Steamboat Springs More than anything else, Bill Montag remembers the fragile silence. He remembers the sorrow. He remembers the mood of a nation that suddenly and unexpectedly lost its president.
“Whispers sounded like shouting and one little noise could be heard forever in this room,” the Steamboat Springs resident said about the Capitol rotunda where, as a 16-year-old, he visited the casket of President John F. Kennedy.
The president’s funeral at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., was the first that Montag, 65, ever attended. He said Wednesday that he didn’t realize his memory of the event was particularly valuable until Abi Berlet, his 11-year-old granddaughter, approached him with pen and paper in hand. She was anxious to learn more.
Eyewitness to history
Abi, a fifth-grader at Heritage Christian School, asked her grandfather 15 questions about his experience at Kennedy’s funeral.
After a few hours of interviewing, she said she got a big scoop.
“It kind of felt like I was special because I got to hear it first and foremost,” she said Wednesday. “I’m sure other people have heard about this story, but maybe not as much as I have. I thought it would be an interesting topic to write about.”
Catherine Hinson, Abi’s teacher at Heritage Christian, assigned her class to write a 500-word essay based on an interview with a relative or friend about a historic event. Stories her students wrote included chronicles of a grandmother being born in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, a grandmother living without electricity for 17 days in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and a veteran’s account of fighting in Vietnam when he was 18. The essays then were entered into a Weekly Reader writing contest, and Abi’s story, titled “Funeral of a Lifetime,” was selected to be published in an April edition of the classroom magazine that reaches 8 million people.
“Writing this story was really fun because it brought me a lot closer to Bill,” she said, sitting next to her grandfather at school Wednesday. “Winning the contest and being published also was like ‘Whoa, I was not expecting that to happen.’ It was just really fun to interview him about something so interesting.”
Bill Montag was connected to Washington, D.C., through his mother, who Kennedy appointed to serve as a congressional liaison with the Small Business Administration.
Learning to write
After she concluded her interviews with Montag, Abi took readers to the rotunda and the cathedral through her story. She described the sadness and the crying in the pews. She also described how Montag previously had met Kennedy and received a “firm handshake” and big smile from the president. She learned how to use a “hook” to lure in her readers.
“Imagine you are 16 years old, and you’re going about your usual day in school,” she wrote at the start of her story. “Suddenly, the intercom blares, ‘President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas at 12:30 pm!!’ Everyone begins running in a panicked frenzy. This exact scenario happened to my grandfather, Bill Montag.”
Abi said Wednesday that as she started to write her story, she had no intention of becoming a published author.
“When I was little, I used to hate writing, and my hand would get tired,” she said. “Now, I like writing, and I might do some more as I get older.”
She made sure her first published work ended with a long-lasting message.
“Interviewing Pop about President Kennedy’s funeral taught me that I should appreciate what I have now, because I might not have it forever,” Abi wrote to close her essay. “This is important because we had President Kennedy for a short time, and no one dreamed he would be assassinated. We should appreciate what we have now because it may not be there tomorrow.”
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com