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November 22, 1963, began as a day of great excitement for the students and staff of Mission High School, as well as the entire city. After months of planning, groundbreaking was taking place for construction of the highly anticipated new high school.
It was a particularly memorable day for the MHS Class of 1964-65 because they would be the first to graduate from the new campus. Class President William Valverde was to represent the future graduates at the ceremony by symbolically shoveling some of the dirt.
Aside from the excitement of the groundbreaking, a Friday night football game was scheduled in Robstown. Football players, band members, the cheering squad, students and fans were looking forward to an out-of-town trip to watch the Eagles play.
It was a day that Kenneth White remembers vividly. White, who became superintendent of schools three years later, was MHS principal at the time.
“It was all planned out,” he said of early afternoon groundbreaking. “The school board, band, cheerleaders … everybody in town was there. There was a lot of excitement in the air. The old high school was in such bad shape. The new school was really something to look forward to.”
White, along with civic dignitaries and other program participants, arrived at the W. 18th Street site early to prepare for the event. They were unaware of the tragedy that was simultaneously unfolding in Dallas.
White was sitting on the platform waiting for the ceremony to begin when math teacher Pat Gossett rushed up and whispered to him that she had heard President John F. Kennedy had been shot. White said he wasn’t sure if he had heard her correctly.
“I was up there where I could see the crowd,” he said. “I could look from the raised platform and I could see something was happening in the crowd. You could see that the mood of the crowd was changing.”
Harlan Woods was teaching journalism at MHS and working as a part-time reporter for the Mission Times (which later became the Progress Times). He needed to stop by the school district’s central office before heading to the groundbreaking.
As he entered what was then known as the Morgan Building, secretary Hortence McDonald came running up to him. She was shouting, “The president’s been shot, the president’s been shot.”
“At that point, it was only known that the president had been shot,” Woods said. “We didn’t learn he had died until later that afternoon.”
Band members were on buses waiting to play the national anthem at the groundbreaking ceremony before heading to Robstown for the football game.
Band director D.P. McNallen stepped into the bus with “a look on his face none of us had ever seen,” Lynne (Wood) Day recalled. “He announced to us that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. He said we were to sit there until decisions were made for the groundbreaking and football game later. There was very little talking as we just didn’t know how to react to the news. We were scared, nervous and probably there were some tears as we waited. We went to the groundbreaking and then had to wait while UIL made the football game decisions.”
As the groundbreaking ceremony progressed, news was spreading through the crowd that the president had been shot. Details of Kennedy’s assassination began evolving as the crowd left the ceremony.
Many students first learned about the president’s death in their afternoon classes.
Mary (Suter) Sandstedt learned about it in Ted Grinnan’s history class. As he informed the students, Sandstedt said Grinnan had tears in his eyes.
“I just can’t believe it,” she remembered Grinnan saying, adding that the class also found it hard to believe. “We just sat there not knowing what to do.”
Dorothy Suter says it was “very difficult” to conduct her English classes that afternoon, explaining she found it “hard to fathom the tragic event.”
Danny Blouin summed up his feelings as “shock, fear and wondering what was going to happen to the country.” Classmate Henry de Sylva echoed those feelings, adding that “everyone was in shock.”
"I remember being afraid, feeling like I wanted to hold on to everyone around me, and wondering what it meant for our country," said Martha E. Smiley.
The varsity football team left immediately after the groundbreaking. Some of the players heard about the president being shot just before they boarded the bus.
“There were moments of confusion,” said Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a member of the MHS Class of ‘65. “It was a surprise, a shock for us. There was a quiet emptiness on the bus.”
“About halfway to Robstown, coach Lum Wright stopped the bus and called someone to see if the news was true,” James “Kent” Gray recalled. “Then he told us the president really had been killed.”
Hinojosa said it was hard to focus on playing football as he “kept thinking about the assassination of such a popular president” and having “feelings of emptiness and not knowing what would happen next.”
Although the Mission Eagles won the game 20-7, it was an empty victory for Hinojosa and his teammates.
As the school’s principal, it was a particularly long and tough day for Kenneth White. He knew he had to “keep calling for calmness” among his staff and students.
“We began the day with so much happiness, then left there (the groundbreaking ceremony) with everyone crying,” White said. “We lost a president. Somehow the happiness of what the ceremony and new school meant to us, well, we were all dispirited, just like everyone else in the country.”
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The Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.