Janesville woman remembers JFK as 'a bright hope'
JANESVILLE—Catherine Wellnitz Daniel prayed hard for her president to live the day an assassin cut him down.
Fifty years ago Friday, nuns ushered Catherine and other students at Janesville's St. William School into the church sanctuary to ask for God's help.
The face of an otherwise stoic nun who had been Catherine's first and second grade teacher reflected the tragedy of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas.
“I always will remember the tears on her face,” Catherine recalls. “I had never seen her lose her composure before. But that day, she wept unashamedly, as did her fellow nuns.”
Seeing the nuns and later her parents cry was unsettling to 8-year-old Catherine.
She never forgot the feeling.
Anyone of a certain age can tell you what he or she was doing Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was fatally shot while riding in an open motorcade.
All these years later, the memories and feelings still bring Catherine to tears.
“Walter Cronkite came on the news to announce that the president was dead,” Catherine said. “My parents immediately thought that (Fidel) Castro had done it. I felt afraid. If they could kill the president, it did not feel like we were very safe.”
Catherine started school at St. William in 1961, the same year the president took office. She recalls the newness of her school, making her First Holy Communion and the way in which the white veil draped over her innocent face.
“It was like that veil was my rose-colored glasses,” Catherine of Janesville said. “When the president died, it was like taking the veil off. We saw the world the way it really was.”
Many people had high expectations for Kennedy's presidency.
“He was a bright hope,” Catherine said. “My parents really loved the Kennedys. They were a large Irish-Catholic family, and so were we. We felt our guy was in office. Kennedy was the nation's first Catholic president and there hasn't been one since.”
Catherine's family mourned the president as if it had lost a family member.
“I knew my parents were Democrats as I often heard them discussing religion and politics with their friends,” she said. “But I did not realize the respect they held for the office of the president.”
She remembers how the raw emotion of the tragedy brought the community together.
“In a sense, the shared grief comforted me,” Catherine explained. “Seeing everyone so united made me feel safe, in spite of the horror of losing our Commander in Chief.”
Catherine's mom thought Jacqueline Kennedy was so brave.
“My mom idealized her and saw how stoic she was,” Catherine said. “She thought that was the way to be—keep a stiff upper lip.”
Even now, Catherine is haunted by the tragedy.
“I still feel the frustration of not knowing why it happened,” she said. “I just have the overwhelming sense that we are all so vulnerable.”
Five decades later, she recalls how good people carried on after their president died.
“My parents made our lunches and went to work,” she said. “The nuns continued to teach. Everyone kept on going in spite of everything looking so dark. The world did not end.”
For Catherine and so many others, the death of President Kennedy marked the start of a long killing season. Five years later in 1968, Martin Luther King was gunned down on a balcony in Memphis, and Robert Kennedy was shot while on the presidential campaign trail in Los Angeles.
“We were still reeling from Martin Luther King's death, when Robert Kennedy was killed,” Catherine said. “Our family was so hopeful that Robert Kennedy would pick up the gauntlet. He was so articulate and even more charismatic than his brother. When he died, it just ripped open the feelings of how vulnerable we all are.”
Catherine recalls how the country became fractured over the Vietnam War.
“It seemed everything was falling apart, and the good people were losing,” Catherine said, “The feeling I felt in those days has never been duplicated by any historic event. When Martin Luther King died and then Robert Kennedy, a sense of hopelessness covered the faces around me and settled in my soul, as well.”
Catherine's years of innocence ended. What previously had seemed so unthinkable to her was now possible.
To live in an uncertain world, Catherine developed her spiritual side.
“I started reading the Bible daily,” she said. “It is the only solace I ever have in the sense that there is a higher power.”
As an adult, Catherine married her college sweetheart and has had several different careers, including teaching in Chicago and accounting. She currently works in customer service at Grainger Industrial Supply.
On the anniversary of Kennedy's death, she said she wants to reach back and take strength from the 35th president's high hopes for America.
“I want to renew the belief that I have something to contribute to make our society better,” she said.
“I want to do what I can to carry on the torch.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.