Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

November 22, 2013

Batesville residents recall presidential tragedy

Diane Raver and Debbie Blank The Herald-Tribune
The Batesville Herald-Tribune

---- — When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated a half century ago today, “It was a moment I’ll never forget,” reports Lil Kennel.

The St. Louis School second-grade teacher was in her classroom at about 2 p.m. when the principal, Sister Theresa Ann, came on the public address system, which seldom occurred. “She said, ‘I need everyone’s undivided attention immediately.’ Then she gave the announcement, ‘Our president has been shot in Dallas.’ The teachers came out of their rooms. We had to kind of keep a low profile because of the children.”

Ten minutes later, the principal said a prayer over the system, then students and teachers (four laypersons and the rest nuns) recited three prayers, “Our Father,” “Hail Mary” and “Glory Be” in unison. After the children were dismissed for the day, “we went down to her office and she had the radio on and that’s when we heard he had died.”

Four years earlier, the nuns had stayed up all night watching election returns to see if a Catholic could be elected president and cheered when it happened. Now they were all in tears in the teachers’ lounge, Kennel recalled.

She still lived at home in Brookville with her parents. The killing “had a great impact on our family,” which had just lost her 15-year-old brother to cancer.

Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, was about the same age as Kennel’s students. “My class wrote to her (on a sympathy card) and received a nice letter back from the family.”

It was a sad time in Batesville, according to the retiree. Six days after JFK was shot, Clara Hillenbrand, 81, the widow of John A. Hillenbrand, an early Hillenbrand Industries leader, died.

Andy Irrgang, a former Batesville City Council member, was traveling for his insurance company job on that day 50 years ago. He heard the news “on television later that evening because I had been in Evansville all day.

“I couldn’t believe it. It shocked me because I always liked John Kennedy. I thought he was very honest and when he said something, it made sense. He was a good president, and I think we accomplished quite a bit during his presidency.”

Kay Dickey, a former Batesville Bureau of Motor Vehicles employee, recalls being home with the children. “In those days, we had a bread man, and when he came to the door, he told me about it. Then I turned on the TV. I remember it was Friday, and I was cleaning.

“I was stunned like everyone else. How could this happen to our president? .... Today you hear a lot about people getting shot, but when the president got shot back then, it was a shock.”

Consultant Vicki Kellerman and husband Jack, both area natives, were living in Bloomington. She was working at the audiovisual center at Indiana University. “My dad, who was a long-distance truck driver, was delivering furniture to IU, and he stopped by the office and told us” about JFK’s death.

“Then he said, ‘Why don’t you come along home with me?’ and I did .... Jack was a waiter at a fancy restaurant and had to work that night,” so he returned to Batesville the next day.

She remembers thinking, “This doesn’t happen in America .... (and) everybody was a little bit afraid because you didn’t know how the transition was going to work.”

After returning from lunch, Romweber Furniture salesman Jim Fritsch was at his Batesville desk when “somebody came into my office and asked, ‘Did you hear the news? JFK was shot.’ Right away everybody went home and watched television.”

Fritsch reflected, “I respected that man so much and I figured he overcame a lot of hurdles. No. 1, being a Catholic. They didn’t think he’d get elected because of his religion ... I admired him for his guts and family background.”

The former city councilman, then mayor starting in 1975 said later on Nov. 22 “people who had flags flew them at half mast. I just think it was a universal grieving. Everybody was shocked and upset, mad at this guy for killing him.”