It was an unforgettable moment. I was on duty, doing two newscasts an hour at WIL Radio in St. Louis, Missouri. The entire news and management staff was at a luncheon celebrating the station’s ratings. As the lowest in rank, and the evening news anchor, I was asked to fill in during the earlier hours.
The time was 12:30, Central. The date – November 22, 1963.
The Associated Press wire machine was in the corner, an old, pre-computer model, noisy with a purplish ribbon. The bells started ringing. This time, they didn’t stop. I ran over to the machine. It was a “bulletin” that I had never witnessed before.
Dallas – President John Fitzgerald Kennedy has been shot and perhaps fatally wounded in Dallas.
I didn’t believe it. Did the reporter see something that indicated the President was “perhaps fatally wounded?”
For a moment, I started shaking. It took me a few seconds to calm down. Through an intercom I advised the deejay to stop the music. I went on the air, trembling as I read the wire report. I reached up to a shelf where I grabbed an almanac. As I was talking, I turned to the page on President Kennedy, and glanced at the facts on file. I read his life story straight from the almanac. For those younger readers , an almanac was an annual booklet of major facts, listed in alphabetical order.
As I was reading, I positioned the microphone so I could tear off the reports that were coming over from our two wire services.
The motorcade is on its way to Parkland Hospital… the shots may have come from the Texas School Book Depository building… A Catholic priest has been called to the hospital… The Governor of Texas appears to have been wounded…
An intern rushed back from lunch and started gathering materials.
Within 20 minutes, the scope of the assassin’s work was becoming clear. I was advised by handwritten notes that most phone lines were not working. Fear was stalking the streets of America. None of us really knew what was coming next.
A little while later, I looked up at our newsroom’s black and white TV, and saw Walter Cronkite, the premiere anchorman of his time, shed a tear as he confirmed the death of the President.
I continued talking into the microphone, not aware that while I was speaking a station engineer was looking for funeral music, the sad beating of drums and dirges of melodic grief that was in the station’s vaults from the funeral of Franklin Roosevelt 18 years earlier. In the coming days, our non-stop news coverage was interrupted only by the sound of that unusual music, the sounds of grief.
The rest of the staff returned. I was sent to the Diocese of St. Louis where I interviewed Cardinal Ritter, who helped lead the nation’s spiritual response.
As I walked on the street outside the church, I could see so many people crying, so many with their heads down, and so many rushing for the shelter of home.
Like all broadcasters who do their job, the reality sets in long after the work is done. The reality of that day had several phases: shock, questions, fear of the unknown and finally, as darkness set in on that cold November Friday, the shared sense of grief.
Today, I can still hear the harsh sound of the bells from the wire machines, and the words quickly filling the paper, the purple ink staining my hands as I held the yellow paper in my hands, which were shaking as I talked in to the microphone.
It was the 22nd of November, 1963. I was 21 years old, but by the time I hit the pillow, fighting off sleep a little after midnight, I felt years older, with a sickening sense of terror, and the knowledge that things would never be the same.