Sussex County History Today: As the caisson rolled by

| 24 Mar 2024 | 03:12

Pearl Harbor. 9/11. The Challenger disaster. The JFK assassination.

In our lives, we have had profound shared moments.

Many people can recall these moments in time. Exactly where they were when the event took place.

Franklin High School was the only one-building school district in New Jersey into the 1980s. Students went there from kindergarten through 12th grade. I did, and my brother. And both my parents.

I was in seventh grade in November 1963. I was in shop class, running the band saw. Shop work makes a lot of noise so they played music on the radio as an interlude. I still have the magazine rack I made. All of a sudden, Mr. Valentine Mattil said, “Everyone shut up!”

During the silence that ensued, we could hear, not music, but news. Something about a car speeding under an overpass to a Dallas hospital. Mr. Mattil told me to go tell Superintendent Waters to turn on the radio. A short time later, he came on the intercom and told the whole school body to go home.

Many of the seniors, Class of 1964, were already at home. They had the day off to prepare for a class trip that was done annually. Destination? Washington, D.C.

Bonnie Nagy Holland was in that class. She said the trip in past years had taken place in June. But the year before, they moved it to the fall because kids got in trouble (go figure!) and they couldn’t be punished with the end of the school year so close. To leave room for disciplining the mischievous, the trip was moved to November.

Anyone alive at the time can attest that the nation was glued to their televisions. The assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy took place Friday, Nov. 22. The events during that weekend, in black and white, were astounding to say the least.

A classmate Maureen Norton Calantropio said, “I remember being in the auditorium the afternoon he was assassinated and hearing that the school might not send us. Years later, a schoolmate at one of our all-class reunions told me that Mrs. Osborne and Ms. Harden had both been staunch supporters of sending us because they felt we were going to witness a tragic but important event in our country’s history.”

Bonnie said the school contemplated canceling the trip, but all rooms and meals were paid for. The administration grappled with the decision and chose to let the students go. The bus left early on Monday morning, Nov. 25 and got to the capital in time for the students to go to their rooms. Then the class as a whole with their teacher chaperones headed downstairs to stand on the side of the street.

The rest is unforgettable history.

A batch of photos from the trip are available. In a color photo, several of the girls are at a motel, probably on the way back while visiting Gettysburg, Pa. Among them are Jo Anne Masar and Calantropio.

Maureen said it’s hard to believe that the Washington trip was more than 60 years ago! “I remember seeing Haile Selassie (emperor of Ethiopia) and (French president) Charles de Gaulle in the funeral procession. I remember seeing Jackie Kennedy, whose veil was so dark that it appeared almost opaque. The riderless horse refused to settle down and kept bucking around along the processional route. And the cadence of the drums echoed endlessly the whole time.

“Our class stood close to the corner before the bridge going to Arlington Cemetery. When we went to the cemetery after President Kennedy’s funeral, I remember the whole area being surrounded by flowers and seeing a beautiful red carpet that flowed down the hill from his grave.

“I remember that we spent quite a bit of time in our motel rooms during the trip, watching televised programs covering the assassination and the events that took place as President Kennedy lay in state at the (Capitol) Rotunda. We didn’t see many of the usual tourist attractions while we were there because many of the city’s usual events and attractions were closed.”

Such a memorable event in our lives - and a somber one that created a pivotal time in our great nation’s history that still echoes today in its implications and effects. Historical events that one encounters firsthand will many times draw those who experienced it toward each other, grasping for reasons and meaning.

As such, Maureen’s parting words on reflection:

“I love our get-togethers and can’t wait to see everyone again soon. In the meantime, take good care and keep in touch.”

Note: I am very grateful to Becky Komlo Carlsen for sending me these photos from her father’s collection. Tom Komlo was a teacher and administrator at Franklin High School for many years. Becky’s letter provided the impetus for this article. Other photos were supplied by Bonnie Nagy Holland and Jo Anne Masar.

Bill Truran, Sussex County’s historian, may be contacted at