PORTSMOUTH — For Nancy Souza and many others who were there 50 years ago, the excitement of a new high school opening its doors was soon cut short by an assassin’s bullet.
Portsmouth High School, formerly the Fort Butts School (what is now the building’s “E” wing), opened its expanded building on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963 to students in grades 7 to 10. What should have been a joyous occasion was spoiled when word got around the hallways that President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.
“I was in the ninth grade,” said Ms. Souza, now the school nurse at Portsmouth Middle School. “We were evacuated for a fire drill and when we got back into the building, the principal came over the intercom and said President Kennedy had been shot. We didn’t know he was killed until we got home from school.”
Donna Hetland was in Victor St. Laurent’s seventh-grade history class.
“He was called outside the classroom for a few minutes,” she said. “When he came back his face was white as a ghost. We asked him, ‘What’s wrong, Mr. St. Laurent?’ He then told us.”
Another seventh-grader, Brad Therrien, remembers leaving Roger Vierra’s English class when the dire news came over the PA.
“I remember thinking, he’ll be OK. After all, he survived the war and the sinking of the PT 109. He’ll survive this,” Mr. Therrien said.
The president’s death was officially announced at 1:33 p.m. Central Standard Time — 2:33 p.m. in Rhode Island, at the tail end of the school day — and many teachers tried their best to shield students from the bad news. George Mello of Bristol, a social studies teacher at the time, remembers there being a sense of disorder and confusion.
“It was kind of chaotic,” said Mr. Mello, who retired from PHS as a guidance counselor. “They were trying to get students over to the cafeteria because that’s where they were going to get released for the buses. Part of the building weren’t even done yet. Surreal — that’s the word.”
Robert Pimental, the reference librarian at the Portsmouth Free Public Library, was a student teacher when PHS opened.
“I was teaching a ninth-grade modern European history class and Louis Sousa (the late social studies teacher) came knocking at my door and said, ‘The president’s been shot,'” recalled Mr. Pimental. “We all went, ‘Oh God,’ but we didn’t think he was dead. Then as we got closer to school letting out, the news came that he had died. It was kind of weird. People kind of hung around and looked at the TV. It really put kind of a damper on everything.”
After four days of watching television — including the live broadcast of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot Sunday morning — school resumed the following Monday. “We had a memorial service and then they dismissed everybody,” Mr. Pimental said.
Class of ’68 curse?
In a bizarre and cruel twist to the sad saga, many students in one particular class not only came into Portsmouth High School on the day a Kennedy was assassinated, they left when a second member of the prominent political family was killed. Some believe, in fact, that members of the Class of 1968 graduated on the very day Robert Kennedy was killed in California: June 6, 1968.
“I recall our Class of ’68 graduation very well,” said Arthur Denman. “What should have been joyous was really kind of somber. Male members faced with the prospect of going to Vietnam also cast gloom over the day.”
Mr. Pimental was alerted to Robert Kennedy’s shooting by a student’s early morning phone call. He doesn’t remember the Class of 1968 graduating on the same day of the assassination, but said it would have been very close to the date.
(Robert Kennedy, as fate would have it, had once attended another school in town: Portsmouth Abbey.)
Over a 50-year span, memories also get fuzzy regarding the setup at the school at the time of its official opening in 1963. Most people say the double sessions that were going on at Fort Butts School ended when the expanded school opened on Nov. 22, 1963. A few students, however, say they still were attending either morning or afternoon sessions at the school that day.
Some even disagree on the school’s name. “It was Fort Butts School, but when the new part opened it was Portsmouth High School,” said Ms. Souza.
Others, however, believe it was still known as Fort Butts School, or Butts Hill School.
They may not recall every detail about what happened 50 years ago, but those who were there still have vivid recollections of what JFK’s death meant to them.
For a 13-year-old Catholic girl, the president meant the world to Nancy Souza.
“Everybody was so excited that finally the country was opening their arms to Roman Catholics,” she said. “He was sort of an idol. He was young-looking and vibrant and he had charisma. I was a young teenager and I was in awe of him.”
Glenn Allen (’68), who was attending eighth-grade classes at the private St. Anthony’s School in Portsmouth on Nov. 22, 1963, agreed that JFK was revered at Catholic schools and churches.
“It was pretty shocking,” he said upon the reaction to hearing the news from Dallas. “The girls in the class just burst out crying and the nuns were crying, too.”
Mr. Mello said he immediately thought of the young students around him — how difficult it must have been for them to process the news. “The president got assassinated? What does that mean?” he said.
Over the weekend, as Mr. Mello and his wife stay glued to the developments on television, he’d stare at his 2-year-old daughter, Jennifer.
“I remember her walking back and forth and sensing something was going on and us saying, ‘What could she possibly be thinking?'”
Mr. Pimental said leaving school that Friday afternoon was nothing short of eerie.
“I remember walking home; I lived on Founder’s Avenue,” he said. “It was a beautiful fall day and the river was flat calm — like a mirror. It was so peaceful.
“But something was screwed up.”
PHS marks anniversary
Current PHS Principal Robert Littlefield said “it’s not the Smithsonian,” but a small display of artifacts housed in a glass case across from the school cafeteria helps tell the proud history of Portsmouth High School, which turns 50 years old today.
“We’ve got some old uniforms, we’ve got a graduation program from the first year, we’ve got some old championship jackets,” said Mr. Littlefield, who said the school is celebrating its birthday all year. “We’re going to recognize it at the home Thanksgiving football game and introduce some people who were significant from our past. And then this spring, we’re going to be rolling out our Athletic Hall of Fame.”
The principal spent the summer researching the school’s history and enjoys flipping through an old program for PHS’ official dedication ceremony, which didn’t take place until July 1964.
“This I love,” he said, pointing to a picture of students sitting in the cafeteria. “Everyone is facing in the same direction.”
On another page he spots a grand piano. “We still have this Baldwin piano,” he said, noting that it’s undergone several repairs over the past five decades. “It was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Clifton Holman Sr. Today it would cost us $40,000 to replace.”
One thing that struck Mr. Littlefield during his research was the fact that so many local students had to travel for miles to attend school before PHS opened.
“Portsmouth kids had quite a journey — going to Rogers, going to Warren, going to school in Fall River,” he said. “Some went to Middletown the year before the school opened. In that first year (1963), they also accepted the ninth grade from Tiverton. I know there’s a lot of talk now about regionalization, but back then in the late ’50s and early ’60s, kids were moving around quite a bit.”
Even though Portsmouth High opened in 1963 to grades 7 through 10, many students in those grades were still attending private schools such as St. Anthony.
“Anyone that was in 11th or 12th grade at that time attended high school at Rogers or Durfee or elsewhere,” recalled Ms. Hetland.
“The town was really growing,” said Mr. Mello. “Before that, the town was paying vouchers and you could go to a private school. Finally, enough new people came (to settle in Portsmouth) and said, ‘Why are you sending my kids to Fall River?’ They strongly supported the new school.”
Ms. Souza said she was excited for the opportunity to attend PHS.
“I certainly didn’t want to go to another a Catholic school after nine years,” she said.
Ms. Souza said there was a lot of youthful energy around the teaching staff at the new school.
“It was really quite wonderful because the teachers were only 22 years old,” Ms. Souza said. “They graduated from college and they all got jobs at Portsmouth High School. They were only eight years older than me and they were willing to stay after school to help you out.”