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The story through the eyes of a storyteller

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

Reporter during JFK assassination tells of his experience

Keith Shelton still gets the occasional call from a conspiracy theorist.

One recent call lasted about two hours. He was curious, first, how the caller had found him. Long retired from the daily newspaper grind, Shelton, 80, lives a quiet writer’s life with his wife, Deborah, and their cat in a small wood-frame house, amply shaded by old oak trees on the edge of Texas Woman’s University campus.

But 50 years ago, he was the political writer for the Dallas Times Herald. He was one of the reporters on the bus behind President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade that had just turned left off Houston Street in downtown Dallas and was heading down Elm Street when the shooting happened. Shelton knows what he heard and saw that day, but his caller had different ideas, so the argument went on for a while.

“He thought I was hiding something,” Shelton said, adding, “I wanted to hear what he had to say.”

Soon after Kennedy was assassinated, the story grew so large that it engulfed Shelton and the other storytellers, too.

A news magazine writer in San Francisco claimed that Shelton and other Dallas newsmen left their jobs because they were dissatisfied with the investigation. Other conspiracy peddlers said the local media was part of the cover-up.

Penn Jones Jr., editor of the Midlothian Mirror, was among the early conspiracy theorists. He disagreed with the Warren Commission and its conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he assassinated Kennedy. Jones listed the untimely deaths of many people connected with the assassination as part of his reasoning. Two of those deaths were colleagues of Shelton’s from Wichita Falls.

Shelton graduated from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls with a bachelor of arts in English in 1954. He served in the U.S. Army for two years after graduation and returned to Wichita Falls to become the wire editor at the Wichita Falls Record-News until he landed a job with the Dallas Times Herald in 1959.

Fellow Record-News reporter Jim Koethe went from Wichita Falls to the Times Herald, too. Bill Hunter had followed Shelton’s brother to Long Beach, Calif., but after the assassination, the Long Beach newspaper sent Hunter back to Dallas to cover the news.

Both men reported what they found in the weeks that followed, which Shelton said wasn’t particularly interesting.

For days and weeks after the assassination, there was a lot to report.

“There was no pressure to not report anything, but there was pressure to get it right,” Shelton said. “They were anxious to print everything we could find. We didn’t have any problems selling papers.”

Shelton, who had been cited in 1962 by the American Political Science Association for distinguished reporting in public affairs, had been assigned to cover Kennedy’s trip to Texas, which started in San Antonio, went to Houston and Fort Worth, and was to wrap up in Dallas.

Many in Texas, particularly in Dallas, didn’t want Kennedy to come to Texas, Shelton said.

“Dallas was extremely conservative then,” Shelton said, adding, “They made the tea party look liberal.”

Embarrassed after hecklers showed up at an event with Adlai Stevenson, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, some Dallas residents formed a local committee to help smooth the way for the president, Shelton said. Kennedy was running for re-election. The committee urged him not to make a campaign speech, but a presidential one, instead.

Shelton had a copy of the speech Kennedy was supposed to make that day in Dallas, and had already filed it, along with his story about the speech, for the moment the president hit the podium, he said.

Up until then, he had been gathering details that others might not have — for example, learning from the press secretary that the color of Jackie Kennedy’s suit was considered raspberry, not pink, and that the president’s back board was being carried around in a blue leather case, about 7 feet long and 5 inches high, with the presidential seal emblazoned on it.

Afterward, he was chasing leads like many other reporters. And he covered Jack Ruby’s trial.

Neither Hunter nor Koethe mentioned to Shelton that they had uncovered material they hadn’t reported, something that would have been uncharacteristic for both of them.

“I knew both those guys,” Shelton said. “If they knew anything at all, they would have printed it.”

Sometime later, when Hunter was back in Long Beach, he was killed. He was at the police station when an officer was playing with his pistol and it went off, shooting Hunter in the chest.

At Hunter’s funeral, Koethe had another opportunity to share with friends and colleagues whether he had unreported material related to the assassination, but he did not, Shelton said.

Then, sometime later, Koethe was found dead, naked on the floor of his East Dallas apartment.

“He was a wild guy,” Shelton said.

Dallas police had a suspect in Koethe’s death, but they couldn’t prove their case, he said. The suspect was later convicted of an armed robbery and sent to prison.

The untimely deaths of his friends were coincidental and had nothing to do with the assassination, Shelton said.

He worked for the Times Herald for two more years. Contrary to conspiracy claims, he didn’t leave for reasons related to the assassination, he said. He left for the same reason lots of people leave a job — to get a better-paying job.

But by then, the conspiracy theories had captured the imaginations of many and in many more ways, those would follow him to Denton, where he served as the managing editor of the Denton Record-Chronicle from 1965-69 and again from 1979-88.

He earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Texas in 1972 and served on the faculty at UNT from 1969-78 and again from 1988-2002.

His street credibility survived with UNT journalism students for years as they passed down to each other the unofficial version of his biography: Shelton was there when Kennedy was shot.

Shelton remembers Nov. 22, 1963, as a crisp fall day with bright, clear skies, having rained earlier in the day. The bus was far behind the president’s car when the shots came through. They sounded like sharp cracks, he recalled in an essay he wrote for the Denton Record-Chronicle in 1966.

“They sounded like shots sound when you’re shooting in an open field in the autumn,” he wrote. “Nothing else sounds quite the same. They were clearly rifle shots.”

He wrote in his notebook, “12:30, Triple Underpass, 3-4 shots?”

For a moment, no one on the bus was sure what had happened, but he recalled telling the person he was sitting next to that whatever it was, “it will sure shake up the Secret Service.”

Then, they knew. Shelton said the newspaper’s photographer looked back to see the barrel of the rifle sticking out of the window of the sixth floor of the former Texas School Book Depository building.

Because they were at the top of the hill, they had a clear view of the surroundings. Shelton said he thinks that people down on the grassy knoll heard the shots echo around the bowl created by the buildings, the slopes of the hillsides, and the edge of the underpass, and that’s where some of the confusion comes from.

In the essay, he called the conspiracy theories preposterous.

“Reams of copy have been written about the assassination, most of it by people who weren’t there and didn’t investigate it in any way,” he wrote.

Today, he understands why people were attracted to elaborate scenarios in Kennedy’s death, even if there is so little truth to them.

“It’s hard to accept that one, punk kid did that,” Shelton said.

Moreover, many questions about that day remain unanswered 50 years later, leaving the responsibility of what is known to those who were there, including the original tellers of the story.

David T. Z. Mindich, a media historian and professor at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, said it would be hard for anyone who was there not to become a part of the story of Kennedy’s assassination.

“For someone in the motorcade, there’s no way not to be part of the story,” Mindich said, adding that proximity to such an event doesn’t compromise the ability to report on it. “There aren’t sides to the story — every journalist was horrified by the assassination — but there were many elements.”

But the case also foreshadows the blurring of roles of witness and journalist that has occurred since Sept. 11, 2001, and the growth of the Internet, according to John D. Peters, a media historian and professor at the University of Iowa. In that way, journalism can become about itself as much as the news.

“Once journalists spoke by authority of knowledge; now they can speak by virtue of having been there,” Peters said. “These are very different sources of authority.”

The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza has recorded many oral histories related to the event, including Shelton’s in 1998 and again two years ago.

Shelton says he remembered a few more things during the second interview, but much of that day remains firmly in his memory.

“All of that was so traumatic it makes such an impression on you that you never forget,” Shelton said.

Museum officials asked for his notebook, press pass and other materials from that day for their collection. Shelton agreed to the donation, but made photocopies of everything for himself.

“History can get distorted easily,” Shelton said, adding that he resents that so many people have made money dreaming up theories and writing books. “Setting the record straight is pretty important.”

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.