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Tuesday, Nov 19 2013 06:00 AM

Tehachapi residents remember JFK

Related Photos

Joan and Dick Johnson reminisce over photos taken by Dick during John F. Kennedy's 1963 visit to Kern County. Five months later, the then president was killed in Dallas. Gregory D. Cook / Tehachapi NEws

Richard "Dick" Johnson

Joan Johnson

Then-president John F. Kennedy visits the China Lake Naval Air Station in June of 1963, 4 months before he was killed in Dallas. Photo by Dick Johnson

Pat Gracey

It was Nov. 22, 1963, when the nation received the fateful news that President John F. Kennedy had been fatally shot. Some folks were at home taking care of children, while others had gotten word while they were at work, but despite whatever mundane tasks where being carried out at the time, all remain ingrained in the memories of those whose lives were dramatically changed on that day.

Despite having his life and his presidential term ended much too early, his political career was not short of accomplishments. JFK set many precedents for succeeding leaders. He championed civil rights, took a firm stance on foreign policy, and created the Peace Corps. The country was in awe of his charisma and eloquence, which is epitomized by his famous words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

Members of the Tehachapi community who were around at the time recalled their initial reactions when they learned of the president's death.

For Tehachapi News co-publisher at the time, the news came just months after he had traveled to China Lake in the Kern County desert to see the president in person.

It was June of 1963 when Johnson received a call from a representative at the Naval Ordinance Test Station at China Lake. On June 7, President John F. Kennedy would be stopping through in a tour where he would visit a number of military stations throughout the country, and the Naval base needed more press to attend.

The Navy would be putting its military capabilities on display for the president, including three live demonstrations of its Sidewinder missile.

Johnson said he wasn't a fan of President Kennedy's politics at the time, but realized it was unique opportunity. He and other Tehachapi residents, including high schools students Sheryl Warner and Ina Rae Brooks, made the trip to China Lake for the presidential visit.

Just five months after watched Kennedy step out of Air Force One to tour the naval base, they would join the nation in shock at the president's assassination.

"I remember running across the street to the school district office and telling them what had happened, but they already knew," Dick said. "It was a terrible time. Everybody kind of just quit work and went home. We sat in front of the tube and watched things develop."

A few days later, Dick attended a memorial service at the local community church in Tehachapi.

Dick and his brother Warren, who died in January of this year, had acquired the Tehachapi News from their father, Walter, who had bought the newspaper in 1943. His wife, Joan, contributed a weekly column called "Over the Back Fence," keeping her finger on the pulse of the Tehachapi community at the time. Joan was ironing when she overheard someone on the radio announcing that the president had been shot.

"Of course it was very upsetting," she said. "In the beginning, they didn't say that he had passed. I called Dick right away."

Patricia "Sody" Gassaway has been a Tehachapi resident her entire life, and vividly recalls the moment when she received the upsetting news.

Something that remains vivid in her mind is the iconic picture of JFK's son, John Jr., saluting his deceased father.

"I remember my daughter was in kindergarten," she said. "I do not know how we knew, but it his [John-John's] birthday a few days later, so we sent him a birthday card. We got a thank you card from the White House not long after."

The school district, where she would end up working for 33 years, had just hired Gassaway.

"The first day I was to go to work was the memorial for the president," she said.

Sherryl (Warner) Humpert was a high school student and employee of the Tehachapi News when she had heard of JFK's assassination. She was in study hall when it was announced on the school's public address system.

"I remember Tehachapi was involved in play-off football at the time," she said. "There was debate whether the game would go on, but it eventually did. It was a very quiet game."

Humpert vividly recalls seeing Air Force One.

"It did not mean a whole lot to me at the time, but, in retrospect, there was not a lot of security," she said. "I remember I could have reached out and touched him."

Humpert now lives in El Cajon with her husband, Jerry, who was a counselor and coach at Tehachapi High School.

Tehachapi resident Pat Gracey, remembers feelings of disbelief and anger from that day, after receiving a call from a neighbor. Gracey was living in Oceanside with her husband, Doyle, who was stationed at Camp Pendleton. Doyle served in World War II for two years, as well as the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Watching the funeral procession, Gracy said, "I remember Jackie [Kennedy] looked mad. You could tell she was devastated."

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