Capital Region

The night John Lennon died — Local fans look back 40 years later

Background: Rick Pepe stands in front of his John Lennon collection of books in the basement of his Princetown home. Inset: Bob Lennon of Amsterdam with his Beatles memorabilia. Credit: Stan Hudy (background) Peter R. Barber (inset)
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Background: Rick Pepe stands in front of his John Lennon collection of books in the basement of his Princetown home. Inset: Bob Lennon of Amsterdam with his Beatles memorabilia. Credit: Stan Hudy (background) Peter R. Barber (inset)

Categories: News

Bob Lennon of Amsterdam was on campus. Roy Pechtel of Delanson was on the road. And Rick Pepe of Princetown was tucked in for the night.

All three men remember the night of Dec. 8, 1980 — the night rock musician and ex-Beatle John Lennon was murdered by a deranged fan in New York City.

Other Capital Region residents have recalled their actions on that night 40 years ago, the anniversary of which will be marked this Tuesday. They have shared their recollections of a man whose message of “Give peace a chance” lives on through his music.

Here are their memories.

LESSONS

On the evening of Dec. 8, 1980, I didn’t hear Howard Cosell announce the violent death of John Lennon during the Monday Night Football broadcast. I’d gone to bed; since my New York Giants weren’t playing, there was no point in staying up ’til near midnight. Having to get up early for work — I taught English at Schalmont High School — I knew I’d be wrecked in the morning.

“Wrecked in the morning” doesn’t begin to describe it. I got the news when the clock radio came on at 6 a.m. The feeling of loss was the most paralyzing I’d felt in my 30 years, except for family death. Certainly, it almost felt like a family death.

I seriously considered taking the day off from work for the first time in nine-plus years to mourn, but decided against it.

Word was getting around quickly. Reactions at work differed by generation. All of my classes seemed subdued, curious how I was reacting, no doubt because of the several Beatles posters on my classroom walls. They seemed to understand why my usual cheerful good humor had disappeared, and none of them tried to challenge our class boundaries. My teacher contemporaries shared moments of grief between classes.

The older faculty seemed much less mournful. Not dismissive exactly, just seemingly not interested enough to mention it or to let it shape their daily collegial conversations. I heard nothing in the faculty lunchroom about the shooting.

Only one older (50-something) faculty member made mention of it to me, and I soon wished he hadn’t. In the office mailroom before homeroom, he asked if I’d heard about the murder. Still at a loss for words, I nodded yes. He proceeded to explain that while unfortunate, he didn’t understand why pop heroes were mourned so widely, while people “of greater importance” who were more deserving didn’t get equal recognition. He offered as an example “people like Mother Teresa,” whom he believed likely would not be mourned as deeply as John Lennon when her time came.

Back then, I could neither argue with that observation nor hope to explain to an older non-fan why it was true. Today, we know that Lennon became an inspiration of the peace movement and a spokesman for his generation – even several generations — so he at least deserves to be in the conversation. I do revere St. Teresa of Calcutta. But before I’d ever heard of her, it was Beatle John of Liverpool who transfixed this almost 14-year-old on three Sunday nights in February of 1964.

That older faculty gentleman has since passed on. I like to think that, although he wasn’t a fan of Lennon’s music, in time he came to appreciate his message.

— Rick Pepe,

Princetown

REMEMBERED

“The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964 was the beginning of my love of the Beatles. From that February night on, I read, listened and collected Beatles memorabilia. Growing up, John Lennon and Beatles posters were all over my bedroom, walls and their music played as often as my parents would allow.

My favorite has always been John Lennon. His wit and musical genius with lyrics and melodies have stayed with me from childhood to adult. I have passed my love of this fantastic, never-to-be-duplicated group on to my son, my siblings, friends and family. A gift my son gave me with one of his first paychecks was a Beatles group figurine, which I have to this day.

On Dec. 8, 1980, we were preparing for the Christmas season, and I was feeling happy and blessed to be pregnant with my son, Jimmy. Of course, this date stays in my mind. The news of what happened stopped me in my tracks — first shock, then disbelief, sadness and anger that John Lennon was dead. He took time to sign his album for a devoted “fan” only to be gunned down by him.

A trip to Strawberry Fields in New York City will illustrate how John Lennon still touches our hearts to this day. He will live on as all people do who impact our lives — from historical and religious leaders to musical individuals and groups that shaped our minds and hearts.

Every Beatles song can be attached to a memory, a birthday, a special time and every emotion of my life. When a Beatles song comes on the radio — thank God for Sirius XM Beatles channel — I turn up the volume and sing every word. I can’t even begin to imagine (no pun intended) what this life would be without John Lennon and the contributions he, Paul, George and Ringo made for all of us. Can you?

— Angela M. Leary,

Saratoga Springs

Like most Beatle fans, I too have a “favorite” Beatle, and that is John. I know a lot of girls were enamored with the Beatles looks, but there was always something about John that went beyond looks for me. It was his personality, quick wit and blatant honesty that appealed to me. John was never afraid to say exactly what he felt, no matter the consequences.

I will never forget hearing about his death. My mother heard it on the radio and told me that one of the Beatles had been killed. She wasn’t familiar with their names, so I had to name them and went numb when she said it was John. Being the founder of the Beatles, John always seemed to have had a vision about what he wanted to accomplish. To me, ultimately, his vision went beyond music and success, and that was peace. How sad that he met such a violent death when he was such a peaceful man.

I will never forget the date of his death because it is, ironically, my birthday, Dec. 8.

— Kathy Lilac,

Mechanicville

My most vivid memory of John Lennon’s death comes from the following day. Watching the CBS Evening News that night I remember “the most trusted man in America,” Walter Cronkite, near tears as he called Lennon a man of peace. His report began, “The death of a man who sang and played the guitar overshadows the news from Poland, Iran and Washington tonight.”

His sadness reflected mine and that of the entire world at losing such an icon.

— Jerry Furey,

Niskayuna

SADNESS

Dec. 8, 1980, will always be a sad day for me to remember. To this day, I can’t believe John Lennon died — and especially the way he did. I remember vividly holding my 2-year-old son (who is now 41) and dancing, holding him and listening to the radio, being silly, when the news came over the air. I just couldn’t believe it. I know I had tears in my eyes, and I lifted my son back up and held him tight listening to the news.

I have the T-shirt with John in New York City and my grandson (my son’s son) knows I love John Lennon, so when he and his girlfriend went to NYC last year, they purposely took pictures at Strawberry Fields for me since I’ve never gone. I have satisfaction that Mark David Chapman will never see the light of day.

— Tina Bacon,

Mariaville Lake

VOCATION

Because of the Beatles, I ended up becoming a professional drummer for a living. It began at age 12 in sixth grade. The night John Lennon was killed, I was off from playing a six-night-a-week gig from Tuesday to Sunday, 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. Luckily, I had a VCR and recorded the news shows the next morning. I was devastated because the possibility of a Beatles reunion was gone. I could not get my head around the reason why someone would kill one of the Beatles. I was dumbfounded.

Little did I know that 20 years down the road, I would have a license with The Beatles to put their album covers on coffee mugs with the signature of Neil Aspinall, the Beatles’ elusive road manager, on the contract. Imagine, my name was actually known at Apple Corps Ltd. It gives me a very personal connection to John, Paul, George and Ringo.

— Bob Belive,

Glenville

INTRODUCTION

Growing up as a Beatles fan, I will always remember what I was doing when I first learned that John had been killed, since he had always been my favorite. I was fortunate to have met him in Syracuse in 1971 at the Everson Museum, where Yoko had an art exhibit.

As I was looking at one of the few pieces that he had in the exhibit, he walked up to me and asked me if I was enjoying the show and shook my hand. For an 18-year-old college student, this was the high point of my young life, and my love for John and his music increased tenfold.

The night that he was murdered I was watching Monday Night Football and my wife was trying to rock our 1-month-old daughter to sleep when Howard Cosell interrupted the broadcast to say that John Lennon had been shot outside of his NYC apartment.

We sat in stunned silence trying to process what we had just heard when a second report came in that John had died at the hospital. We both began to sob uncontrollably, trying to understand how anyone could murder a person who had dedicated his life to working for peace in his life and his music.

The fact that he had just released his first new music in seven years after taking a break to care for his son made what happened even sadder. To this day, I still wonder what beautiful music he could have created if not for the monster who took his life.

— John Angilletta,

Scotia

DISBELIEF

“An unthinkable tragedy” is what the newsman said as I was watching the TV when I heard that John Lennon was shot and later died. “No way it can be true!”

I was up all night going from station to station.

Being a Lennon-Beatle fan since Day 1, they inspired me to become a musician. The lyrics in his songs, poetry and his great rock voice still resonate today.

Remember what John Lennon said: “Imagine a world living in peace.”

— George Sykala,

The Rogues, Rotterdam

RESONATOR

Dec. 8, 1980, saw a 10-year-old on the verge of exploring music, identity and the convergence of cynicism, idealism and questioning beliefs. In short, I was on the cusp of adolescence. Being 10, other than Kiss’ “Dynasty” and the original Sesame Street albums, both of which were gifts, music was whatever was on the radio or sung in any key but the right one at church. It carried no particular spiritual, ideological or intellectual significance in my life.

Yet, for reasons I do not understand, when those shots killed John Lennon, music was immediately transformed in my life. It was a moment that transcended the man himself, and he was undoubtedly a deeply flawed man. His music expounded the values of questioning authority, exploring ideals, screaming your pain and questioning your identity. Yet, there was also an evolution of ideas, finding acceptance and love, love above all else.

‘I remember vividly holding my 2-year-old son and dancing, holding him and listening to the radio, being silly, when the news came over the air. I just couldn’t believe it. I know I had tears in my eyes, and I lifted my son back up and held him tight listening to the news.’

TINA BACON

Mariaville Lake

“Double Fantasy” was a record that embraced all of these ideas. “I’m Losing You” and “Watching the Wheels” resonated in my 10-year-old soul, though I have no idea why. Why would a 10-year-old feel anything about “Starting Over.” Those songs still resonate in my 50-year-old soul, and I have every understanding why, as they explore identity, anxiety and acceptance in foolish years already lived. “Beautiful Boy” induced tears in the 10-year-old; I think because of the 5-year-old Sean, who had just lost his father. I have the same reaction now, but because of my own son, who is the love of my life, and who deserves a far better role model than the one he has.

So, on Dec. 8, 1980, John Lennon was murdered, but to that 10-year-old, an aspirational symbol in music was created, almost as if I could feel with what I would be grappling in the years to come. Maybe that is Lennon’s true power — songs on the universality of wrestling with humanity.

— James Cimino,

Schenectady

TRIBUTE

In December 1980, I was in the middle of my junior year at Stony Brook University. Not everyone had televisions in those days, but someone who was watching Monday Night Football announced the news of John Lennon’s murder on our hall. My roommate and I and a couple of other friends stayed up late into the night listening to Beatles and Lennon songs on the radio (they were playing only Beatles and Lennon). We were all in disbelief, sad, shocked and angry.

When I was younger, my favorite Beatle had been Paul, but by 20 years old, John had gained my utmost respect after better understanding his dedication to peace and social justice, which could be heard in his music and seen through his actions. He was and still is one of my heroes.

The next day it snowed and my friend Steve and I put speakers in the open window, and we went out the second story window onto the overhang above the first floor door to the outside of the dormitory. We stayed there outdoors in the snow and cold for a couple hours dancing, playing air guitar and singing the Beatles and Lennon songs at the top of our lungs as the other students were returning from classes. For my friend and I, it was cathartic.

— Bob Lennon,

Amsterdam

INSPIRATION

I was just 10 years old in 1980, all about the arts and being creative. I found early inspiration in my Marvel Comics and “Star Wars” characters that transported me to a galaxy far, far away. I was also old enough to start comprehending, on a deeper level, the world in which I lived.

The hostage crisis is one news story that I vividly remember from that time period. I was surprised recently to discover drawings I had made of President Jimmy Carter and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, jockeying for position with assorted superheroes in the comic books I created back in the day.

That being said, the news that had the biggest effect on my life that year was the death of John Lennon. To be honest, I had no prior connection or knowledge of the Beatles at that point, yet something about the images that I saw on TV of distraught fans holding candlelight vigils and singing “give peace a chance” made an impression.

I began to discover local radio stations playing all-day Lennon and Beatles marathons. The great melodies and eccentric music really caught my ear – indeed, it was a crash course for a young listener whose awareness of popular music, up to that point, was basically disco and a vague notion of the “sinister” style known as punk rock.

My parents were both classical musicians and I’m sure they appreciated my growing desire to learn all I could about the Beatles. My mother actually gifted me her vintage copies of “Abbey Road” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” “I’d love to turn … you … on … ”

I remember my own imagination expanding in new ways while listening to these albums, which showed Lennon and the band at the height of their creativity.

I bought every other album, book and tribute magazine I could find. The comics I drew became inspired by such Beatles folklore as the “Paul is Dead” myth, and I went on to form my first rock band — The Hornets (an obvious Beatlesque play on musical words).

The melodic, melancholic and quirky side of the Beatles (with much credit given to Lennon) went on to inspire my musical tastes over the years — from ’80s new wave to ’90s alternative (of course, everyone who has seen the movie “Yesterday” knows that if the Fab Four never existed, neither would Oasis).

In the mid ’90s, I even had the chance to fully indulge my love of British culture by visiting England for the first time. In addition to the usual, historic tourist spots, I was determined to make the pilgrimage to Abbey Road, site of one of my all-time favorite albums. I made a nuisance of myself inside the famed studio and, of course, recreated the famous album cover (taking my shoes off, with props to the Walrus).

It didn’t end there. When I got married, my bride-to-be and I walked down the aisle to Beatles songs played on beautiful acoustic guitar by her brother. I did not realize how emotional I would get hearing the strains of Lennon’s “All You Need Is Love” surrounded by friends and family. So much for the “stiff upper lip.”

Finally, my wife and I had the opportunity to see Paul McCartney live in concert a few years back, coincidentally at the same time we learned of the coming birth of our first child. Baby, I was amazed! You could say that a Beatle was my daughter’s “first” true concert experience.

Just ask my friends and family: I have been an obsessive rock fan ever since that fateful day in December 1980. “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make … ” R.I.P. John, with my thanks.

— Jeremy Clowe,

Niskayuna

EMOTIONS

There are certain events that happen during a person’s lifetime … that make us remember where we were, what we were doing at that time in history.

When I was in grade school at Woestina School in Rotterdam Junction, the principal was going classroom to classroom, telling the teacher to send all the kids home.

When he got to ours, like all the others, I remember seeing him standing in the doorway crying. That was the day JFK was murdered.

When 9/11 happened, me and my oldest son were out salmon fishing on Lake Ontario. We were in a tackle shop when the news came on the TV. I looked at my son and said, “I hope you’re all done fishing for the day because we’re heading home. Your brother is going to war.” My youngest son was in the New York National Guard at the time.

On Dec. 8, 1980, I was driving a tractor-trailer out of Maine, hauling printing paper to New Jersey. I was on I-95, which is also called the Cross Bronx in New York City. The announcement came over the radio and the CB (citizen band) radios. Luckily, it was late at night and there wasn’t much traffic. Everyone — everyone — stopped right there. They were getting out of their cars, crying, going around hugging one another. John Lennon was murdered.

— Roy Pechtel,

Delanson

SHOCK

I was a child when the Beatles were together, but I started taking an interest in them shortly after they broke up. I have accumulated over the years all of the Beatles albums as well as almost all of their 40 solo albums. Even though it has been 40 years since John Lennon’s death, it sometimes seems like it was just yesterday.

I woke up the morning after and was getting ready to go to work. My mother came to me and told me I have some bad news for you, one of the Beatles is dead. I was in shock when I heard it.

John was just trying to start a comeback with his “Double Fantasy” album. I remember the whole world was shocked, not just at John’s death but the fact that the Beatles could never really get back together again.

— Robert Pitman,

Saratoga Springs

LIFELONG

On Dec. 8, 1980, I was 9 years old and in fourth grade at Pine-wood Elementary in Rotterdam.

I had no idea who John Lennon or the Beatles were. After hearing about his death, and all of the commotion surrounding it, I went to a friend’s house and we listened to his mom’s Beatles albums … the “Red” and “Blue” Albums. I immediately loved what I heard, but the minute I first heard “Strawberry Fields Forever,” I was absolutely hooked, and thus began my lifelong love of the Beatles.

I knew then and still do what every true Beatles fan knows, that John was the best one.

— David Phillips,

Rotterdam

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