The Best Teacher I Ever Had Helped Get Me Through The JFK Assassination

May 10, 2019

The older I get the more I realize that there is no more noble a profession as that of teacher.

Especially those who teach young children.

Ask yourself: Aside from your parents, or possibly a clergy person, or your grandparents, who else has had more of an impact on the adult you have become than a grade school teacher or – were you as lucky as I was – several grade school teachers?

The answer is probably no one.

For me, there was one who stood out above them all – Mrs. Phipps, my homeroom and history teacher in the fifth grade at Cleveland Elementary School in Dayton, Ohio.

I hadn't thought about Mrs. Phipps for some time until a week or so ago when I was on a Facebook page for graduates of Cleveland Elementary and Mrs. Phipps was mentioned. Do not ask me her first name; this was the early 1960s and, for all we knew, teachers didn't have first names. They were "Mrs. Phipps," "Miss Partlow," "Mr. Neff," etc.

The person who posted the reference to Mrs. Phipps was asking us to tell our favorite stories about this remarkable woman who was at the center of our lives when we were 10 and 11 years old.

I said there were too many tales to recall, but I said that I would tell one – the story of how, in November 1963, she helped me and others in our class to deal with what certainly was the most traumatic period of my young life: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

About Mrs. Phipps: She was a tall, stately-looking woman, who lived in the neighborhood of Cleveland Elementary and had a daughter at the school, which was very unusual in those days.

She knew how to keep discipline in her classroom. When I would start acting like a smart aleck, popping off in class just to get a laugh, she could shut me up with a look of disgust that shot through me like a laser. Howard, she would say, Hush. You know better than this. You don't want to visit Mr. Roweton, do you? Of course not.

She got that right. Mr. Roweton was the principal of Cleveland Elementary. Other teachers didn't hesitate to send me packing to his office.

From fifth grade through seventh grade, I was in full-blown pain-in-the-neck mode; and while I wasn't sent to what I called "the torture chamber" very often, I was well enough acquainted with the business end of the paddle that hung on the wall behind Mr. Roweton's desk.

And, no, there was no societal debate about corporal punishment in schools in 1963.

She was strict, but she was also someone who loved to laugh and encouraged her students to have fun.

In those days, you started your day in your homeroom class before fanning out to other classes like art and music and math.

In Mrs. Phipps's homeroom, each day started with the "morning exercise,'' a ritual in which everyone was expected to take a turn. Most kids would get up and read a poem (I got really tired of hearing Joyce Kilmer's "Trees") or screech out some unrecognizable tune on their brand-new violins or cellos.

I was thoroughly tired of this fare, and I went to Mrs. Phipps and asked if she would mind if my good friend Dale and I were to put on some stage productions of songs by the popular comedian Allan Sherman.

Sherman – who was sort of the Weird Al Yankovic of his day – was at the height of his popularity; his album My Son the Nut was riding high at the top of the charts. Sherman's schtick was to take popular, recognizable songs and re-write the lyrics until they were hysterically funny. Dale and I listened to My Son the Nut constantly and we knew the lyrics to all the songs.

Somehow, Mrs. Phipps bought into this and we would stay after school the night before a performance to put together a set and recruit our back-up singers. Dale was the musical director; I was usually the front man, singing the songs.

Our first performance, early in the morning, was of Sherman's "You Went The Wrong Way, Old King Louis," a parody of the French Revolution set to the tune of "La Marseillaise."

"You went the wrong way old King Louis/But now you ain't got far to go/Too bad you won't be here to see that great big Eiffel Tower and Brigitte Bardot/We're going to take you and Queen down to the guillotine, somewhere in the heart of town/and when that fellow there is through with what he's going to do, you'll have nowhere to wear your crown!"

Educational stuff like that.

The shows became so popular some other teachers allowed their students to crowd into Mrs. Phipps' room to catch the morning floor show.

She probably caught more than a little push-back from some of her fellow teachers who thought she was making a mockery of morning exercises by allowing us to put on early morning stage musical comedies, but she never wavered.

One thing Mrs. Phipps believed in above all else: Do not stifle a child's imagination. It is the most important thing he or she has.

And she was always there for us when we needed her the most.

Nov. 22, 1963 was the most memorable of those days when we all needed Mrs. Phipps to be there for us.

It was a crisp but sunny fall day, exactly two weeks before my 11th birthday.

The day proceeded normally through the morning. In the early afternoon, I was in Mrs. Cairn's music class, learning the scales. It was OK, but I thought I was a musical comedy star by that point and needed no further instruction.

Then, suddenly, the public address box on the wall started crackling and the voice of Mr. Roweton came on the PA.

I have an announcement for students and staff I hoped I would never have to make, he said in a somber voice.

My first reaction was a selfish one – I thought he was going to cancel recess forever.

I have to tell you some very sad news. President Kennedy was shot and killed about an hour ago in Dallas, Texas, as he rode in a motorcade. The president is dead. The vice president, Lyndon Johnson, will be sworn in as the new president soon.

Students, I want you to return to your homerooms in an orderly fashion, where you will be dismissed for the day. This is a sad, sad day for our country. You should be with your families.

President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy arrive at Dallas Airport, in Dallas, shortly before President Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.
Credit AP

It was a Friday, and Mr. Roweton said he would let us know whether or not Dayton schools would open on Monday.

I sat there in a daze, trying to take it in. I was in shock. I could barely concentrate on the voices around me. I had come to admire our young president and his family. They meant the world to me.

I could barely focus but I noticed that across the aisle, one of my fellow students, Merilyn, was saying something to me. What?, I said. I can't hear you.

Merilyn had a reputation as a "brainiac" and wasn't well-liked by a lot of her classmates. No one could deny, though, that she was incredibly smart. I had always liked her, because she was different. Different in my world was a good thing.

She turned to me and leaned across the aisle and quietly said four words:

It was the Cubans.

I was stunned once more. I thought about it. Maybe she was right.

We gathered up our books and started walking from the first-floor music class to Mrs. Phipps' classroom on the second floor.

I was one of the first to walk into the class.

There, I saw something I will never forget.

Mrs. Phipps, her head in her hands, face down on her desk, sobbing and shaking.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw us beginning to come in, and she sat up and quickly composed herself, although you could still see the streaks of tears on her face.

When we all had gathered in our seats, she stood up straight and tall, took a deep breath, and began to speak.

Girls and boys, I know you must be as shocked as I am by the news of our president's assassination, she said. I want you to know that there is great evil in the world; and that evil was responsible for what happened today in Dallas.

But there is great good as well. President Kennedy asked us to aspire to do great things. To 'think not of what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.'

I want you all to gather your things now and go home to your families to reflect on what has happened here. Don't be afraid to talk about it. Pray for our country. And know that I am always here to help you in bad times and good.

We all filed out of the classroom.

One by one, she hugged each of us as we left.

And I am so grateful that such a kind and caring teacher was there that horrible day.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

  Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.