Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

November 23, 2013

JFK, LBJ, and Colobro’s Welch Maroon Wave made big November 1963


Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — Fifty years ago today, on a dreary, rainy Saturday Nov. 23 morning, I was directly across the street from this very office. Dad had brought the car over to General Tire to put winter tires on the ‘60 model Ford. He had planned that a few days earlier and I looked forward to going with him, especially because that was the first vehicle we had owned that had a radio in it.

We certainly kept the radio on all the way down the valley, through Pocahontas, Nemours, Falls Mills, and into Bluefield. There was no sports news or music that day. Every station — WKOY, WHIS, any place on the dial — was all about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy the day before in Dallas, Texas.

In fact, it was on the radio when we had first heard about the shooting. That was the first year (1963) that Abbs Valley-Boissevain Elementary School opened. Our afternoon class in Miss Mary Louise Nelson’s room was interrupted about 1 p.m. when Principal Don Hoback told us to pay attention to a very important announcement. Within seconds, my buddies like Terry Asbury, Ricky Farmer, Mike Murphy, David Miller, and Jackie Cox were just looking at each other in shock as we learned that our president was dead at age 46.

There were more surprises, especially with the news media. At my house we always watched the 6 o’clock news on WHIS-TV with Mel Barnett and the team. After that, because our reception only included Bluefield, we usually continued with the NBC News report featuring Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. It was all black-and-white, and that was an evening we never left the set. In those days, television stations signed off with a test pattern after the late evening news but that weekend marked the first time that NBC, CBS, and ABC went to extended hours so that our television was carrying reports from Dallas and Washington, D.C. hour after hour through the night.

We couldn’t imagine how this could happen. Daddy had been in the Navy in World War II, and so had President Kennedy. I even had a comic book about PT-109, the ship that Kennedy commanded and that had been cut in two by a Japanese destroyer. Kennedy had swam through shark-infested waters, towing a crew member with a belt tied around him and the belt Kennedy held in his teeth until they reached a nearby island. There were other reasons for us to be Kennedy fans.

In the spring of 1960, when (then) Senator Kennedy was campaigning for the Democratic nomination, he came down to Leckie, right below Jenkinjones, and visited my aunt and uncle, Dwight and Pansie Miller, as he walked through the coal mining communities of southern McDowell County. He must have done a good job all over West Virginia because he beat Hubert Humphrey. Dad was pleased, since he worked hard for the party on the Virginia side.

We had spent much of the night in November 1960 at the Tazewell County Courthouse watching the old paper ballots being counted. Nile Stone was a director of the party and he and Dad often traveled around together. It was fun being around all those politicians, including Rhea F. Moore, Jr., who was clerk of the court for many years. That night, one of the old-time lawyers who had come up from Richlands, Emmitt Shufflebarger, told me about listening to Franklin D. Roosevelt make his inaugural speech in 1933 about “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and he said he would not be surprised if Kennedy made some good remarks in his inaugural speech.

A few weeks later, we all gathered around the television in January 1961 in Horsepen, Va., at my Uncle Jeremiah Whittaker’s house and heard the newly-elected 35th President say, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”

We believed in President Kennedy through the Cuban Missile Crisis in ‘62 and thought he was trying to do the right thing with civil rights and treat people fairly.

As the air wrench hammered away while we got those tires changed, I remembered one more thing that connected Kennedy and new President Lyndon B. Johnson to our area.

In 1963, Coach Tony Colobro’s Welch Maroon Wave football team went 10-0 but somehow finished tied for second as Buckhannon-Upshur was given the title. They had great players like Jim Smithberger, Don Roberts, and the quarterback was Pete Vilani.

There was an assembly down there at the theatre to honor the team and the Democrats sent a representative because southern West Virginia had helped to elect Kennedy. The assembly was held on Nov. 11, 1963 and the representative was Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose round of applause was slightly less that the football team received.

Eleven days later, Johnson became the 36th president of the United States.

Larry Hypes, a teacher at Tazewell High School, is a Daily Telegraph columnist.