Forty five years ago today an ugly time…

(Copyright 2008)


By Tony Walther

Forty five years ago today I was 14 years old. I was stacking firewood outside my house before school, and my mother called me inside and said President Kennedy had been shot.

We soon learned that it was fatal. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.

I was attuned to current events and even politics at some level of understanding from an early age, mostly because my mother always had the Today Show going in the morning and because she kept up on such things. And it helped that my father was a newspaperman who had worked on everything from country newspapers to big city papers to the Associated Press news wire service San Francisco bureau.

But on that fateful November day in 1963 I was a freshman in high school, an adolescent just beginning to develop into an adult frame of mind.

I don’t think that I was exceptionally mature for my age, but at least I was a little more advanced than one of my friends at high school. As I was walking down a corridor at school that day, he was coming down the other way and looked at me and with his fingers put a mock gun to his head, in reference to the assassination. Whether I laughed or smiled in reaction to his gesture, I don’t recall.

I doubt that he was anti-Kennedy or even had any opinion. At least he knew something had happened. I don’t recall there being much discussion among the students about the event of the day, although there must have been some. I recall reading news accounts that students at a Dallas school had actually cheered. The world can be an ugly place.

Meanwhile, the news that the president had been shot came at a bad time or a good time at the newspaper where my father worked, depending upon one’s frame of mind.

It was an afternoon paper and they had just hit the final deadline when someone came in and said that they had heard on the radio that the president had been shot. About the same time bells started ringing on the teletype machine and its constant loud clatter that one got used to in the newsroom took on a special significance. My dad that evening gave me a copy of the first dispatch that came over the wire. To the best I recall it read: “President Kennedy shot today in Dallas, perhaps fatally.” I kept it in a drawer throughout my high school years, but it got lost along the way since.

According to a cub reporter who worked at the newspaper at the time and who wrote a column about that day that was published a few years ago, the events at the newspaper came down like this: the editor at the time was a man who had the use of only one hand. He could type as fast as anyone with that one hand (I know. I saw him in action). Although he may have been a fairly competent country editor, he apparently wasn’t up to handling real breaking news. He froze. He didn’t know what to do. But there were two old hands in the newsroom, an old bachelor that hung out in the local bars when he was not covering his beat, and my dad. That old bachelor automatically took over and with the help of my dad they redid the front page and got the local reaction story and that afternoon had some real news, albeit sad, in the paper, beating the morning papers by some 12 hours.

As I recall there were no television commercials or regular programing for the next week, only somber music and news reports and the funeral for the fallen president.

President Kennedy did not have the time in office or the cooperation from congress, as I recall, to get done all the things he wanted to. And in no disrespect to him or his memory, I think his assassination makes him stand out in history more than he might have.

But he was our first charisma president, and yet he seemed not to be all show, but sincere. I can remember the reassurance he gave us in his nationwide address on the Cuban Missile Crisis when it looked as if we were on the brink of nuclear war (history shows we were even closer than most knew). I also recall him admitting on nationwide television that he had erred in the aborted Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. He took full responsibility. Who would do that today?

As I look back on a time when we had someone to believe in at the top, I am hopeful that we once more will have that come the new year and that it works out better for all concerned this time around.

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