Local figures recall Kennedy election, assassination

PARKERSBURG – The son of a local attorney remembered his father’s lead role in West Virginia to elect John F. Kennedy president.

William H. Richardson was the campaign chairman in Wood County and shared his recollection of the campaign in an oral history interview with the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

His son, Bill Richardson, also an attorney, said he was in grade school when his father was part of the campaign. He said his memories included meeting the then-senator from Massachusetts and how the news of his assassination affected him.

William H. Richardson was the chairman of the Kennedy for President Campaign in Wood County and first met Kennedy in Parkersburg in 1958 for lunch at the Chancellor Hotel. Kennedy was participating in a downtown parade.

“I went over to meet Mr. Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy, and I said, ‘Mr. Kennedy, we’re late, but I would suggest we wait for the Big Red Band because everybody likes it here in Parkersburg.’ He said, ‘Don’t start this parade until the Big Red Band comes,'” the elder Richardson was quoted in an Oral History Interview from the John K. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in July 1964. “The next time that I recall meeting him face to face was in Parkersburg at the Elks Club at the start of the West Virginia campaign.”

Richardson said after he was appointed to head the campaign in the county there were people who called him to tell him to get out of the campaign. He said they threatened to hurt his law practice if he didn’t resign.

“Several prominent people called me on the telephone and told me to get out of this campaign; that they would see I wouldn’t get any law business and would do everything they could to hurt my law business,” he said in the interview. “At first it scared me for two or three days – or bothered me. Then this made me extremely angry due to the fact that I’ve lived in Parkersburg all my life and knew everybody, and people knew me. I really got down and did everything I could to help Kennedy after that initial difficulty.”

Richardson said the assassination affected him profoundly.

“When he was killed, murdered … I sat by the TV – my wife and I – and I cried for three days over that thing,” he said. “I was 40 years of age when that happened, and I never had anything strike me as hard as that did. My mother died about a year before that, and this really got me.

“I thought it was a waste of time, talent and I felt so sorry for the United States and Mrs. Kennedy – the whole country. I just didn’t think it could happen here. I really didn’t.”

Richardson said he thought the United States was past that sort of violence.

“I thought we were beyond that, but I’m not sure now,” he said. “This has been a great shock, an emotional experience I’ll never forget.”

Richardson said he enjoyed working with Kennedy and lost a dear friend with the president’s death.

“It was a great loss to me personally,” he said. “You just feel when you meet somebody like that and get to know him … In other words, this was the first time I ever felt that I ever knew the President of the United States personally.

“It’s an unusual feeling. I’m sure other people did, and that’s the one thing I can say, I enjoyed it.”

One event his son recalls is an ox roast at City Park.

“I remember being at the ox roast, I don’t think I had ever heard of an ox roast,” he said. “I don’t recall it was in the fall or summer, I don’t remember it being real warm or hot. It must have been in the fall or spring.”

Richardson’s office has several photos showing Kennedy and his West Virginia campaign officials in the park’s band shell, Kennedy addressing a crowd at Parkersburg High School and a reception at the Parkersburg Woman’s Club when it was on Eighth Street.

On the day Kennedy was assassinated, the younger Richardson said he was a sixth-grade student at Park Elementary School.

“They announced in the classrooms that the president has been shot,” he said. “After a few minutes, they sent everybody home. That weekend was a bizarre weekend.

“It started out with the president being shot and, of course, they captured Oswald pretty quick and there was talk of trying him.”

Richardson said he recalls what happened two days later.

“I was watching Sunday morning on TV when Oswald was escorted from the police department,” he said. “The images back then were grainy, it was early TV, but what they show today was what happened. They were walking down that hallway and it was full of people.”

At that point the nation saw Dallas businessman Jack Ruby shoot Oswald.

“To me it seemed like he fired more than once, but they were on him right away,” he said. “The fact is the president was shot and the guy accused of shooting him was assassinated less than 48 hours later. You watch images of that now and I’ve heard people say it was the end of innocence. Because it was such a bizarre weekend you kind of feel that way.”

Richardson said it was striking the person who was accused of killing the president was not shielded from revenge in police headquarters.

Richardson said he has no memories of Thanksgiving that year.

“I just remember when Lee Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby I was wondering what is going on,” he said. “In the news back then it wasn’t like it was today, you didn’t hear of killings every day, but here’s two people knocked off in a weekend. To me that was like nobody else died; I know that wasn’t right but that’s what is ingrained in my mind, those two people were killed that weekend.

“It was so different from anything in my life up to that time.”

Some other people in the area recalled where they were when Kennedy was shot and shared their thoughts as the event unfolded.

Parkersburg Mayor Bob Newell said he was a fifth-grade student at St. Margaret Mary School when the principal, Sister Catherina, announced the news to the students and dismissed school.

“It was a big deal in a Catholic school since he (Kennedy) was the first to run and make it,” he said. “That had a profound effect in the Catholic community. I remember it well.”

Newell said the time before Kennedy’s election was much different from the times that followed.

“After that we started hearing about Civil Rights and protests. There was a lot of turmoil in those years,” he said.

Jean Grapes, a Wood County realtor, former county commissioner and chairwoman of the Wood County Democratic Executive Committee, said she had just started her business.

“I was in the Lubeck area to look at a friend’s house to sell,” Grapes said. “She had the radio on, we heard it, we both just went kind of numb.”

Grapes said she went home and started watching the television coverage.

“I was watching and listening, I was glued to the TV for three days. It was shocking. I never had anything affect my life like that,” she said. “I had the TV on when Oswald was killed. That had very little effect on me since I assumed he was guilty and I never questioned that. It wasn’t the same as the shock when Kennedy gone, it just did not register.”

Wood County Magistrate Joyce Purkey was living in Philippi, W.Va., then. She and her husband had moved back to the state after living in Washington, D.C., for a little more than a year.

“My son was three weeks old and I was sitting in the living room and feeding him a bottle when my husband came through the room and the TV was on and he said something has happened and then it was announced the president had been shot at that time,” she said. “We watched it all day and for the next three days.”

Like many others, Purkey said she saw Jack Ruby shoot Oswald on live television.

“It made me more upset,” she said. “We knew he would go to court and find out more answers but that just took all of that away. Kennedy had a vision for our country and we were looking forward to see what he would do and now it was all gone.

“As a young mother I was thinking of Mrs. Kennedy losing her husband at a young age.”

Williamstown Mayor Jean Ford said she was at a beauty shop when she first heard the news.

“When I got home it was on TV and also when Oswald was shot,” she said. “I remember what a terrible day it was like none other, it was shocking this could happen.”