The assassination of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago stunned the nation, but it hit even closer to home for local students who had seen the nation’s leader just weeks before.
The Tooele High School Marching Band performed at the airport the day Kennedy flew in to Salt Lake City on Sept 26, 1963. According to a story in the Tooele Transcript Bulletin’s Oct. 1, 1963 edition, “It must have been the thrill to every member of the band, as months of marching and practice culminated in this grand moment: the welcoming of the United States President.”
Kent Shields, a Tooele man who was a freshman member of the THS band that year, said he believes the reason the band was chosen for the honor was that it was the best in the state.
“A lot of people never get the opportunity to play for the president of the United States,” he said.
Kennedy’s plane touched down at 5:50 p.m. to a crowd of onlookers and airport personnel.
“Cheers greeted the familiar brown tousled head which appeared, and the youthful president, handsome in a dark suit and tie, waved and smiled to the crowd as he alighted from the plane,” the Transcript Bulletin’s story read.
As Kennedy stepped down onto the tarmac and got into an awaiting limo, the band played the “JFK March,” composed by Eugene Jelesnick, under the leadership of THS Band Director Roy Ferrin.
“On his feet, with hand waving ad healthy tanned face smiling, Kennedy saluted the band in return, before the car accelerated and disappeared,” the story continued.
Danny Foulon, a Tooele man who was a sophomore at the time, said although the band was fairly close to where Kennedy was, he doesn’t remember seeing the president at all. Playing with the band at the 1962 World’s Fair, or the 1964 Rose Bowl, sticks out much more clearly for him—mostly because of the focus required as a band member.
“He came out of the plane, we played, he passed and that’s all I can remember,” said Foulon.
Shields said he, too, was focused on his music, but couldn’t help taking a peek at the passing president.
“We couldn’t look because your job is to play the music and I got reprimanded by the drum major for stealing looks,” he said. “I had it coming.”
The performance, which ordinarily would have simply been an occasion of honor to remember through the years, took on a deeper, more serious tone on Nov. 22, 1963 when band students heard the news of the president’s assassination over the intercom.
“It really was impactful to the band members, because we had just played for him,” said Shields.
The news, too, in a way represented the end of the good old days and a grim promise of the turmoil—the protests, the wars—to come.
“It was kind of a blow to our innocence,” he added.
But 50 years later, Shields and Foulon said the band’s performance for Kennedy, as well as for other high-profile events, live on as shining examples of a band and Director Ferrin’s hard work and talent. The combination made the band among the best, they said.
“Tooele should be proud of the band’s accomplishment,” said Shields.