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Changed forever: 40 years later, Kennedy assassination still stirs memories

By Tamara Boatwright

Beverly Wittler was like most young mothers that day 40 years ago. There were babies to feed, houses to clean and soap operas to help the task of ironing seem less of a chore. Her twin boys were only a month old. She had her hands full.

"I had just gotten them to bed; set up my ironing board, plugged in my big clunky GE iron and started watching As the World Turns. Dr. Bob Hughes had barely begun his conversation when the news anchor broke in with a frightening announcement ... Kennedy had been shot," she recalls.

Wittler stayed glued to details as they flashed across the black and white television screen, her ironing forgotten for the moment.

"I saw a white truck pull up outside. The R.E.A. man had come to check our meter. He was the first person I told and his jaw fell in disbelief as he got back in his truck and called the office on his CB radio. My day went on, bottles, diapers, supper to fix, but the big world outside had changed forever."

The trauma of that day prompted the cancellation of many scheduled events. But 7,000 people turned out to see the North Clayton Eagles play College Park for the Region 2-AA South championship. North Clayton won 13-7. A team member, Millard Brannen then 17, recalls that the game was "a very solemn occasion."

"There was talk about canceling all the games that night," he said. "But we went on. I think Kennedy would have wanted it that way. We needed to carry on with life."

Brannen said it took several years for him to appreciate the significance of what happened that day.

"I ended up teaching American History and that was always part of the course," he said. "I ended up wondering many times what would have happened in the world had he lived."

Brannen's coach, Max Dowis, who now lives in south Georgia, said the gravity of what happened that day didn't really sink in until that Saturday.

"The team was nearly into their pre-game meal when we got the news," Dowis said. "In those days they ate about 4 and the game started about 8 o'clock. There was some talk among the administration about canceling I'm sure but the team was mentally competent to play."

He agrees with Brannen about carrying on.

"It was shocking, what happened, but we needed to do what we needed to do," he said. "The kids were really good that night. I think it might have been good for them."

Nov. 22, 1963 was Deborah Pennino's 10th birthday.

"I was sitting in Mrs. Kemp's class at Lee Street Elementary School in Jonesboro. We were having our music class when someone knocked on the door and told Mrs. Kemp about President Kennedy," Pennino recalls. "She immediately began to cry. She became almost hysterical. The whole class became upset because we didn't know what to think. If memory serves me, she left the room and another teacher came into the classroom and explained to us what had happened."

Pennino recalls getting on the bus that afternoon and hearing the older students talking about going to war with Cuba because President Kennedy was killed.

"I was so scared that I started crying," she said. "Our bus driver, Mr. Ed Wynn, was an angel from heaven. Not only was he my bus driver but he was my friend. I trusted him with all of my heart. He picked me up and told me that everything was going to be all right. I believed him."

That evening Pennino went through the motions of celebrating a birthday – cake, presents and a special dinner – with her family.

"It just wasn't the same," she recalls. "Everyone was so sad. I felt sorry for Mrs. Kennedy, Caroline and John Jr. I even felt sorry for Oswald's wife, Marina. For the next 40 years I would experience this same feeling on my birthday."

Life was different around here 40 years ago. The idea of an interstate highway was being kicked around. U.S. 19/41, or the South Expressway as it was known back then, was still the preferred route to Florida. There were places like the Thunderbird Drive In on Jonesboro Road and local movie house like the McDonough Theater. The Thunderbird was featuring "Rampage" staring Robert Mitchum that week while Robert Preston was staring in "Island of Love" at the McDonough Theater.

An all brick, three bedroom house with a carport and patio on a "dead-end circle near the South Expressway" could be had for $500 down and easy payments of $97 per month. In Henry County, 142 acres of land advertised as being four miles from the South Expressway and three miles from the "proposed I-75 Interstate" with a five room house, barn, two chicken houses, fenced with three streams and a lake site was available for $330 an acre and "terms."

Mullet that you could actually see being smoked was available at Bunky's Drive In on the South Expressway "near the turnoff to Jonesboro."

The weather here was clearing and turning cooler but for Jim Lester, then a 4-year-old in Fort Smith Arkansas, it was a perfect day to play on the swing set.

"After oatmeal and the usual viewing of Captain Kangaroo, I changed out of my pajamas and for some reason put on my faded blue swimsuit, a white T-shirt and blue Keds sneakers," he recalls. "I spent the morning doing the usual kid stuff in the backyard like playing on the swing set and pulling flowers to try to decorate my dog Brownie."

Lester, now a teacher at Mt. Zion High School, recalls enjoying a red popsicle later in the afternoon and then seeing his mother sitting on the steps of the back stoop.

"Her head was down, and her hands were covering her face," he remembers. "I jumped out of the swing and walked toward her. As I approached I could tell that she was crying, weeping bitterly in long, deep sobs."

As with most children a mother's tears were disturbing and he tried to offer all the comfort a 4 year-old could muster.

"She finally lifted her head a bit, reached out to put her hand around my waist and hugged me tighter than I had ever been embraced before or since," he said. "Her words were marked by sadness, ?No, my dear. No, it will never be the same.'"

For Jonesboro attorney Don Foster, the events of that day literally changed his life.

Foster had attended one year at the University of Georgia and didn't have the money to continue his education that fall. He decided to follow his two older brothers into the service and on that fateful day he was at the 12th Corp on Ponce De Leon, where Atlanta City Hall East is today.

"I had been signing some papers and reviewing things with a recruiting officer when I was told to go out into the central waiting area and wait," he remembers. "While sitting there watching TV, the announcement came on regarding the fact that the President had been shot."

Foster said this sent the facility into turmoil and he was told to come back that Sunday evening and he would be administered his oath, put on a bus and sent to basic training.

He never went back.

"Obviously, I had not signed one thing too many as they never came to get me," he said.

That weekend he was with a friend who had recently transferred to West Georgia College in Carrollton. He graduated and later served in the United States Navy, worked for an aluminum company, ran a lumber yard and later graduated Emory University Law School.

"What would have happened and where would I be if the events of Nov. 22, 1963 hadn't transpired as they did? Only the good Lord knows."