St. Joseph native Marcia Rogers found a small-world way of living in a big city. A half-century later, the place resides in her memory: Oak Cliff.

The Missouri Western professor emerita can recite the points of interest. The Texas Theater, there on Jefferson Boulevard, "just a friendly, little old neighborhood theater." And the bus stop there at Ninth Street and Beckley, where she caught public transportation each day to go to work at Baylor Medical Center.

And both of these were just blocks from her apartment complex, where the young woman shared a place with roommates. Another unit there was occupied by a performer at the Carousel Club. "Most of us small-town kids had never seen a stripper," Ms. Rogers laughs now.

This was the Dallas she knew as a 20-year-old living there in 1963. On Nov. 22 of that year, the world would know more about the city.

That day, a self-professed Marxist named Lee Harvey Oswald fired a rifle from the sixth floor of his workplace, the Texas School Book Depository, and killed the nation's 35th president, John F. Kennedy.

As doctors tried to save the president at Parkland Hospital, Mr. Oswald took a bus to Oak Cliff, probably getting off at Ninth and Beckley. He encountered Dallas policeman J.D. Tippit near Tenth and Patton streets, and he ended up drawing a pistol and shooting the officer dead.

From there, Mr. Oswald, without a ticket, went into the Texas Theater, where officers soon arrested the world's most wanted man. Two days later, the proprietor of the Carousel Club, Jack Ruby, would shoot to death the alleged assassin in the basement of Dallas police headquarters.

The world would learn all of this suddenly, and then gradually. Playing out in television's near infancy, the news flashes gave Americans almost instantaneous access to the tragedy. Communally delivered, the story hit people in deeply personal ways.

As the 50th anniversary of the assassination approaches this Friday, people recall with clarity their feelings of that day, the death of a young president and the national unease felt in some ways still today.

'My comfort zone'

Reports have the first gunshots in Dallas sounding about 12:30 p.m. The St. Joseph News-Press, then an evening newspaper, had already sent to press its first edition including a story about the president's remarks to the lunch crowd gathered at the Trade Mart.

Editors stopped the presses and remade the paper with the banner headline “Kennedy Assassinated in Dallas.”

A subsequent explanation about the first-edition story, and the event that had not occurred, said, “The speech, of course, was never delivered.”

Elsewhere in St. Joseph, Sharon Kosek, a sixth-grader at Lindbergh School, sat in a doctor's waiting room. A radio played music until an announcer broke in with news that the president had been shot.

That can't be, the girl thought. She was still at the doctor's office when newscasters said the president died.

She found a way to cope.

"I put up a card table and put a blanket over it, right in front of the console TV set. I didn't want anybody to see me because I was crying so much," the St. Joseph resident, Dr. Kosek, remembers now. "I guess it was my comfort zone at the time."

Gene Bollman, who grew up and still lives just east of St. Joseph, drove a delivery truck for the 7-Up Bottling Co., in 1963. His route that day took him to Dearborn, Mo.

"I went into the store where I was going to deliver and I heard the news," he recalls. "It was pretty shocking to hear."

Farther removed, Randy Johnson sat in a seventh grade classroom in Carson, N.D., a town of about 300 people. He and classmates had just finished lunch.

"I remember the teacher coming in and telling us we would be going home because the president had been assassinated. No one believed it," Mr. Johnson, a St. Joseph resident, says, noting that adults seemed equally at odds with events as their offspring. "Parents, I'm sure, were not sure what was going to happen."

Drew Brown majored in biology and spent his time at North Carolina Central University moving back and forth between two science buildings. During class change that Friday, word of the assassination began to circulate.

"We all just kind of stumbled around," the St. Joseph resident says.

North Carolina Central, the nation's first public liberal arts university for African-Americans, had been active in the civil rights movement by that time.

"We were demonstrating at lunch counters because Durham, N.C., still had segregation," Mr. Brown remembers. "We saw President Kennedy and his brother, Robert, as allies. They were pushing away the barriers of Jim Crow."

The thought crossed the mind of everyone on campus. "We wondered what was going to happen next," he says of that day. "From a civil rights standpoint, we feared a regression."

People in shock

Steven Greiert, chairman of the Department of History and Geography at Missouri Western, reflects on the assassination personally and professionally.

As a 15-year-old, he learned of the shootings while in the library of his high school in Madison, Wisc. The images of a crying librarian and days of television watching stay with him.

"For about five or six days, it seemed as if the whole nation just stopped," he recalls. "People were in shock, because how could this possibly happen in the United States?"

As a professor, he looks at the events of the 1960s with an academic detachment, knowing the civil right movement would have probably continued regardless of the president but considering the what-ifs of Vietnam and relations with the Soviet Union had Dallas never happened.

More assassinations, of Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, would follow in the coming years, the Lyndon Johnson presidency got mired in Vietnam and the Nixon presidency ended with a resignation.

"You get kind of jaded at that point about the presidency," Dr. Greiert says. "I don't think the American people have ever looked at the presidency the same way since."

Never to be forgotten

Ms. Rogers, who would get her bachelor's and master's degrees in Texas, would not wait for the assassination movie "Parkland" to come out on DVD. She drove to Kansas City to see it at the Tivoli Theater.

"I had to see it right away," she says. "I love history and I love politics, so I eat it all up."

On the day of the assassination, the Oak Cliff resident was actually in Cameron, Mo., visiting her mother. From news reports, though, she knew precisely the street corner where Mr. Tippit got shot. At the furniture store near the Texas Theater, where Mr. Oswald got attention for acting so suspiciously, Ms. Rogers had only recently bought a TV stand.

She immediately recognized the televised images of the Texas School Book Depository, with its huge Hertz sign on the roof. "Everybody who went into downtown Dallas looked up there to see what the time and temperature was," she remembers.

The father of one of her roommates worked as a fabric cutter for Abraham Zapruder, the Dallas clothing manufacturer who set out to film the president's visit but ended up recording history. Another roommate had watched an earlier part of the motorcade and heard of the shooting after she returned to her desk.

Ms. Rogers did not like Mr. Johnson, the man who became president that day, but she resisted any temptation to criticize her hometown at the time.

"I always thought of Dallas a lot like an overgrown small town," she says now. "It was a very friendly town."

The memories of that awful day have guided much of her attention leading to the 50th anniversary.

"All of these little things are so big in my mind, and I'll never forget them," Ms. Rogers says.

Ken Newton can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPNewton.