November 22, 1963 appeared to bring a typical afternoon of easy-listening music at University of South Carolina radio station WUSC where I was a student announcer my sophomore year. Typical until… bulletin-announcing bells clanged on the gray-green UPI teletype that printed news non-stop. They’d never rung so insistently in my limited experience: sounding like a vintage fire truck in an old movie. Then someone walked in saying, “The President’s been shot!” There was certainly no Internet to turn to for immediate information; just that wire service machine chugging out information, or, shortly, CBS, NBC, or ABC if you could find a TV.
Along with the ringing the teletype gave another clue something was wrong. Words arrived in sentence fragments separated by large gaps of space. Instead of neatly formed paragraphs, they were staccato-like miniature headlines printed in the usual all-caps font.
For this column, I have deliberately not gone to Google to learn the actual content of those first alerts of the John F. Kennedy assassination. I wanted to write from memory and impressions – so I may have it somewhat wrong. I recall words or phrases like… FLASH… BULLETIN… PRESIDENT KENNEDY SHOT… DALLAS… MOTORCADE… ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT… PARKLAND HOSPITAL… and a time of 129pm, Central or Eastern. (Within hours someone stole those original bulletins from the station.)
And thus it began for my generation. A President killed: a young, good-looking, charming man with a beautiful wife and children. Unthinkable. Either from experience or history you know the rest of the tragedy we now revisit fifty years later. Those of us alive at the time remember through our personal prisms. Here’s what lingers from mine.
While often inspiring, Kennedy was not always liked. Being a teenager at the time, I was surprised that people complained about him as much as they later would every President in my lifetime. Nasty written jokes were passed around ridiculing him and often his Catholicism. Naïve about politics and public discourse, this puzzled me. Why was there so much hate? (There was no hint of the now well-known infidelities.)
Comedian Vaughn Meader had a wildly-popular comedy recording. “The First Family” was a hilarious send-up of Kennedy’s accent and family foibles. The parodies and hate reverberated after Oswald fired. I wondered if there was a connection between the animosity and the shooting.
Years later I would learn that my wife and her brother, when they were kids, saw Kennedy campaign in Norfolk, Virginia. He passed right by them. His hair was reddish. My brother-in-law shook Kennedy’s hand. He became more than a television face to them.
Decades later, as a reporter, I would encounter the President’s widow then known as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Along with the rest of the media, I went to get video of her passing through the St. Louis airport. I dogged her to try to get an interview, somehow convinced her to stop and was so dumbfounded by her turning and facing me that I couldn’t think what to ask her. We exchanged pleasantries. She left. The widow became more than a television face for me and would die of cancer in 1994.
Jackie and Jack are gone, but not the echoes of emotion for those of us who remember November 22, 1963.