WATERTOWN — This is a story about two American tragedies and their ties to a man — and a room — in Watertown.
Semi-retired attorney Steve Luchsinger recently discussed this tale, and the timing couldn’t have been better, coinciding with Saturday’s 20th anniversary of the infamous terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
Luchsinger and a certain room at the old Watertown High School share an eerie history and forever are entwined on America’s dark side.
On Nov. 22, 1963, Luchsinger — now 74 years old — was a junior at Watertown High School. He was sitting in his math class, taught by Warren Hamel, when, all of a sudden, the booming, baritone voice of the school’s vice principal erupted over the public address system, informing students and staff that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
Speaking with Luchsinger about the day Kennedy died can transport a person back decades, to be right there with his younger self.
“We were in Miss Eleanor Griffith’s classroom and Mr. Hamel was just using it,” Luchsinger said of that fateful day in ‘63. “Mr. Hamel was just borrowing the room that semester. ... It was a Friday and we had a basketball game. Everybody was excited on days like that. I was on the basketball team. There was a ball game and it was the end of the week. There was a little excitement in the air.”
Luchsinger said he never will forget that the announcement was made over the school’s PA system and the PA was next to a clock. The old wooden speaker still is in the room at the old high school that now is a YMCA workout room.
“It was unusual for an announcement to come in at 10 minutes after 1 p.m. — it was an odd time for an announcement and our vice principal had this deep voice that made his presence even more impressive,” Luchsinger said of the disciplinarian he remembered as being a mountain of a man. “He made this announcement that President Kennedy was shot in Dallas and was dead. And in that deep voice you could hear the emotion and pain. He was personally affected by this. We were just dumb 16-year-old kids, but we were stunned.”
Luchsinger said math teacher Hamel was “a low-key” person and didn’t seem very affected by the assassination.
“Mr. Hamel just sighed and said, ‘Students, sometimes these tragic things happen and we don’t know why, and let’s get back to the problem we were discussing.’ And with a two-minute interruption, we were back at math,” Luchsinger said. “Nowadays, they would bring in grief counselors. We didn’t have any discussion about it. Today, you’d be sent home.”
Math class let out 20 minutes later and Luchsinger said he encountered Miss Griffith in the hallway as she made her way back to her desk. Her reaction to the death of JFK was the opposite of that of Hamel.
“Tears were streaming down her face,” Luchsinger said. “I distinctly remember Miss Griffith crying uncontrollably. And, that night, the ballgame went on. It was subdued, but it went on.”
Fast-forward to Sept. 11, 2001 and Luchsinger was working out in the Watertown health and fitness center, which later became the YMCA in the former high school. The attorney was lifting weights just down the hall from his old math classroom.
His former math room had several TVs in it and a friend urgently summoned him to come in and watch what would become images that would rival the attack on Pearl Harbor for their shocking impact on world history.
“It was a Tuesday, and I was doing my weight room routine of stretching and pumping a little iron. Dan Herbst came in and said, ‘Come down to the treadmill room. You won’t believe what’s happened.’ And there were treadmills and half a dozen TVs, and I looked up and there were the smoking Twin Towers. Both planes had hit by then and there was a panic going on. I learned of the 9/11 tragedy in the same room I’d been in 38 years earlier for the loss of JFK.”
Luchsinger views his presence in the same room for both historic events as nothing more than coincidence.
“I don’t put any great significance on it,” he said. “It’s just happenstance, just a coincidence. I do feel that ‘place’ has a lot to do with memory. Memories are locked in our minds due to time and place, and memory is affected by time and place. You remember big events that way.”
Luchsinger said it didn’t dawn on him until later that he had been in the exact same room for two hugely significant events in modern world history.
“I didn’t realize it — not right away. But later that day in 2001, I did,” he said. “Those were the two biggest public tragedies of the my life. I didn’t go to Vietnam and I had no other major tragedies in my life, but those were huge for me.”