Four Days When Time Stood Still
It was one of those steel-gray days in late November that spoke of colder weather and a long, hard winter to come. Most of the leaves were already off the big maple tree in Rodney Hadley’s back yard. He was whiling away the early afternoon by raking them up and dumping them by the wheelbarrow-full on the compost heap behind his carriage house.
Rodney was the second generation of Hadleys to live at 308 Concord Road. His father, Frank Hadley, spent most of his 94 years there. Before he died in 1950, he could be found sitting beside the pitcher pump on the front lawn and offering tumblers of ice-cold well water to passersby.
Rodney, like has father before him, was sexton of the First Parish Church, responsible for janitorial duties and seeing that the clock in the steeple–which belonged to the Town–was set and operating properly. For this extra service he was paid $25 a year. The large brass key to the church, on its wrought iron ring, hung on a nail inside Hadley’s back door.
Hadley was just putting the wheelbarrow away when the news came. He glanced at his watch as he listened to the emergency bulletin which interrupted the regular programming on his kitchen radio. At exactly 2 p.m. on the 22nd of November, 1963, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had died, assassinated on the streets of Dallas, Texas.
The word spread all over town in different ways. Former High School Principal Alan Flynn heard it on the television at his Goodman Hill home and started across the street to get his mail. When the mailman asked why there were tears in his eyes, he simply said: “The President has been assassinated.”
Ed Kreitsek heard the news at work in the Raytheon building and immediately called fellow Selectmen Ed Moynihan and Dick Venne. “I just couldn’t accept the fact of what I was hearing,” he said later. “It was a period of no authority. You wondered how you’d get started again.“
While the Selectmen were conferring and drafting a proclamation for a day of mourning, Hadley was taking matters into his own hands. Removing the church key from its peg, he slowly walked across the common, let himself in, climbed the stairs to the clock tower and turned off the switch. For only the second time in more than a century, the hands stood frozen in time. Ninety-eight years before, they had been stopped for the death of another champion of freedom, President Abraham Lincoln.
The streets of the town were deserted as people remained glued to their television sets and radios for more news as the President’s body was returned to Washington on Air Force One and taken to the White House. But, behind the scenes, plans were being made. “In recognition of the sorrow of the people of the nation and of the Town of Sudbury,” the Board of Selectmen, at a special meeting at 9 p.m. Saturday, November 23rd, 1963, issued the following:
Monday, November 25th, 1963 is hereby proclaimed a holiday of mourning in the Town of Sudbury as evidence of the sorrow, shock and grief that overwhelms the nation upon the death by assassination of the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The somber sadness occasioned by the tragic loss of our president will be evidenced by the cessation of all municipal, civic, industrial and commercial activities on this day.
The reservation of this day to a period of mourning for John Fitzgerald Kennedy symbolizes our dedication to the precious principals of our constitutional government and is a demonstration of our heartfelt awareness of the untimely loss of a great president whose experience and patriotic leadership have been denied to the United States and the free world.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s personal sacrifice to the nation is equalled only to the immeasurable loss to his family of a loving husband and father.
For the people of Sudbury, we extend our woefully inadequate condolences to the family of the ex-president John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
We pledge our support to President Lyndon B. Johnson who, with the help of God and the people of this nation, will assume for all Americans the tremendous obligations, responsibilities and authority as the 36th President of the United States.
Proclaimed this 23rd day of November, 1963 in Sudbury, Massachusetts.
Edward F. Moynihan, Chairman
Edward E. Kreitsek
Richard C Venne
It would take more than words to reassure the townspeople that, just as it had in wars in which Sudbury soldiers were involved, life would go on as it had before. When word came of an interfaith service for the President at 5 p.m. Sunday afternoon, November 24, both floors of the Town Hall were filled within minutes and the overflow had to listen to the singing and psalm reading from the hallway and the stairs. Uniformed Boy Scouts sat in a body. Fire and police officers attended in full dress uniform.
The only speakers were the members of the clergy: Methodist minister Blaine Taylor, Father Robert Hurley of Our Lady of Fatima, Rev. Carl Scovel of the First Parish Church Unitarian, Rev. E. William Simmerman of United Presbyterian, Rabbi Zion of Congregation Beth El, Rev. Ernest Bodenweber of Memorial Congregational and Rev. Edwin Sunderland of St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal.
Ministers read psalms, a hymn was sung and a bidding prayer was led by Rev. Sunderland in which the congregation stood and prayed in silence. The Proclamation from the Selectmen was read and the congregation filed slowly out into the night. The service had lasted exactly one half hour.
As the townspeople streamed to their cars, the church bell tolled in an ancient custom peculiar to Sudbury: three times three, indicating a man had died, and then 46 strokes, one for each year of his life.
It was not as much the ceremony itself as the way that the townspeople silently gathered together to reassure one another and move on that was striking. Donald B. Willard, Publisher of the Fence Viewer, said it best in an editorial:
…The leaders of the government reacted with speed, dignity and authority. Power passed from one hand to another instantly as a matter of course, without dissent. This was only what we expected in such a case, but nevertheless it was a great good.
Such a transition is possible in only a few countries in the world. It occurs here because we have acquired political skill. Much of the learning was done centuries ago in these very towns of Massachusetts. A Congress is only an elaborate kind of Town Meeting and Town Meetings too can act with celerity when need arises.
…No earthquake can shake town government and, we see again, none can shake the national government. Both are fixed by accepted rule and by common consent. And common consent is a firmer base for power than ever a dictator or emperor possessed.
Even though the house be solid on its foundation, the cynic says there may be shady business in the back room. So there may. But over last weekend we saw all leaders with sober faces going about their duties, their better natures showing.
“For renewed proof that our institutions are strong and that men are capable of rising to an occasion with good will, we may draw confidence and courage.
“For the first time in the history of the Town, all faiths of the town were gathered together in the face of an eternal assault upon truth,” John Powers was to write later. “Gone was the old factional strife. Gone was the thoughtless division of faith. As the cold winter wind grew from the west, many of those who rested on the ancient burial hill must have wondered ancient thoughts. Could the old differences be buried? Could the old codes of acceptance, or indeed, any codes of acceptance be forgotten? Was there, amidst the frightening reports of what had happened, a last chance at rededication?”
Indeed there was, and from all over town the silent throng had gathered to bear witness.
On the following Tuesday afternoon, Rodney Hadley was once again raking leaves in his back yard as if nothing unusual had happened in the last four days. Looking at his pocket watch, he noticed that it was five minutes to two. Putting down his rake, he strode into the kitchen, took the church key once more from its peg, walked across the Common and re-started the town clock. The last four days would never be forgotten, but life in Sudbury, and in the nation, would go on.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the life of a Town, a 256-page sequel to A.S. Hudson’s History of Sudbury. Autographed copies are available from Porcupine Enterprises, 106 Woodside Road, Sudbury, MA 01776. Hardbound presentation copies are $26.25 including tax plus $3.20 postage. Trade paperbacks are $12.60 including tax plus $3.20 postage.