Nearly 50 years ago, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, plunged the nation into shock and grief. It also pulled Arcola native LeRoy Blessing into a special place in history.
Blessing, now 80, was one of eight U.S. Marines based at the Washington, D.C., barracks selected to guard Kennedy's casket while it lay in state at U.S. Capitol rotunda. He also helped seat dignitaries at the funeral Mass Nov. 25, 1963, at Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington.
“It was quite an honor,” Blessing said this week while here visiting his daughter and son-in-law, Kerry and Bob Yates, who live near Huntertown. “It was a sad occasion, but it was an honor to participate.”
Blessing, who now lives in Howey-in-the-Hills, Fla., north of Orlando, grew up in Arcola.
He was looking for a challenge and didn't feel he was finding it at Arcola School, where he was in high school, so he decided to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, he said. He tried to enlist at age 16, but his birth date tipped them off he was too young.
He joined in 1950, four days after turning age 17, and left school the following year while a junior.
After turning age 18, the minimum age for serving in a combat zone, Blessing served as a member of an artillery crew for 14 months in Korea during the Korean War, he said.
In November 1963, he was stationed at the Marine Corps' barracks in Washington, D.C., where he was assigned to write correspondence courses for artillery units and to participate in the Friday night military parades they held at the base.
He and his wife, Edna; daughter Kerry, then 5; and son Perry, then 3, lived in a mobile home outside College Park, Md., he said.
He was outside trying to fix their heat on Nov. 22, when his wife came out to say he had a phone call. The Marine officer on the other end told him the president had been shot and killed, and that he was among the eight Marines selected to help guard Kennedy's casket at the Capitol rotunda and to assist at the funeral Mass.
“I remember my Mom came back in the house and flipped on the TV, and she started crying,” Kerry Yates said.
Blessing said military commanders expected extensive media coverage of Kennedy's casket lying in state in the Capitol rotunda and at the funeral, so they picked men who would represent the Marines well — “The ones who looked the sharpest in uniform.”
Eight members of each of the other armed services also were casket guards in the rotunda — Air Force, Army, Navy and Coast Guard, he said.
They each stood guard for a four-hour shift and provided watch 24 hours a day, Blessing said. He was lucky and worked the morning shift.
U.S. government officials and foreign heads of state viewed the casket and paid respects Nov. 23, and more than 350,000 members of the general public filed past Nov. 24, it says on the White House Historical Association's website, www.whitehousehistory.org.
In the rotunda, “it was just a lot of people,” Blessing recalled. “They lined up for hours and hours so they could view the casket.”
At the funeral Mass, he was assigned to seat visiting dignitaries. In their invitations to the Mass, the dignitaries each received a ticket with a color on it. Blessing and the other military personnel working with him had to seat dignitaries in the area of the cathedral that corresponded to the color on their ticket.
To help make it easier to identify the different seating areas, Blessing used crayons to color his seating chart, which he still has.
At the Mass, invited guests had to go through a Secret Service check before walking into the cathedral through a side entrance, he said.
He seated visitors including Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II of England, and Haile Selassie I, the emperor of Ethiopia. Phillip was a big, tall man, he recalled, while Selassie was short and covered in military medals and awards.
Once the doors to the cathedral closed, Blessing and the other military personnel seating people walked back to stand at the rear of the church. When the Mass ended, they formed two lines to visually guide dignitaries out of the building.
He said he also was there during that iconic moment after the Mass when the president's young son, John Jr., or “John-John,” stood at the bottom of the cathedral steps and saluted as his father's casket passed by.
“If you look from the street, I am standing in the doorway,” Blessing said.
He went on to serve two tours of duty in the Vietnam War, retiring as a captain in 1970 after 20 years in the Marines. He then worked for the U.S. Postal Service and delivered The News-Sentinel on a motor route before retiring in 1982 and moving to Florida.
But helping to guard Kennedy's casket and working at the funeral Mass remain among the highlights of his life.
“It was quite an honor for me,” he said.