Elva Prout's Tears

"The sharp knife of a short life..."

-- Kimberly Perry


Elva Prout frowned as she turned her back to the classroom and looked quizzically at the speaker on the wall. Normally, we’d hear the principal’s voice delivering the edict du jour.

On this Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963, just static.

Not one to stand idly by in the face of static, Elva Prout made for the office, seeking clarity (btw, that was her real name, just like the name of the community, Plainville. I couldn’t dream this stuff up.) Upon her return, we looked up from our Big Chief tablets, stowed our fat pencils in the grooves hollowed out for that express purpose and sensed something was wrong.

No words as she buried her head in her hands and pretty much lost it. Right there in front of God and the first grade.

Two to a desk at Plainville Rural Grade School. I was paired with Nancy Cunningham, who wore plaid jumpers and curly blonde hair. She was nicer to me than I was to her.

Sorry, Nance.     

At age 5, with a more evolved sense of cognizance than her seatmate, Nancy Cunningham blew right past nascent decorum and spoke aloud before being called on.

“Mrs. Prout, what’s the matter..?”

Sometimes empathy trumps the system. Maybe it should all the time.

The entire Plainville pupil population was herded into the gymnasium where they broke the news. Many of the teachers and older kids were crying. My third grade sister found me and took me by the hand as we boarded the school bus for home.  

Friday was Ironing Day (Ladies’ Home Journal’s caps) on the farm. Mom was starchin’ up the tea towels when Walter Cronkite interrupted As the World Turns on KAYS-TV, Channel 7, the High Plains Television Network, (17 years later, I would anchor the news on the same station) took off his glasses, choked back the tears and told the country he had died.

Mom was on the rotary dial wall phone to her best friend in town, who was from Boston and had actually met the man.

In the ensuing years as I came of age and the social studies took hold, Cronkite would utter phrases like “... the Johnson administration...” and “...the Western White House...” and I began to get a sense of what presidents of the United States are and do.

I would come to admire the man for whom Elva Prout cried that autumn afternoon in Plainville, Kansas. Pragmatic politician. Hardline Cold Warrior. Noblesse oblige. Man of his times. An innate understanding of how to manage his own reputation.

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In Boston this summer we visited his Presidential Library, where I took this picture of Elaine de Kooning’s oil on canvas. He posed for it in Palm Beach less than a year before he died.

Until now, I guess I’ve never really pondered whether it’s because of what happened that Friday afternoon in Dealey Plaza or in spite of it. But over the 50 years his death manifested itself as a deeper personal connection to the American presidency and in a larger sense, a clear view of my responsibility as a citizen.

What I can do for my country.   

Maybe it’s because I actually read the Weekly Reader. Maybe it’s because he had a daughter my age. Nancy Cunningham coulda been Caroline. Maybe it’s because of Elva Prout’s tears.

Maybe it’s because I lost my first president.