That's the way it was: 1963

Vietnam
Vietnam

 

By JUDY HOPKINS

Pitt-Bradford           

 

            Sept. 3, 1963: Opening day of the University of Pittsburgh, Bradford Campus. College freshmen gather under the portico at Hamsher House, a former dormitory for Bradford Hospital’s nursing students and now the hub of Pitt-Bradford. Some students have just come from their first class; others wait for friends to join them in The Tuck Shop, a snack bar inside.

            The conversation drifts to their teachers, perhaps John Shea, who teaches political science, June Pfister who teaches chemistry and math, or the German teacher, Gisella Magnella.

            Soon, the group breaks up, and local students driving their parents’ new Studebaker Wagonnaires or Buick Rivieras ask out-of-town freshmen if they want a lift to their “dorms.”     

            Home for the out-of-the-area female students means the former Zook family apartment upstairs at 146 W. Washington St. Male students live at 87 Kennedy St., 2 School St. or 197 Interstate Parkway  — complete with housemothers. Others room at the local YMCA. 

            Settled in, students might grab a snack — perhaps a bowl of a new cereal, Fruit Loops, or another just-released product, Chips Ahoy! Chocolate Chip cookies — and wash it down with the newfangled Maxwell House Freeze Dried Coffee or new diet drink Tab (filled with the later-banned artificial sweetener, cyclamate).

            That evening, students could choose from only three TV networks — CBS, NBC, and ABC — and watch “Combat!,” “Mr. Novak” or “Petticoat Junction.”  

            Or they could listen to their trendy transitor radios and hear the No. 1 song, “My Boyfriend’s Back” by the Angels, or other Top 10 tunes like “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!”; the Four Seasons’ “Candy Girl”; or Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of Bob Dylan’s anti-war anthem, “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

            Some students type letters on their new Smith Corona portable typewriters while others choose to see the movie playing at Dipson’s Theater on Main Street — “Irma La Douce” starring Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon.

            Elsewhere, as Walter Cronkite would have reported on the now-half-hour CBS Evening News (expanded from 15 minutes just the day before), viewers saw scenes of unrest in the South; updates on NASA’s plan to send a man to the moon before 1970; or a report about Vietnam’s unstable government.

            And no one, except perhaps a loner named Lee Harvey Oswald, knew President John F. Kennedy had a little over two months to live.

            This was 1963 when the average yearly income was $5,807; a stamp cost 5 cents; a loaf of bread, 22 cents; a gallon of gas, 29 cents; and a new car, $3,233.   

            “Tumultuous” is the word Dr. Richard Frederick, professor of history at Pitt-Bradford, chose to sum up the year 1963 — not only because of the Kennedy assassination, but also the civil rights events, especially in Alabama.

            To baby boomers, the question is still asked: Where were you when you heard Kennedy was assassinated? On a campaign trip to Dallas, President Kennedy, with his wife, Jacqueline, sat in the back of a Lincoln convertible when Oswald, a former U.S. Marine, fired the fatal shots from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository.

            Two days later, Oswald, was shot and killed by nightclub owner Jack Ruby as he was being transferred from Dallas police headquarters to the county jail. The networks unwittingly had broadcast the first live murder on TV.

            On Nov. 25, the nation would watch JFK’s funeral, during which his 3-year-old son “John John” saluted his father’s casket as it passed.

            “What we usually think of as ‘The ’60s didn’t really start until after the Kennedy assassination,” Frederick said.         

            Certainly, the civil rights movement heated up in 1963. Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led non-violent civil rights demonstrations in segregated Birmingham, Ala., where police, under orders, used guard dogs and hoses (some said to carry 700 pounds of pressure) to combat the protestors, which included student activists. King, along with others, was arrested and incarcerated where he wrote the landmark “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

            Other demonstrations and sit-ins followed in the South, culminating in the Aug. 28 March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech before a crowd of 250,000.

            “The speech was tremendously important in awakening youth and middle America to what was going on,” Frederick said.

            But the violence was far from over. 

            In September, Alabama Gov. George Wallace  — halted in June by a federalized National Guard from keeping two black students from attending the state university — tried again to outlaw integration, this time in a high school. Again, Kennedy federalized the National Guard to prevent Wallace from using the Guard members as troopers.

            In September, a bomb planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan killed four black children and injured 22 others at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.

            Yet, a month earlier, James Meredith became the first black man to graduate from the University of Mississippi.  

            Half a world away, America would deepen its involvement in Vietnam. Kennedy had first supported Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of Vietnam, but later decided he was not the leader to stand up to the Communist rebels.

            “Diem and his brother Nhu were killed in a coup on Nov. 1,” Frederick said. “I think this was the turning point of the United States really taking control of things in the war, although the great infusion of troops didn’t start until 1964.”

            Meanwhile, the British had once again invaded America  — this time with The Beatles taking over the music charts as well as the heart of every teenage girl. The four young men from Liverpool, England, known as much for their hair as their harmony, had released “I saw her Standing There,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You,” among other hits in 1963.

            “Many have said that the Beatles were an antidote to the Kennedy assassination in America. Sure, they were that. But they would have been as big with or without that tragedy,” said Tim Ziaukas, Pitt-Bradford professor of public relations. “The Beatles enlivened a group of young people who would go on to change America. The Beatles were their wake-up call for the 1960s.”

             Plenty of memorable non-Beatles’ songs filled the charts, too. There was surf music by The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean; soul and R&B music from Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Ronettes and The Shirelles; more British acts like The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five and Dusty Springfield; and even a singing nun from Belgium who had a No. 1 hit with “Dominique.”  Teens gyrated to their music with dances called “The Monkey” and “The Limbo.”

            Movies released in 1963 included “The Birds,” “How the West was Won,” and “Cleopatra,” known more for inciting the love affair of its stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, than for its artistic achievements.

            New TV programs introduced that year included “The Fugitive,” “My Favorite Martian” and “The French Chef” starring Julia Child.

            Betty Friedan’s landmark feminist treatise, “The Feminine Mystique,” first appeared in 1963, as did comic books like “The Amazing Spider Man” and X-Men.

            In sports, the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Yankees in the World Series, with Sandy Koufax named the National League's Most Valuable Player. The Chicago Bears defeated the New York Giants in the National Football League and the Boston Celtics triumphed over the L.A. Lakers in the National Basketball Association finals.      

            Other news that year included the succession of Pope Paul VI after the death of Pope John XXIII; the introduction of the five-digit ZIP Code, touch-tone telephones and pull-tabs on alumninum cans; the closing of Alcatraz federal penitentiary; the start of Weight Watchers; and the distribution of the Sabin oral polio vaccine.

            1963 also was the year NASA sent astronaut Gordon Cooper on the last Mercury flight. He became the first American to spend more than 24 hours in space.

            Fifty years on, a new freshman class is ready to enter Pitt-Bradford. Besides the obvious differences a half-century has brought, how different are these freshmen from their peers in 1963?

            “The young people back then were naïve in believing they were empowered by idealism,” Frederick said. “The kids of today are naïve in believing they are empowered by technology.”

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