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History's Headlines: Fifty years later, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy still sparks memories and emotions

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Dec 24 2013 04:26:53 PM CST
Updated On: Nov 25 2013 07:00:07 PM CST

History's Headlines: Music Man Mourns JFK

Although it is a work of fiction, Stephen King’s 2011 novel “11/22/63,” which focuses on an attempt to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, can still bring a choke of emotions, especially for those who lived through that day.

The plot: It is 11/22/63, and King’s time traveler- a New England school teacher from 2011 named Jacob “Jake” Epping, aka George Amberson- is climbing, on a pair of crutches with a .38 pistol in his pocket, the steps of the Texas School Book Depository to confront Lee Harvey Oswald. Behind Epping is his girlfriend, Sadie Dunhill, a woman from 1963 with whom he has fallen in love.

King sets the scene this way: “Behind the barricade (of book boxes), in the sunlight, a man with a gun stood at the window. He was stooped, peering out. The window was open. A light breeze was ruffling his hair and the collar of his shirt. He began to raise the rifle.”

Shouting, “Lee, stop, you son of a bitch,” Epping struggles for his .38, sending a shot skyward. It startles and does not hit Oswald, “but that was enough to save John Kennedy’s life.”

The furious, thwarted assassin turns his Mannlicher Carcano rifle away from the window and toward Epping. Oswald misses but hits Dunhill, mortally wounding her.

By then a hail of bullets is flying up to the window from the police on the street, sending the would-be assassin’s lifeless body collapsing to the floor. Epping has just enough time to tell Dunhill that Kennedy is safe before she dies.

Shortly thereafter, while in police custody, Epping is handed a phone.

“Mr. Amberson? Jack Kennedy here. I…ah…understand that my wife and I owe you our lives.” Not believing what he is hearing, Epping is stunned that he has actually changed history. “The nasal New England voice,” reflects Epping, “sent a chill up my spine.” He knows that the person on the other end of the line would be lying lifeless on a slab in the morgue if not for him.

That is the fiction, and as readers of “11/22/63” know, Epping will later discover that his heroic act has changed history and will have dire consequences he did not foresee.

But the reality of November 22, 1963 was that Jack Kennedy died at the hands of an assassin. And 50 years’ worth of books, articles and documentaries have altered how people remember the day, the man and his presidency.

Generations who have never known the living man may wonder why so many still revere Kennedy. But there are those, some who were teenagers then and are gray headed now, who do remember those three days when time seemed to stop and almost move in slow motion.

Among those in Allentown who remember it vividly is J. Clinton Miller. Currently the organist and choirmaster at The Episcopal Church of the Mediator at West and Turner Streets, Miller, now 81, recalled those events recently over lunch at an Allentown restaurant.

A native of Erie, Pa., Miller had an interest in music since childhood. By November 22, 1963 he had been in Allentown about a month and was living at the home of members of the Leh family. Then 31, Miller had come to the Valley to accept a position as organist at St John’s Lutheran Church at 5th and Walnut Streets.

November 22, 1963 was unseasonably warm and sunny in the Lehigh Valley. Miller had gone to lunch at the nearby Court Restaurant on Hamilton Street. Returning around 1:30 p.m., he entered the office of St. John’s Pastor Arnold Keller.

“Something awful has happened,” Keller said forcefully. “The president has been shot, he may be dying.”

Across the country Americans grabbed for their transistor radios, as common then as cell phones are today, for any scrap of news. Miller, who had voted for Kennedy in 1960, was stunned, shocked and saddened. He had seen JFK at a parade in New York on Broadway in 1961. “He sat up on the back of an open convertible and waved to the crowd,” Miller recalled. “I can’t imagine the Secret Service allowing any president to do that today.”

Miller responded to his grief the way he knew best, with music. Sitting down at St. John’s organ in the church’s large Gothic Revival sanctuary, he began to play Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor.” A lush, ornate and somber work, Miller had recently played the piece on November 1st for All Saints Day.

As Miller poured out Bach’s beautiful stately music, a strange thing began to happen. In ones, twos and threes, people, apparently drawn by the music, began to file silently into the church, which was regularly kept open for prayer.

Although the organ at that time faced toward the front of the church, Miller’s organ bench was situated in a way that he had to get up to see them. That is when he noted the church was rapidly filling up.

Most were people from the nearby Lehigh County Courthouse and City Hall, as well as shoppers. Almost all of them were in tears. “There was a phone next to the organ,” he says. “I called Pastor Keller and told him the church was filling up rapidly and that maybe he ought to come over.”

Keller quickly responded and began to hold a prayer service. Miller does not remember many details of it except that people cried throughout. When the service was over, Miller heard for certain that Kennedy had died.

Returning to the Leh’s home that evening, Miller recalled a living room full of prominent local people watching the television as Air Force One landed and Kennedy’s flag draped casket was wheeled off the plane followed by the First Lady in her blood-stained dress. It was at that moment that the reality of Kennedy’s death became real for him and for millions of others.