Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Day Kennedy Died

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, November 22, 2013.

Fifty years ago the nation reeled from the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. The first news that something had happened trickled into town just before 2:00pm Eastern time and by 2:30, the official announcement of the president’s death arrived. People heard the news on radio or television and word quickly spread. The weekend that followed, unseasonably warm in Exeter, has been described as one of suspended animation by most people who remember it.

Kennedy was a familiar figure to most of the town’s citizens. He had visited the town in 1956 while on a campaign tour for the Democratic Party. Senator Kennedy had just lost a bid for vice-president at the Democratic Convention during the summer and by September, when he came to Exeter, he was stumping for party votes. His speech at the bandstand, which began an hour late due to delays earlier in the day in Manchester, was well received by the local Democratic Party members. But the Republican Party was still dominant in town and the crowd, although polite, was probably not won over by his speech. The Exeter News-Letter, in its coverage of the event, noted of his convention loss, “Many attribute his defeat to his courageous Senate vote in support of the Republican administration’s flexible farm price program in defiance of the Democrat Party stand for firm 90 percent parity prices.” It would seem that the most complimentary thing to say about a Democrat in Exeter was that he voted against his own party.

When the election of 1960 rolled around the News-Letter endorsed Richard Nixon. “As New Hampshire people living under the aegis of the state motto ‘Live Free or Die,’ we strongly oppose any further retreat under the umbrella of welfarism. It is time to restore the attitudes of thrift, self-discipline and morality to the national character. Some Democrats by their voting records indicate they believe in these principles, but Senator Kennedy is notably absent from the list.” The election results indicate that a majority of the town agreed with the paper. Turnout that year was high; 3,747 voters cast ballots and Nixon soundly won the town with 2,273 of those votes. Republicans won the entire ticket in Exeter and Nixon received all of New Hampshire’s electoral votes.

Exeter in 1963 was still relatively small. The 1960 census estimated the town’s population to be 7,243 persons, or roughly half of what it is today. The Ioka Theater was the center of entertainment, although many people now owned television sets. For the week of November 20th, the big draw was a Disney film called “The Incredible Journey.” Exeter High School students were performing “Pride and Prejudice” on Thursday and Friday. The Thursday show was a great success, but Friday, with news of the assassination, the performance was postponed until the following week.

Various civic and fraternal groups scrambled to respond to the tragedy. Chief Ranger Walter Gadd, of the Foresters of America, called an emergency meeting of the officers and planned a memorial service. They also decided to drape the Court Charter for 30 days – a tradition that was usually reserved for members only. 

After President Johnson declared Monday, November 25th a day of mourning, many more postponements and services were planned. The High School trip to New York City that was scheduled to leave on Monday was moved to December. All town schools were closed on Monday – the students had a very short week given that the end of the week was Thanksgiving Break. St Michael Church held a special Mass on Monday at 10:00 that was attended by over 800 people.

Yet within all this, life still went on. Not to be deterred by events, there were four babies born on November 22nd. Not everyone halted their plans for the day. Helen Kreger’s diary indicates that after receiving the news that afternoon, she went to dinner with friends at Kurtz’s diner and went to see “The Incredible Journey” (rating it as “Good” – underlined twice). The following day she notes, “Radio – all tragic news and music, of course.”

Thirty days of mourning followed and there was no small amount of hand-wringing about the safety precautions that were overlooked in Dallas. “It is our belief that United States Presidents have always exposed themselves unnecessarily. Unfortunately our political system calls for their exposure to tremendous crowds. Somehow, the goings and comings of these eminent persons must not be publicized,” opined the Exeter News-Letter. But the wounds were deep. There were few around who could remember the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, which was also attributed to a President unnecessarily exposing himself to public crowds. In the end, the News-Letter lamented, “a man who is President of the United States is something special. His ‘family’ transcends the relationship of blood and heredity. As the elected leader of 180 million Americans, this personage has the awesome duty of promoting the welfare of each and every one of us.” He may not have been Exeter’s candidate, but John F. Kennedy was their President and the sudden loss touched everyone.

Photo: Senator John F. Kennedy visited Exeter on September 25th, 1956 while campaigning for the Democratic Party. He spoke for just under an hour at the Swasey Bandstand in the downtown. Pictured with the Senator are: Frances Smith Adams, John Sullivan, John Cahill (back row) Walter Driscoll, Thomas Fecteau, Lawrence Pickett and John Lusona. Ben Swiezynski, a local photographer, took the picture.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Radio Comes to Town

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, November 8, 2013.

1924 was the year radio sales exploded. Commercial broadcasting had begun a few years earlier, but few people owned receivers. In Exeter, only William Folsom and Frank Cilley had sets in 1922. Radio broadcasting, although still in its infancy, had received a boost in 1924 after the November presidential election when it was widely reported that Calvin Coolidge listened to the returns on the radio. Coolidge, then as now, was not particularly known for being an early adopter of technology, but apparently he embraced the 1920s version of the information superhighway. Even though the economy was in a rut in New England, suddenly everyone wanted a radio.

Olive Tardiff recalls that her family had a radio by the time she was ten years old. “You can work out when that was,” she told me. Olive was born in 1916, so her family purchased a radio around 1926 – or pretty early in the rush. At the time, there were few offerings coming across the airwaves. Broadcasters were still trying to determine what people wanted to hear. Victrola sales had been building for over two decades, so there seemed to be a public demand for music. Most stations included blocks of music – often performed live – during the course of the day. Victor Talking Machine Company was so concerned about the competition from radio that it began advertising victrola cabinets that could be adapted and would either play records or radio. An ad from December, 1924 declared that, “we have modified the construction of our instruments that virtually any of the more reliable radio sets may be installed as a complete unit ready to operate as soon as delivered.”

If you did buy yourself a combination victrola/radio or even just a radio cabinet, which could be purchased in Exeter at Ralph Meras Company, the radio itself could be picked up at either McIntyre’s Radio Shop in Portsmouth or at D.C. Higgins in Exeter. Both establishments offered Magnavox, Freed-Eisemann, Radiola or Crosley equipment. But even when the radio was installed and warmed up, broadcasts were pretty slim. Olive recalls that in Exeter they listened to stations from New York, not New Hampshire. Listings from the Portsmouth Herald back this up – in October of 1924 there were only three stations available: KYW from Chicago, WBZ from Boston and KOKA in Pittsburg. Programming was heavy on obvious things, like music and news, but also included a bedtime story at 7:30 for kids and Edna Goodman: “Her experiences in canning.” There was slightly more programming on weekends.

According to the New Hampshire Association of Broadcasters, the first radio station licensed by the FCC was WEAQ, which broadcast from Berlin in the Summer of 1922. There was really nothing available for the seacoast until WHEB took to the air in 1932 out of Portsmouth. Originally licensed as a daytime only station, WHEB could only broadcast until 8:30pm. The station, due to its location near the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, reported on a number of maritime disasters in its early years – most notably the 1939 sinking of the submarine Squalus. National reports of the recovery efforts came directly from WHEB.

Exeter itself finally got a radio station in 1966. Created by Concord radio manager, Frank Estes, the NHAB says, “WKXR’s creation was a fluke. FCC policy prevented stations sharing a frequency if their signals overlapped. Estes realized the Exeter area was unserved by a local station, so he proposed a 1,000 watt daytime station at 1540kc. He convinced the Commission to grant a waiver to the rule ‘because the area of overlap was over salt water,’ namely the Atlantic Ocean.” Exeter got her radio station. The following year, Phillips Exeter Academy was licensed with a small FM station to serve the student body.

WKXR broadcast out of a small location on Downing Court, covering local events including the annual Exeter town meeting. It remained a local station broadcasting on both AM and FM frequencies from 1972 until it was split into two separate stations, WERZ FM 107.1 and WXEX AM 1540 in 1982. Today, only the AM station is still broadcast from Exeter -WERZ is now licensed in Exeter, but broadcasts from Portsmouth. And for radio in Exeter, that’s the way it was. Photo caption: The unassuming broadcast headquarters of WKXR in Exeter on Downing Court. The station began broadcasting in 1966.

New Exeter History Minute -- The IOKA

The IOKA Theater opened on November 1, 1915, and despite the owner's bankruptcy, still managed to put The Opera House out of business within just a few years. In this episode of the Exeter History Minute -- click here to watch -- Barbara dispels some of the urban legends that the IOKA can't seem to shake. If you want to learn more about the Exeter Theater Company's efforts to save the IOKA, visit their website, www.exetertheater.org. This Exeter History Minute is sponsored by Hampton Inn and Suites. To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website, www.exeterhistory.org. #ExeterHistoryMinute