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North country politicians reflect on the assassination of JFK


New York politicians William L. Owens, Charles E. Schumer and Kenneth D. Blankenbush vividly recall where they were when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

The eldest of the three politicians, Mr. Blankenbush, a Republican Assemblyman from Black River, was a junior in high school in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

“I was sitting on the school bus. The bus driver came on and told us the president was dead. It went completely quiet. ... I just couldn’t believe something like that would happen,” Mr. Blankenbush said.

More than 150 miles away, Mr. Owens, now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, was a freshman at Chaminade High School, an all-boys Catholic prep school in Mineola. He said he was sitting behind classmate and future Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly when the principal announced that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.

“The school was stunned,” said Mr. Owens, a Democrat from Plattsburgh.

A short distance from there, in Brooklyn, Mr. Schumer, now a U.S. Senator, reacted to the news with disbelief, as did the rest of his seventh-grade classmates.

Mr. Schumer said his homeroom teacher, “Mr. Z,” stood and said that the president had been shot.

“We thought maybe he had it wrong,” said Mr. Schumer, a Democrat.

But reports heard over transistor radios in the hallway confirmed the announcement, and Mr. Schumer said he felt the bottom of his stomach drop out.

As the day wore on, shock gave way to grief and fascination.

After football practice that Friday afternoon in 1963, Mr. Owens attended church with his family and spent portions of the next few days glued to the television, watching events unfold in the days leading up to President Kennedy’s funeral in Washington, D.C.

On Nov. 24 — two days after the assassination and the day before the funeral — Dallas nightclub owner Jack L. Ruby shot and killed suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas city jail as Oswald was being led to an armored car for the trip to the county jail. The shooting was captured on live TV, and Mr. Owens said he saw it all unfold.

(Mr. Ruby was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to death. He later appealed that sentence and was granted a new trial, but on Jan. 3, 1967, he died of complications from lung cancer as the trial date was being set. He was 55.)

Also watching television that Sunday morning was future Watertown Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham, who was 8 years old.

No announcement about the president’s assassination was made at the elementary school in the Rochester suburb where Mr. Graham was a student; he didn’t find out about it until he returned home that afternoon.

Mr. Graham said he marveled at the fact that there was a TV camera in the basement where Mr. Oswald was killed and said he never believed Oswald acted alone in the assassination of Mr. Kennedy.

Other New York politicians, such as Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, and U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a Democrat, reflected on the president’s legacy.

Sen. Gillibrand was born in 1966, three years after the assassination.

“President Kennedy’s vision for public service is one that continues to inspire me,” Sen. Gillibrand said by email. “Through public service, we can make a difference and reach a future free of divisiveness, of enduring peace, and opportunity for everyone in this country to achieve the American dream with fairness, justice and equality.”

Mrs. Russell was born 15 years after the president’s death but said she was inspired by the way he embraced the new technology of his era.

His candidacy was widely covered by television networks for the first time ever, and he used polling in a way that previous presidential hopefuls had not, Mrs. Russell said.

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