Madison in the sixties – death of a president.
Wednesday, November 20, 1963.
President John F. Kennedy begins his last full day in the White House with a Western Union telegram to UW-Madison President Fred Harvey Harrington. Kennedy congratulates 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. The President salutes lab director Dr. Harry Waisman on his efforts to “conquer the vast field of mental retardation and its attendant problems.” President also sends his youngest brother, Senator Edward Kennedy and brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps director, to tour the lab and hold a dedicatory luncheon at the Memorial Union. It’s personal to the Kennedy’s – their eldest sister Rosemary suffered a botched lobotomy when she was 23, and has spent her life institutionalized at the St. Coletta School for Exceptional Children about an hour east in Jefferson.
It’s unseasonably warm and humid on Friday the 22nd, high of 60 and a chance for rain. Madison wakes to find the president’s political trip to Texas front-page news — large crowds, but some catcalls in Houston and San Antonio, with Dallas on tap for today.
A little before noon., about 800 festive Badger boosters board a special Milwaukee Road train bound for Minneapolis and the UW-Minnesota football game. Eleven months after their thrilling Rose Bowl loss, Milt Bruhn’s boys hope to salvage a disappointing season by at least keeping the Paul Bunyan Ax.
Then the bulletin from Dallas.
David Maraniss is in class at West Junior High School when principal Homer Winger makes the announcement. Growing up in one of the few liberal families in his neighborhood, Maraniss is taken aback by how his classmates react – shrugging the assassination off because, in their word, Kennedy was a commie anyway.
The southside neighborhood served by Franklin Elementary school is different. As classes crowd around a large TV, everyone is crying, even the boys.
Everyone is also in tears in Gunnar Johansen’s chamber music class in Music Hall as the pianist professor and violinist Rudolf Kolisch play Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata.
Ben Sidran, 20 is at work, sorting records in the basement of Discount Records. There’s a calendar on the basement bathroom door, where weeks earlier he had written “the cruelest month” on November’s page and drawn blood-red daggers on the Nov. 22. He rips the calendar up and heads for State Street..
At 2 o’clock, the UW football team lifts off for Minneapolis by chartered plane. When they land, they learn the Minnesota president has finally agreed with UW President Harrington to postpone the game, now set for next week on Thanksgiving morning. Harrington also cancels all classes and social activities, with some classes also off on Monday or Tuesday.
In the Capitol Rotunda, Owen Reierson, is causing trouble again. He is out on bail from his arrest in September for disrupting a civil rights demonstration after the bombing deaths of four Back girls in a Birmingham church, Reierson, loudly celebrates 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.
Throughout the afternoon, four campus religious centers conduct special prayer and mourning services, with three more planned for the weekend and Monday. The Rathskeller is crowded but quiet. There’s only a hushed murmur as people jam the main aisle and watch TV.
By evening, a hard rain is falling.
Madison mourns on Monday, the day of the president’s funeral, with religious and memorial services from morning to night. There’s little else to do. Except for financial institutions, almost every store and business is closed, at least until early afternoon.
At 8 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 Loraine Hotel sets up some televisions in the lobby; across the street, another set plays in the pharmacy of the Wisconsin Power and Light building. A sound system on the Capitol Square blares patriotic songs.
The Gisholt Machine plant is open, but union workers can take the day off; Oscar Mayer workers observe a moment of silence at 11 a.m. Bars belonging to the Dane County Tavern League shut down from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Even the bad guys take a break. During the five hours of funeral and burial, there are only six police calls; the norm for that period is 50.
After the burial, about 2:30, a silent crowd of 10,000 ascends Bascom Hill to seek solace for one martyr in the shadow of another, at the state’s official service at Lincoln Terrace.
Carillon bells ring, somber and slow. muffled drums herald the ROTC units. The University Choir sings hymns, the Marching Band plays the National Anthem. Harrington and other dignitaries make remarks.
Then the benediction, “Taps,” drums beating retreat. The crowd quietly melts away — just in time for the 5 p.m. reopening of the four downtown movie theaters.
At 8 that night., more than 1,500 overflow the First Congregational Church for a multi-denominational service. “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.” After Scripture and prayers, many in the crowd cry as they sing “America the Beautiful.”
Tuesday Nov. 26
Dane County Judge William L. Buenzli orders Reierson to the Central State Hospital at Waupun for a 60-day mental examination. “For you to derive pleasure and satisfaction from such a wanton act of malicious violence is evidence to this court that you may be deranged,” Buenzli says. Then Wisconsin officials discover Reierson is on parole from a robbery conviction in California.
That night. most campus activities are still canceled or postponed, but some groups do meet. The Young Socialist Alliance has a discussion of “the United States war machine under the administration of President Kennedy.”
Thanksgiving morning the. 28th, the golden Gophers gobble up the Badgers, 14-0.
Postscript Feb. 18, 1964
Wisconsin extradites Reierson to California and San Quentin Prison, where he resumes serving his sentence for second-degree robbery. He dies in Washington, D.C, in 1986, 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, President-mourning listener supported WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
President Kennedy’s memorial service, Bascom Hill, November 25. WHI IMAGE ID 136616, PHOTO BY DAVID SANDELL