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Walking with history: Blackduck man recalls playing in JFK’s funeral procession

Larry Zea of Blackduck, a former member of the U.S. Navy Band, remembers being part of the procession for President John Kennedy’s furneral on Nov. 25, 1963 in Washington, D.C. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BLACKDUCK — Fifty years ago today, Larry Zea was 26 and living in Washington, D.C.

A member of the U.S. Navy Band, he sang as a tenor in the band’s Sea Chanters and played the French horn during larger events.

Zea supplemented his Navy musician’s salary by selling band instruments for the Kitt Music Co. to Washington area schools, and on Nov. 22, 1963, he was driving back from a sales call when he heard over the radio that President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.

Thousands of other Americans also remember exactly where they were that day, but what makes Zea’s story special is what happened a short time later after he got home from his sales trip. Later that night, Zea received the call informing him that he and his French horn were going to do another large event: President Kennedy’s funeral procession.

The band rehearsed and practiced their marching skills for three days in the Navy Yard, said Zea, who now lives with his wife Pat and two dogs on the shores of Pimushe Lake near Blackduck.

On Nov. 25, 1963, Zea and the band were positioned near the front, behind French President Charles De Gaulle. Zea recalls being impressed at how the elderly De Gaulle managed to walk so far in the cold.

Zea and his bandmates played the Chopin Funeral March. Thousands lined the parade route, and Zea remembers they were all quiet.

“Very somber,” he said. “There wasn’t any celebrating.”

After the procession reached St. Matthew’s Cathedral, where the funeral was held, Zea and the rest of the Navy Band waited outside for services to end so they could continue playing from the church to Arlington National Cemetery. But band members had been standing and walking for hours, and many needed to use a restroom. Zea said he remembers the kindness of D.C. residents who lived near the cathedral opening their homes to Navy sailors they had never met before so they could take advantage of the facilities.

Zea served in the Navy Band for 13 years during the administrations of four presidents, Dwight Eisenhower to Richard Nixon. But being a Navy man himself, Kennedy had the band perform at the White House more than others, and he was Zea’s favorite president to serve under.

“Whenever we performed for him at the White House, he made sure we had something good to eat and something good to drink before we went on,” Zea remembered.

Zea said he even got to shake hands with Kennedy during one of the Christmas parties the president would hold for White House staff.

Not the first funeral

Although Kennedy’s burial was difficult for Zea, he said he had a harder time with a different funeral at Arlington three years before.

Nineteen fellow Navy band members had been killed in a midair collision coming back from a tour in South America. Zea vividly remembers an encounter during the funeral between one of the widows and then-vice president Nixon.

“She kind of lost her cool, and she went up and started beating on his chest, (saying) ‘You killed my husband, you killed my husband,’” he recalled.

The Secret Service leapt in to subdue her, but Nixon waved them off.

“It went on for a half minute, 45 seconds, and then she left,” he said. “I always put Nixon up for that.”

It took three hours after Zea’s wife first heard about the crash until she knew her husband wasn’t on the plane, he said.

Younger people today have an over-idealized version of Kennedy, Zea said, and to see Kennedy as flawless is to ignore the complexity of that time.

“Everybody just thinks Kennedy was great,” he said. “There was a lot of confusion, a lot of anxiety then just like there is now.”


Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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