Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Day of JFK assassination still a vivid memory...

By Jim Heffernan
Someone said on National Public Radio this week that very few journalists who were working when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated are still active today, the 50th anniversary of the tragedy.

I’m not as active as I used to be, but I’m still doing some writing, including for this blog. When Kennedy was murdered, I had been a working journalist for just over a month, which I recounted in a column for the Duluth News Tribune back on the 30th anniversary of the assassination. That column, which was included in my book Cooler Near the Lake, is reprinted here (see below).

I can add a couple of experiences I had on that momentous day that are not included in that column. When I arrived for my afternoon shift at the Duluth Herald & News Tribune, a “cub” reporter if there ever was one, the newsroom was chaotic. Assigning editors were frantic to “localize” the story, since Kennedy had visited Duluth just two months before.

I was given two assignments: Check WDSM-TV and Radio, sponsors of the annual Christmas City of the North Parade, to determine if that night’s parade would be canceled, and then call mayors of Northeastern Minnesota cities and towns for a reaction to the news of the president’s death.

Taking first things first, I contacted WDSM, which, at the time was owned by the same company that owned the newspapers. The parade would go on as scheduled, I was told. I was flabbergasted.

But WDSM and its TV Channel 6 came to its senses within a short time, calling back to announce that the parade would be canceled after all. Thus they missed their chance at the national spotlight: “As nation mourns, Duluth holds festive holiday parade,” the headline might have been.

So much for that. My second assignment, calling as many area mayors as I could reach, wasn’t much more successful. The reason? They all said pretty much the same thing, summarized here:

Question: Mr. Mayor, what is your reaction to the assassination of President Kennedy?

Universal answer: This is a terrible tragedy. I’m shocked.

Years later I looked up the News Tribune of Nov. 23, 1963, to see what I had written. Buried deep inside the paper is a short article about the reaction of area mayors, naming several expressing their shock at the terrible tragedy.

Now here’s what I wrote 30 years later about another aspect of my role as a working journalist on that fateful day.

JFK: Four Presidential Assassinations in Three Generations

By Jim Heffernan
Originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Sunday, November 21, 1993 
and reprinted in the book, Cooler Near the Lake, by Jim Heffernan in November, 2008

My paternal grandfather, whose life overlapped mine by just two years, was 10 years old when Lincoln was assassinated. In my grandfather’s lifetime, two other presidents also were murdered–James Garfield in 1881 and William McKinley in 1901. My father was born 29 years after the Lincoln assassination–a year short of the time that has now elapsed since President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed 30 years ago tomorrow.

In my father’s lifetime, two presidents were assassinated: McKinley near the beginning of his life, and Kennedy near the end. He was too young to remember much about McKinley, and I broke the news to him about Kennedy.

Why all this ancient history now? Aside from this being the anniversary of the JFK assassination, it shows that such acts are not quite as rare as we tend to think. Four murdered American presidents in three generations of one family is taking them out at quite a rate.

The day Kennedy was shot, I had been a working journalist for 35 days, counting weekends. Call it a month’s experience. Labeling me a journalist at that stage of my career is extravagant. But my title was reporter, and proud of it.

Everyone over five or six years of age on Nov. 22, 1963, remembers what they were doing when they heard Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. A few of us get to share those memories publicly. I share mine to recall my failure to do what I should have done as a newspaper reporter on what was arguably the biggest breaking news story of the century.

I was asleep when the assassination occurred. Working nights on the morning Duluth News Tribune, I had already slipped into the out late, sleep late lifestyle of my fellow nightside journalists. So I was still in bed, sound asleep, about 35 minutes past noon that Friday when the ringing of the telephone jolted me awake. It was my aunt, Elsa, who had been watching “As the World Turns” when the soap opera was interrupted with a bulletin that shots had been fired at the president. I clicked on our TV, and CBS had returned to “As the World Turns,” but not for long. Within a moment of my tuning in, Walker Cronkite was there in his shirtsleeves confirming that shots had been fired from a grassy knoll and the president’s limousine had sped away.

Here are some of my thoughts: “Wow! Big story. Wonder if they know about it down at the paper. You’re a reporter, check and see. Don’t be silly–of course the newspaper knows. They’d think I was stupid to call and be mad I interrupted them.”

My father was at work as a photo engraver at the newspaper, so I decided to call him. By then it must have been about 12:50 p.m. When my father answered, I said something like, ‘Boy, big story about Kennedy getting shot, huh?” I phrased it so that, if he already knew, it wouldn’t seem like I thought I was breaking the news. But I breaking the news. Busy working on the evening Duluth Herald, he said he’d heard nothing about it in the third-floor engraving department.

That made me wonder if I really should call the second-floor newsroom. If they didn’t know about it in other parts of the building, maybe the news editors didn’t know either. But I didn’t call.

I should have called the first time. The Herald used to go to press about noon. A normal Friday edition was humming off the press when the assassination occurred. The Associated Press was on top of the story, but they couldn’t get printed information out on the wire as quickly as TV networks could interrupt with bulletins.

By the time the Herald editors finally received a written bulletin on the wire and literally stopped the presses (the only time in 30 years I’ve seen that happen), it was about 1 p.m. or shortly after. An hour later, when I arrived for my work shift, I was told that if I had called at, say, 12:40, it would have saved thousands of papers and precious minutes preparing a new Herald for that day. “I wish you had called,” lamented the news editor. The papers already run off were scrapped and the edition started over with the assassination dominating the front page.

That’s my story of the day Kennedy was shot.  I’d been in the newspaper business a month and in my own way I had already blown the assassination of a president. Some reporter. Some future.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Thoughts of New York City during deer season...

By Jim Heffernan
It’s firearms deer hunting season in Minnesota and my thoughts are drifting to…New York City. Not a lot of deer hunting in the Big Apple.

Dear me, I do not deer hunt. I prefer not to kill mammals with big brown eyes. I don’t judge those who do – my own father hunted deer – it’s just that I don’t.

Carnegie Hall, NYC
So my thoughts are apt to drift off to New York City, not just during deer season but quite often, actually. It’s been almost a year since my last visit to NYC, and I wouldn’t mind going back already. Then there are the daily reminders in the New York Times, which I read.

Great paper, containing occasional brilliance. Like the other day in the middle of a long obituary for a 101-year-old woman, a well-known portrait photographer I’d never heard of, who until recently resided in Carnegie Hall. Until they evicted all of the residents of the towers above the famous concert hall three years ago, I didn’t know anyone lived there at all.

Turns out my favorite pianist, Don Shirley, was a resident. Shirley combined a classical sound with jazz in a way no other pianist I’m aware of ever has. He died earlier this year in relative obscurity, although The Times included a nice obit on him.

Shirley had been interviewed when the operators of Carnegie Hall decided to eliminate the residential apartments and use the space for studios. That eviction also involved the portrait photographer, whose name was Editta Sherman, who fought it but lost, sort of. They ended up giving her a nice apartment with a view of Central Park –  rent free.

Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
In her obituary, the Times writer, Robert D. McFadden, included a paragraph describing what it would have been like to actually live above Carnegie Hall, one of the world’s premier concert halls. He wrote:

“The building was alive with the anvil chorus of New York: a cacophony of orchestral horns, midnight string quartets, the tap and shuffle of dancers and a serenade of shouting actors, shrieking sopranos, pounding typewriters and street traffic drifting up with the nightly concerts from Carnegie Hall.” 

Music to my ears.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Heffernans in Cork

Heffernan's Travel in Cork, Ireland
The surname of Heffernan is apparently quite evident throughout all of Ireland. We received a photo–taken a few years ago by a traveling friend–of a fairly famous bar, Heffernan Wine and Spirits, in Wexford Ireland and just today received another photo of a Heffernan business, Heffernan's Travel, in Cork Ireland from another Irish traveler. Our son and his wife visited Ireland a few years ago and he was greeted warmly by the Irish when they heard his name. While my own heritage is mixed, with more Swede in me than anything, I do have an Irish surname and have Irish roots in Cork and Tipperary on my dad's side. He was the fourth-born of James H. and Christine Heffernan’s five children. My Irish paternal grandfather had come to Duluth in the 1880s from Walkerton, Ontario, where he was born in 1855. He met and married Christine Hansen, a native of Germany, in Duluth. My wife attempted a cursory ancestry research with my surname and quickly gave up when she became overwhelmed by the numbers of Heffernans in Canada and everywhere. So if you have some Irish descent and the name of Heffernan, just know that we could be related... or maybe not.
Heffernan Bar in Wexford Ireland