50 years ago in Dallas, Part 2

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Keith Shelton, former managing editor of the Denton Record-Chronicle, was political writer of the Dallas Times Herald when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Shelton had been traveling with the presidential party as a member of the press corps during the president’s Texas visit. This is the second of two columns examining what he terms was the hardest day of his life, and perhaps the hardest day of American journalism, Nov. 22, 1963. The columns were originally printed in the Denton Record-Chronicle in November 1983, under the headline “20 years ago in Dallas.”About half of those on the bus, which was the first vehicle after the VIPs, yelled at the driver to stop so we could find out what happened. The other half yelled at him to follow the president’s car. There was no choice to be made; police quickly motioned the bus on.

Since the motorcade was supposed to go to the Trade Mart, that’s where it went. Then the presidential limousine was nowhere in sight, it was assumed he had been taken somewhere else, either for treatment or for safety.

We hoped for safety. The press thundered through the Trade Mart, trying to get to telephones, not so much to report as to get information. There were rumors Kennedy had been hit. I found Deputy Police Chief M.W. Stevenson. Had he been hit? “From the information we have, he was,” Stevenson said somberly. Kennedy was at Parkland, he confirmed. (The Secret Service routinely rehearses the route from wherever the president is going to be to the nearest hospital, so they knew the way.)

An organ was playing, water splashing in the Trade Mart’s inside foundation. It was 12:40. Trying to cross the vast floor of the Trade Mart, I ran into a familiar Secret Service man, who asked to see my identification, then asked me to go back the way I came, even though he had been with us the previous three days. “We’re checking everybody real close now,” he explained nervously.

Racing to the back of the courtyard area, I got to a bank of telephones set up for use by the press. Unfortunately for me, all of them were long-distance phones — you couldn’t make a local call on them. Leaping to the mezzanine, I went in the first office I came to, saw that a secretary was using the phone, took it out of her hands, hung it up and dialed the office, much to her surprise.

I might have saved my energy (I would be needing it). Not because of any thought of assassination, but simply because it was a presidential visit right on our main edition deadline. The Times Herald was fully covered everywhere. Thanks to pre-planning by Felix McKnight, Hal Lewis, Charlie Dameron, Ken Smart and others, there was no gap. Police reporter George Carter was monitoring the police radio at police headquarters. He heard Chief Curry’s call as well as Sheriff Bill Decker’s. They were riding at the head of the motorcade.

J. Erik Jonsson, one of the hosts, went to the microphone in the Trade Mart.

“There has been a delay in the arrival of the motorcade. There has been a mishap. We don’t know the extent or the nature of it. From reports we have just received, we believe it is not serious. Please keep your seats. When we can learn anything, believe me, we will tell you.”

Knots of luncheon guests were listening to a few radios. Those recognized as reporters were mobbed.

It wasn’t long. “Ladies and gentlemen,” a choked Jonsson said. “I’m not sure that I can say what I have to say. I feel a little bit like I felt Pearl Harbor day. It is true. Our president and Governor Connally have been shot. We don’t know how seriously. Reports are scanty.”

People in the crowd started to file out with grim, sometimes tearful faces. It was 1:10. Some dabbed at their eyes. The presidential seal and the presidential flag went unnoticed at the head table, bedecked with yellow roses. There were row on row of uneaten club steaks. At 1:18, a doctor at Parkland said the president was dead.

Dr. Luther Holcomb of the Dallas Council of Churches asked William H. Dickerson Jr. of Highland Park Methodist Church to lead a prayer.

“There are no words to express what we are feeling,” he began.

The rest was something about the city facing what it had to face and that it could not face it without God. He may have been confused; maybe my notes are confused. There is a noticeable change in the handwriting in my notebook.

No one covered the assassination for The Times Herald; everyone did. Besides Carter at the police station, his natural habitation, there were reporters and photographers at Love Field, on the motorcade route, at the Trade Mart, and of course, in Fort Worth. I had been the inside reporter in Fort Worth. Paul Rosenfield was the outside reporter. There were rewrite and city desk people in the office. While the assassination story carried Carter’s byline, it was written by the rewrite and city desks from stories phoned in from all over. The biggest problem was control: rewrite men calmed excited reporters, and occasionally a reporter would calm an excited rewrite man.

The plan had been to hold the three-star, normally off the press just about noon, until the president spoke. On Page 1 in the early edition was a story by Lehrer about Secret Service precautions to protect the president, since he covered the federal beat. The lead was changed in next edition to say ‘Despite the extensive and painstaking steps ... ” As the story grew, it was moved inside. The text and highlights of Kennedy’s noon speech disappeared, too.

Considering the amount of bad information floating around, it is amazing how accurate the running story was. One woman said she had seen Johnson shot. Another saw the Secret Service exchanging shots with the assailant. People at the Triple Underpass who ducked for cover were reported as shooting victims. A report on the shooting of Officer J.D. Tippit in Oak Cliff was not related to the assassination, the sheriff reported at first. As it turned out, he was killed in the attempt to arrest Lee Harvey Oswald. Of course, the first talk after Kennedy was shot was that “they” got him, meaning the right-wing Walker types. As it turned out, Oswald was more of a communist than a rightist.

Back at the office, everyone was doing tiny pieces of the puzzle that ended up as a whole picture in each subsequent makeover. Since Jackson had seen the rifle, I interviewed him and wrote a first-person story with his byline, “I saw the rifle ... ” Then I did the same with B.W. Hargis, the motorcycle officer who was splashed with Kennedy’s blood, although I didn’t use a graphic description of the event. There also was a feeble attempt to write an analysis of what the assassination meant politically, a ridiculous exercise.

Everyone on the staff pursued his or her specialty, even to the religion writer, Steward Doss, who interviewed the priest who administered last rites to the president.

Late that night, they started sending staff members home, with orders to return at 5 a.m. Saturday. The next day was about the same. Sunday was supposed to be day off for most of the staff with a 5 a.m. start planned for Monday. But that was before Oswald was shot. Then it was back to work for everyone.

When I called in that Sunday morning, the desk thought Oswald had already been transferred to the sheriff’s custody when he was shot. So I was dispatched to ask the tough and already-legendary Bill Decker why he let his prisoner get killed. After an anxious drive in from Richardson, I was elated to learn that Oswald had not been in the sheriff’s custody but was still a city prisoner when he was shot.

Decker gave me a 45-minute lecture on precautions he had taken once the prisoner got to the county jail.

Next I was dispatched to the nightclub Jack Ruby ran to see if I could find any of his strippers to interview. Strippers, I discovered, are not easy to find on Sunday afternoon. No luck.

Back at the office, I got on the phone with a Chicago afternoon daily, Chicago’s American, no longer being published. Ruby had a background in Detroit and Chicago. I gave them Ruby’s Dallas history in exchange for their getting his history in the Midwest. That was for a Dick Hitt profile on Ruby. (Later there was Ruby’s circus trial and problems related to my efforts to cover that, but that is another story.)

There were few bylines in the Times Herald editions of that fateful time. It was a team effort, one for which the staff was nominated for a Pulitzer. However, Jackson got the Pulitzer for his famous picture. The Dallas News won for team effort, which we didn’t think was fair since they had until morning to get their paper out while we were covering the story and putting out remakes as it happened.

A lead written for the three-star on Nov. 22 never made it into print. It would have said: “President John F. Kennedy made a triumphal entry into Dallas Friday.”

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