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Locals reflect on JFK assassination

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Locals reflect on JFK assassination
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On the menus, Yesteryear’s Cafe in Verndale proclaims itself as the place where “old memories never die.” That includes recollections of the day a unhinged former Marine gunned down the 35th president of the United States.


Friday marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.  Earlier this week, Wadena County residents shared their memories of the photogenic Democrat and the day he died - an unforgettable moment for those old enough to remember.

Aldrich resident Susie Nundahl, Yesteryear’s Cafe co-owner, was five years old in 1963. Yet she vividly recalls her mother’s reaction to the news.

“She was standing there in front of the TV with her mouth open and tears rolling down her cheek,” Nundahl said. “It was a disbelief.”

The emotional impact was so intense, she said, because Americans felt a personal connection with Kennedy that they hadn’t felt with earlier leaders. “He was the first television president and everybody loved him.”

She said the 9/11 attacks is the only other event in her lifetime that compares.

Nundahl isn’t sure whether Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible, but two of her patrons voiced strong opinions on that eternal controversy.

“Hell, no!,” said 72-year-old Cameron Stapel of Verndale. “It had to do with Johnson and it had to do with the mafia.”

His friend, 75-year-old Verndale resident Herb Lambert, agreed: “There was more to it than (Oswald).”

They’re not alone. An October CBS News polls shows 61 percent of Americans believe more people were involved in the assassination plot versus 20 percent who think Oswald acted alone. The same poll indicates that Americans - by a 56 percent to 27 percent margin - believe there was an official cover-up.

An army veteran, Stapel had just returned from a tour in Germany, and like everyone else he knew, he watched wall-to-wall coverage of the assassination on live television.

“I just wish it had never happened,” he said. “It was the end of an era. The end of innocence.”

Stapel, who contribute articles to a conservative magazine, called Kennedy “the last best Democrat we had.”

Lambert, at the time a 25-year-old farmer, recalled his mother sharing news of the tragedy when he was in the middle of cleaning silo walls. “It was quite the shock.”  

At M State’s Wadena campus, students interviewed demonstrated that the Kennedy assassination does not evoke the historical significance among the emerging generation of adults as it does for those who lived through it. For some, details such as where the event took place and the debate about whether Oswald acted alone, were unfamiliar.

“I don’t know much about it,” said electrical lineworker student Nick Lochner, 18. “It doesn’t mean much to me.”

Construction electricity student Zach Saxton, 19, said, “I watched a movie about it in history class, that’s about it.”

But Nick Hommerding, a 20-year-old electrical lineworker student, was familiar with some assassination particulars - he recently watched a History Channel special on the subject. Was Oswald the lone gunman? “It’s possible he did it himself,” Hommerding said, citing his military training.

Across town at the Wadena Community Senior Center, an older generation steered clear of the debate. Like the Verndale cafe customers, they had vivid memories of a half-century ago.

Bea Larson, a 35-year-old in 1963, was at home in Wadena caring for five children when the news broke over the television.

“I think the whole country was sad about it,” Larson said, “and thinking about how it could happen to someone that nice and that important.”

As he shuffled cards, Archie Coson recalled working at the former Red Owl supermarket when a customer came in and informed him of Kennedy’s death.

When he returned home after work, he too joined the television audience.

“Anything like that happens, it’s something you’ll never forget,” said Coson, 84. “It’s something that sticks out in your mind.”

Bryce Haugen
(218) 631-2561