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Retired teacher Grillo honored fallen President as schoolgirl

Beverly Grillo’s memories of President John Kennedy’s assassination are fairly representative of many Baby Boomers’. 

She was young — 10 years too young to vote at the time — and was living thousands of miles away from Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Yet, she can remember the confusion and the personal sense of loss that day in intimate detail.

    

Grillo, who now lives in Twain Harte, had just turned 11 and was in the sixth-grade at the time.

Her family lived at Mt. Hamilton, a community of 135 people connected to the University of California’s Lick Observatory. Her father, Eugene Harlan, was the lead astronomer.

Grillo attended a one-room schoolhouse. 

The school was at the physical center of the observatory community, next to the volunteer fire house, and across the street from the machine shops and diner.

Grillo said she knew all about the Kennedys — about “Camelot” — from her teacher, Mrs. Carlisle, a Bostonian.

When the director of the observatory, Dr. Albert Whitford, appeared in her classroom the morning of Nov. 22, Grillo said she knew something must be wrong.

“He was the supreme geek. Everyone in the class was frozen,” she said.

Her first thought was that the Russians had invaded the U.S. 

The Bay of Pigs in 1961 and Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 had caused the community, and most of America, to prepare for invasion and bombings, through “air raid” drills. The observatory community would regularly do test drills where they would huddle in the basement under the main telescope, where there was food and supplies to last for six months, Grillo said.

Dr. Whitford whispered to her teacher and “I remember her gasping and putting her hands in front of her mouth,” Grillo said.

“Her mouth quivered and she said, ‘Boys and girls, I have something very serious to tell you. Our dear President has been shot in Dallas, Texas and we don’t know if he’s going to live,’” Grillo recounted.

“Mrs. Carlisle turned on the small black and white television behind her desk, and we all watched the news as Walter Cronkite came on to announce that President Kennedy had been pronounced dead,” Grillo said. “I remember being stunned. I had not experienced death yet.”

Older students in the class had rotating duties, and it was Grillo’s job that week to be the flag monitor. The only other flagpole at the observatory was at the Post Office and the day Kennedy was killed, the postman/milkman/grocer, hadn’t arrived when the announcement came through.

The teacher turned to Grillo and said, “Beverly, it’s time to go do your duty. We need to give our respect. Don’t you dare let that flag touch the ground.”

Five minutes later, the entire observatory community stood around the flag as the very shaken and awkward child silently lowered the flag all the way down, and then back up to the top, and then down to half-staff. 

“I still get goosebumps thinking about it. I remember being deathly afraid of dropping the flag,” Grillo said.

What was overwhelming to Grillo was how shaken the adults were. 

The adults, all respected scientists, were openly weeping and asking, “What now?” she said.

“The next three days were a standstill. We were riveted to the TV. We watched the whole thing,” Grillo said. 

“It has never left me — and I feel blessed to have been the one who offered the symbol of respect for a fallen hero and President.”

Nearly four decades later, on Sept. 11, 2001, Grillo, a Twain Harte School teacher, was teaching her sixth-graders when terrorists attacked New York City and Washington, D.C.

She said she turned off the TV in class to spare her students the same trauma she had felt in 1963.

“I catapulted back to that day,” Grillo said. “It was a huge trauma for me.”


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