The people of the United States went 185 years and 34 presidents before putting a Catholic into the White House in January 1961.
Three years and 10 months later - 50 years ago Friday - John F. Kennedy was dead, shot as he rode in a motorcade in Dallas.
When the news came over the loudspeaker at St. Mary's School in Altoona, the nun in Mark Geis' third-grade class ordered her students onto their knees, and they prayed.
"Kennedy was like a saint, almost," said Geis, a city councilman whose father had "worked his ass off" for Kennedy's election campaign and had even attended his inauguration. "So many people had so many dreams of what [he] would do for the country."
You didn't need to be Catholic.
America was never the same afterwards, for families like that of Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University - who grew up in the Philadelphia area and who's Jewish.
"In my house, he was the martyred god," Engel said.
His mother had volunteered for Kennedy, who "embodied everything we hoped and dreamed for America," he said.
She had "internalized" the idea that the assassination interrupted America's destiny as "a much better place," according to Engel.
Mirror reporter Phil Ray misunderstood the first time he heard.
A student at Penn State, he was walking across the University Park campus when an acquaintance from his hometown of Bellefonte - whom he never spoke to again - shouted that someone whose name he didn't catch had been shot.
By William Kibler
John F. Kennedy has been dead 50 years, but his reputation - and beliefs about who was responsible for killing him - have not lain quiet.
"His reputation has changed dramatically," stated Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.
Immediately after his death, Kennedy's reputation "soared, as people saw him as a wonderful president and tragic fallen hero," Engel said.
That continued through the 1970s and intensified in the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially for his handling of foreign affairs and crisis management, because of information that became available from his presidential library, according to Engel.
But historians since then have downgraded his reputation, Engel said.
He was youthful and was the first TV president.
"He had an intuitive feel for image making," said Thomas Whalen, associate professor of social science at Boston University and author of Kennedy versus Lodge: The 1952 Massachusetts Senate Race.
"But actually, his accomplishments were quite thin," Engel said.
Yet, he was only in office a short time and that time provided a foundation for the Great Society of his vice president and successor, Lyndon Johnson, according to Engel.
Kennedy couldn't have gotten it passed, because he lacked the enthusiasm and legislative clout, according to Engel.
Conversely, Johnson had the advantage of "Kennedy's death at his back," Engel said.
"[Kennedy's] administration ultimately comes to fulfillment at the end of the 1960s," Engel said. "He accomplished more in death than alive."
His foreign policy tended to be "reckless and immature," historians say now.
He didn't fare well in his first couple of meetings with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was much older.
In Vienna in 1961, Khrushchev manipulated him, "pushed him around," shouting and banging a table, as they discussed Berlin, Engel said.
The devout Communist who'd grown up poor, who survived the Nazis and held a responsible position at the desperate battle for Stalingrad, despised Kennedy before he ever met him as a rich, young playboy, Engel said.
"Kennedy caved," Engel said.
He admitted it to aides later, hanging his head and telling them he needed to be tougher, Engel said.
Yet he was smart, thoughtful and logical in his speeches, and he inspired a whole generation, and that can't be dismissed, Engel said.
"But his accomplishments were not as great as his promise," Engel said.
Kennedy's reputation "waxes and wanes," Whalen said.
For a president with less than one term in office, Kennedy had "significant impact," Whalen said.
His greatest accomplishment was domestic - the embrace of civil rights - despite the risk of re-election defeat, because much of the Democratic base at that time was in the South, according to Whalen.
His foreign policy record was murkier, according to Whalen.
Perhaps less honorable too, he indicated.
Kennedy had campaigned on allegations that the U.S. was on the lower end of a "missile gap" with the Soviet Union.
That was "an absolute falsehood," that President Dwight Eisenhower chose not to refute, because his knowledge was based on a spying program that he
didn't want to expose, according to Whalen.
When Kennedy became president, he found out the truth, but continued to pretend there was a missile gap, which led to "one of the greatest arms races in human history" - although the sides backed off a little after the Cuban missile crisis, setting up a hotline and signing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Whalen said.
That contrast between the arms buildup and the test ban treaty illustrates Kennedy's ability to hold opposing positions, according to Whalen.
"A man of peace, yet warmonger," he said. "Hard to get your arms around."
That characteristic was one reason he was popular, according to Whalen.
"So many could claim him," he said.
Ultimately, one can argue that arms race helped destabilize the Soviet Union, because its economy couldn't handle the stress of military buildup, setting the stage for the crumbling of the Soviet empire when President Ronald Reagan resumed the arms buildup in the 1980s, Whalen said.
But that was "inadvertent," he said.
For a time, Kennedy was considered among the top five presidents, Engel said.
That's pretty much over, although the general public consensus still has him in the top 15, Engel said.
When asked for his own estimate, Engel considered a while, then placed Kennedy at 11, just behind Bill Clinton.
In no particular order, he ranked Washington, both Roosevelts, Lincoln, Wilson, Jefferson, Truman and Jackson and McKinley above them. He also mentioned his admiration of Monroe and Polk.
Retired Martinsburg Police Chief Rich Brantner has veered back and forth on the assassination like a car speeding through traffic to the hospital.
Originally, Brantner believed everything in the Warren Report, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman.
"Then I was confused - I didn't know what to believe," he said.
As of three years ago, after taking account of Vincent Bugliosi's "Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy," and talking to Jim Leavelle, a Dallas detective involved in the case, he believes Oswald acted alone.
Bugliosi cited 53 pieces of evidence, Brantner said.
"Fifty years later, there's no smoking guns," he said. "[Just] a lot of theories."
"I'm perfectly comfortable with a lone gunman," Engel said. "And the more I read, the more it seems that most people seem comfortable."
Still, many who haven't read deeply about it tend to assume that the great bulk of conspiracy literature indicates there must have been a conspiracy, Engel said.
"People start to question without knowing anything [specific]," he said. "They say, 'if there's such a deep literature, there must be something.'"
Dr. Cyril Wecht, namesake of the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law at Duquesne University, has been a prominent advocate for conspiracy since 1965, when he gave a talk on the assassination to American Academy of Forensic Science.
The Warren Commission's work was "absurd," Wecht said last week in a phone interview.
"It was an insult to American citizens," he said. "A disgrace to our democracy."
It was also a coverup, he said.
According to the commission report, Oswald fired three shots from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, one of which passed through Kennedy's neck from back to front and one that hit Kennedy's head and killed him.
The bullet that went through Kennedy's neck may be the one that then went through Texas Gov. John Connally's chest from back to front, then through his right wrist into his left thigh, where it caused a superficial wound, according to the commission.
That "magic bullet" is the problem, according to Wecht, who testified at a hearing of the House Special Committee on Assassinations in 1978.
The bullet's alleged trajectory is implausible, based on its path through Kennedy's neck and the positions of the men in the car, as seen in a film of the shooting taken by a spectator that day, according to Wecht.
The bullet's "pristine" condition, after being found on a hospital gurney following the assassination, was also implausible, because if the commission is correct, it hit Connally's rib and shattered his wrist bone, which would have deformed it, Wecht said.
And the timing and sequence of events in the film don't allow for the bullet to have followed the path alleged by the commission, because the film shows there was too much time between its striking Kennedy's neck and its allegedly striking Connally.
Once the "magic bullet" theory is debunked - given that with the bolt-action rifle allegedly used by Oswald, there was no time for additional shots - there's no choice but to position a second shooter, which by definition means a conspiracy, Wecht argued.
The committee ended up alleging a conspiracy.
That conspiracy didn't involve the Soviet government, the Cuban government, the Secret Service, the FBI, the CIA, anti-Castro Cuban groups or the national syndicate of organized crime as a group - although individual anti-Castro Cubans or members of the syndicate could have been involved, according to the committee.
But the committee's conspiracy affirmation was not based on Wecht's rebuttal of the magic bullet.
Rather, it was based on a sound recording from a stuck-on transmitter on a motorcycle at the plaza where the assassination took place, seeming to indicate four gunshots during the time of the assassination - which was more than the assassin could have fired.
Later, however, a close analysis of the recording determined that the fourth gunshot-like sound had occurred at a later time, discrediting the committee's conspiracy conclusion and essentially returning it by default to the Warren Commission finding, according to Bugliosi.
Bugliosi argues that it's ludicrous to imagine that all seven members of the Warren Commission or the numerous members of their staff would have agreed to cover up a conspiracy and to falsely accuse Oswald.
Moreover, if they had, someone would have given up the secret by now, he argued. "[T]hree people can keep a secret. But only if two are dead," he wrote.
There was no incentive for the staffers of those groups to suppress a conspiracy anyway, because had they found one, they would have been hailed as heroes, Bugliosi wrote.
Wecht doesn't concede anything.
He believes more firmly than ever that there was a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy and a subsequent coverup.
He doesn't suspect any foreign involvement in the assassination, but does suspect that a handful of "ultra right wing forces," connected with the CIA and/or the military industrial complex plotted, he said.
They were involved in undercover manipulations of governments in other parts of the world that Kennedy planned to stop, and they didn't want those activities stopped, according to Wecht.
They didn't want to tolerate five more years of Kennedy and potentially eight more of his brother Bobby, according to Wecht.
"And there was no way they were going to beat him at the polls," Wecht said.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.