Adamson High School alumni recall the day that changed the nation
Ask any Baby Boomer where he or she was on Nov. 22, 1963. They always know, and usually, they remember being in school.
Which class, which teacher, how they learned the president had been shot. For students at Adamson High School, this was not just a national tragedy; it was a neighborhood one.
Oak Cliff beat cop J.D. Tippit was shot and killed less than two blocks from the school. And police captured presumed assassin Lee Harvey Oswald at a teenage hangout, the Texas Theatre.
Adamson High School graduate Lon Oakley Jr. was a junior at the time of the assassination. He was a class officer, a cheerleader and one of the most popular kids in school. The Oak Cliff native, who now lives in San Antonio, recently wrote and published a book, “Two Deaths and an Arrest … A Collection of Historical Accounts and Memoirs,” about the day of the assassination. The story that follows comes from recollections in that book as well as the Advocate’s own interviews.
Principal T.W. Meek came over the public address system. “I regret to inform you that our president has died.”
That’s how ’64 Adamson graduate Shirley McCann Gee remembers the announcement. Gee recalls the morning of Nov. 22 as a typical Friday. A friend’s dad drove them to school. She had a lot to look forward to. It was her young nephew’s birthday, and his party was the next day. The following week was short for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Meek’s announcement also informed Adamson students that they would not be changing classes and that everyone should stay put. They later found out that it was because the school was what we might now call “on lockdown” as police searched nearby for the assassin.
“Those of us in the choir room were alerted that there were police running through the parking lot across the street,” recalls Jean Wilson Meyer, a ’64 Adamson grad. “We watched as that scenario played out. Later, we found out they were searching for Lee Harvey Oswald.”
Dan Eddy, another ’64 grad, remembers that he was in Marilyn Morgan’s French class when Mr. Meeks made his announcement.
“Ms. Morgan began to weep,” he recalls. “The girls also began to cry, and the boys were angry.”
Before the principal’s announcement, news about the shooting had made its way through the school by word of mouth. Bob Johnston, a 1959 Adamson grad who taught journalism, speech and English at his alma mater in the ’60s, recalls that a student stopped by his classroom after lunch and asked, “Did you hear the President was shot?” Johnston thought the student was joking at first.
Declan Hoffmann, who taught biology at Adamson, had a similar experience. A student whizzed by his classroom and said, “Mr. Hoffman, President Kennedy was shot.” Hoffman directed his class to keep quiet, and he sneaked them into the film/projection room to watch the live newscast.
“We were watching history as it happened,” Hoffmann says. “Then I remember hearing police cars and sirens … but not really realizing what was happening so close to our doors.”
Dottie Hollis was a sophomore at Adamson in the fall of ’63. She had wanted to skip school and ride the bus Downtown to watch the motorcade. But her biology teacher, Ralph Martin, had announced a major test that Friday, and he warned specifically against missing class in favor of the presidential happenings. “There would be no excused absences or make-up test,” Hollis recalls.
She heard rumors of the shooting just after lunch, and she was in Carolyn Creel’s German class when Meeks came over the PA.
“Tears were shed by most, and a heavy, somber feeling by all,” Hollis recalls.
Dale White had graduated from Adamson in May ’63 and accepted a job in the Mercantile Bank Building on Main Street. He was able to pop his head out of his office window to see the President and the First Lady in her pink Chanel suit.
It was all over in a few seconds, he recalls, and everyone went back to work. Then a few minutes later, someone came into their office, hysterically sharing the news. They turned the radio dial to Oak Cliff-based KLIF in time to hear newscaster Gary DeLaune’s announcement: “This KLIF bulletin from Dallas: Three shots reportedly were fired at the motorcade of President Kennedy today near the Downtown section. KLIF News is checking out the report. We will have further reports. Stay tuned.”
Oakley himself had skipped school that day and was at the Trade Mart. He had entered a lottery that offered student journalists the opportunity to ask the president a question, and he hoped he might have his chance to ask, “When are we going to put a man on the moon?”
School was dismissed on time that day, at 2:45 p.m.
Richard Worthy, a ’65 grad, had finally scored a date with his crush, Cheri Tarwater. She had just broken up with her boyfriend at the time, Rusty Hendrix, and Worthy swooped in. He had borrowed his scoutmaster’s Pontiac Bonneville, but most of the restaurants were closed, and Worthy had to take his date to the only place that was open, the chi-chi Polynesian Room at Love Field. He had just enough money to pay for dinner and couldn’t take his date to a movie. Afterward, news reports of the assassination dominated radio broadcasts, souring any chance of a romantic mood.
Ted Jernigan, class of ’64, also remembers that virtually every business in Oak Cliff was closed.
“We went riding around, because I had a car, but we had to go home because I ran out of gas and couldn’t buy any,” he says. “Everything was just completely shut down. I’ve never seen anything like that before or since.”
On Sunday, when police were to transfer Lee Harvey Oswald from police headquarters to a courthouse Downtown, several Adamson students waited outside in the bitter cold hoping to catch a glimpse of the presumed assassin.
Dotty Jones waited outside for hours, until her toes were frozen, and finally, she went home. When she got there, she heard that Jack Ruby had killed Oswald.
“We were all shocked again,” she says.
The flag was flown at half-mast at Adamson following the assassination. A small photo of the flag and the date, Nov. 22, are the only reference to the assassination in the school’s yearbook, The Oak, from 1964.
For years after the incident, some Adamson grads say, they felt prejudice toward their hometown, labeled “the city of hate.”
Dan Eddy joined the Air Force and was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. He was in boot camp with 19 Texans and 21 New Yorkers.
“From the very first day, the New Yorkers hated their Texas brothers,” Eddy recalls. “We were responsible for the death of President Kennedy. The squad had many a fight before we realized we must work together in order to graduate from boot camp on time.”
Others want to avoid the connection even now.
“To this day, it makes me sick that people come from all over the world to see where President Kennedy was killed,” says ’66 Adamson grad Linda Pool. “If I have company visit, I don’t even bring up visiting the site. I understand the fascination, but I don’t like Dallas being associated that way.”
Even though everyone in Dallas and the nation was talking about it, there was also some avoidance of the topic, says Jean Wilson Meyer.
The Adamson basketball team won the city championship that year and went to the state playoffs in Austin. That helped to take everyone’s mind off the tragedy, she says.
“It sounds terrible, but I was so busy being a little teenager that I don’t know that I really thought about it that much,” she says.