line. It never came. Students and teachers abruptly left the room, sobbing.

Grand Haven Mayor Bill Creason closed City Hall, and some stores and offices also closed to honor the memory of President Kennedy.

“I think it was the only legitimate thing to do, being the sitting mayor,” Creason said this week. “I think there was a very high patriotic spirit around here. People were very upset. I was very upset.”

Telephone lines jammed as Tri-Cities residents anxiously waited for a dial tone, many of them on party lines. They wanted to talk, they wanted to try to make sense of a moment in time that simply didn't.

The sun set on Grand Haven at 5:20 that afternoon, leaving it a much different place than when it rose that morning.

“I think everyone was devastated,” recalled Mary Creason, the mayor's wife. “This kind of thing just didn't happen anymore. But it did.”

Residents huddled around radios and television stations as the non-stop news unfolded. They heard the horrifying details of a murdered leader and, two days later, his murderer killed. It was a blood bath that some believe altered the course of American history.

Daily Tribune editor A.W. McCall seemed to sum up the sentiments of a city, and a nation, in shock:

“History, like a torrential river, overruns its banks and strikes where least expected – thus was President John F. Kennedy swept from the American scene,” McCall wrote in the Grand Haven newspaper's Nov. 23, 1963, edition. “The stark reality of this tragedy became personal. It reverberated in our senses, sending out endless ripples of frustration and concern.

“In the matter of a few tense moments,” McCall continued, “the entire course of American history was changed.”

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