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.

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