Madison in the Sixties, the third week of November, 1963.
Wednesday, Nov. 20
President John F. Kennedy begins his last full day in the White House with a Western Union telegram to UW President Fred Harvey Harrington, congratulating Dr. Harry Waisman and his colleagues at the UW Orthopedic Children’s Hospital on that afternoon’s dedication of the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Memorial Laboratories, funded in part by a quarter-million-dollar grant from the Kennedy Foundation. In a six-hour visit that afternoon, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and brother-in-law R. Sergeant Shriver tour the laboratories, attend a scientific symposium and hold a dedicatory luncheon at the Memorial Union.
Friday, November 22
In downtown Dallas, two Madison men see President Kennedy in his last few minutes alive.
Lt. Bruce Koepcke, 22, UW 1963, waiting for his train home to Nakoma from Oklahoma watches the motorcade pass fifteen feet from him, a few hundred yards from Dealey Plaza. At 12:29 he hears three pops which he thinks are firecrackers. Then he starts walking to the train station, and encounters groups of frantic, confused people. George E. Holmes, vice president of Holmes Tire and Supply, is concluding a week of local meetings; he watches from a nearby storefront. When his meeting breaks for lunch, he eats at a restaurant near Parkland hospital, where Kennedy dies. He heads for the airport to return to Madison, but all the flights are cancelled.
David Maraniss ,14, is in his ninth-grade homeroom at West Junior High School when principal Homer Winger makes the announcement. Maraniss is stunned at how many of his classmates call Kennedy a commie who got what he deserved.
Things are different at Franklin School on Lakeside Street. When they wheel a big TV set into Twelve-year-old Mona Adams 7th grade classroom, everyone is crying, even the boys.
UW Prof. Gunnar Johansen is also crying as he ends his chamber music class to play Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with violinist Rudolf Kolisch,.
At 2:00 p.m., the UW football team leaves Madison by chartered plane for Minneapolis and its rivalry game with the University of Minnesota. UW President Harrington wants the game postponed or canceled, but Minnesota regents say it should be played “because of President Kennedy’s deep interest in physical fitness and athletics.” By the time the team lands, the Minnesota president has agreed with Harrington, and the game is set for Thanksgiving morning.
In the Capitol rotunda, 24yo Owen Reierson, 24 –out on bail from his Sept. 23 disorderly conduct arrest for disrupting a civil rights demonstration after the bombing deaths of four black girls in a Birmingham Sunday School – is loudly celebrating the assassination as “a miracle for the white race.” Wearing a swastika armband and giving the Nazi salute, Reierson tries to distribute racist and anti-Semitic literature before he’s again arrested for disorderly conduct.
By evening, a hard rain is falling.
It’s cloudy and damp at Madison mourns on Monday the 25th, the day of the president’s funeral, with religious and memorial services from morning to night.
At 8:00 a.m., a flag-draped catafalque stands before the altar of St. Raphael’s Cathedral as more than 800 pack the pews and aisles for a Pontifical Requiem Low Mass, the same service scheduled for St. Matthews Cathedral in Washington.
Except for local banks and financial institutions, almost every store and business is closed, at least until early afternoon. The Gisholt Machine plant is open, but non-supervisory workers can take the day off; Oscar Mayer workers observe a moment of silence at 11 a.m. Even the bars of the Dane County Tavern League shut down from 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
Even the bad guys take a break. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., during the funeral and burial, there are only six police calls; 50 is the norm for that period. Police and firemen later learn they are excluded from Mayor Henry Reynold’s executive order granting compensatory time off for the few city employees required to work.
Seeking solace for one martyr in the shadow of another, a silent crowd of 10,000 ascends Bascom Hill at 2:34 p.m., for the state’s official service at Lincoln Terrace. Carillon bells ring, somber and slow, till muffled drums herald the military ROTC units; The University Choir sings hymns, and Ray Dvorak leads the University Marching Band in the “Star Spangled Banner
An honor guard stands as UW President Harrington and Regents President Jacob Friedrick, representing Gov. John Reynolds, mourn what was lost. As many of his fellow students weep openly, Wisconsin Student Association President William J. Campbell calls on them to “take at least one stride toward becoming a profile in courage” in support of civil rights and the poor.
Then The benediction, “Taps,” and the drums beat retreat. The crowd quietly melts away – just in time for the 5 p.m. re-openings of the four downtown movie theaters.
Although city offices are closed all day, public hearings have been noticed, so the Plan Commission meets that evening. Ignoring strong objection from neighbors and area Ald. George Elder, the panel approves a 26-unit apartment building at 1033 Spaight St.
At 8 p.m., more than 1,500 overflow the First Congregational Church on Breese Terrace for a multi-denominational service convened by the Madison Area Council of Churches. “Something is wrong in our land,” Rev. Alfred Swan declares. “We rely too much on violence, too many weapons are flashed before the eyes of the young.” Protestant and Jewish clergy read Scripture and leading prayers, and many in the crowd cry as they sing “America the Beautiful.”
Tuesday Nov. 26
Dane County Judge William L. Buenzli tells Reierson he “may be deranged,” and orders him to the Central State Hospital at Waupon for a 60-day mental examination. Reierson says he’s entitled to his “political beliefs,” and that the Rotunda crowd should be charged for threatening him. Attorney Wayne Martin quits representing Reierson because “he is now personally repulsive to me.” And Wisconsin officials now discover Reierson is on parole from a robbery conviction in California.
Most campus activities are still cancelled or postponed, but some groups do meet, including the Philosophy, Chess and Hoofer’s Clubs, and the Associated Women Students Coed’s Congress. The Young Socialist Alliance presents a speech by national chairman Dick Roberts and a discussion of “the United States war machine under the administration of President Kennedy.”
February 18, 1964
Wisconsin authorities extradite Owen Reierson to California, where he resumes serving his sentence at San Quentin for second-degree robbery. Reierson dies in Washington, D.C, in 1986 at age 46 — the same age President Kennedy was the third week of November, 1963.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the Sixties. For your award-winning, vaccine-taking, mask-wearing, listener supported WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
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PHOTO BY DAVID SANDELL