Archive for Friday, November 22, 2013

Looking back at how JFK assassination unfolded in Lawrence

The front page of the Lawrence Daily Journal-World for Friday evening, Nov. 22, 1963.

The front page of the Lawrence Daily Journal-World for Friday evening, Nov. 22, 1963.

November 22, 2013


Remember JFK

Take a look at more memories from locals recounting where they were and what they felt when they heard JFK was shot here.

On Nov. 21, 1963, Kansas University Chancellor W. Clarke Wescoe gave a speech to a group of midwestern governors in Omaha with a simple theme, according to coverage in the Journal-World: "The 1960s are years of challenge."

Little did he know.

The next day, a pretty large challenge emerged: President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The assassination is often called the first major news event covered by television. Those who lived through it invariably remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

But on the day before the assassination, the news in Lawrence was fairly forgettable. The top local story was that the family of Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Hoover had won the 4-H Family award, and that "ideal" weather was expected for Saturday's Kansas-Missouri football game at Memorial Stadium.

Pretty innocent times.

There was a hint, though, on the front page of the paper. The top national article carried this headline: "Kennedy Starts His Trip Into Troubled Texas." The lead paragraph read: "President Kennedy set out for Texas today to spread some political oil on troubled waters."

Not much oil was spread on Nov. 22, 1963. That was 50 years ago today. Here's a look at how the news and its aftermath were relayed to Journal-World readers.

Nov. 22, 1963

The headline blared in all capital letters: "PRESIDENT KENNEDY SLAIN."

"President John F. Kennedy, thirty-sixth president of the United States, was shot to death today by a hidden assassin armed with a high-powered rifle," the lead paragraph of the Associated Press article declared.

You'll have to forgive the reporter and copy editor. Kennedy was the 35th president, not the 36th.

The entire article ran in bold type. Some of the descriptions were bold for the day, too.

"The First Lady cradled her dying husband's blood smeared head in her arms as the presidential limousine raced to the hospital," the article reported. "'Oh, no,' she kept crying."

The Journal-World was printed in the afternoon in 1963. The shots were fired at about 1 p.m. and the president was declared dead about 1:40 p.m. Details about the shooter were few in that day's edition. But the article noted an "unprecedented drag net of the city" was ordered in Dallas, and that police "believed the fatal shots were fired by a white man, about 30, slender of build, weighing about 165 pounds and standing 5 feet 10 inches tall."

The headline for the lead local story read: "Shock and Grief; Then Anger Here."

"Lawrence citizens registered shock, grief and intense anger, almost invariably in that order, when contacted by the Journal-World this afternoon about the tragic death of President Kennedy by an assassin during a motorcade through Dallas, Tex."

The article was a summation of quick quotes from local leaders ranging from city and school board officials to Lawrence resident Robert Ellsworth, a U.S. Congressman at the time. They all said essentially the same thing: They couldn't believe it.

At Lawrence High School, classes continued for the day. But the article noted that students were kept abreast of the day's events through announcements made over the school's intercom.

The article also reported that Student Council President Henry Booth and Student Council Vice President W.M. Stalcup got on the intercom system and asked students to say a silent prayer for the president.

"We did ask for a moment of silent prayer," said Booth, now better known as Hank Booth, who went on to become a longtime radio personality in Lawrence. "Back in those days, we got away with that. I'm not sure we could now."

Booth remembers many students crying in the hallways, and a general sense of shock that came over a school that had been going through a heavy dose of happy times. It was Booth's senior year, the football team had just finished an undefeated season, and Booth's recollection is that famed rock-n-roller Jerry Lee Lewis was scheduled to play a concert that next day in a rural Douglas County barn that doubled as a music venue and party spot.

"Everything was great, everything was wonderful," Booth said. "And then all of a sudden, kabam, this happened and everything came to a stop."

Well, LHS' world didn't entirely stop spinning. A high school play was scheduled for that evening, and district officials decided the play must go on. As the country looked for an assassin, LHS prepared for a play with an eerie name: "The Curious Savage."

Nov. 23, 1963

Another headline in all capital letters: "JOHNSON BEGINS TASK: New Chief Assumes Awesome Duties in His Former Office." The article notes that Johnson had not yet moved into the Oval Office, but rather commanded the country from the vice president's office. The only picture on the front page was a formal portrait of the nation's new leader.

It was on Nov. 23 that the newspaper first mentioned Lee Harvey Oswald. "Suspect in Murder Tried to Renounce U.S. 4 Years Ago" one headline read. Another got to the point more directly: "Oswald Says He Is A Red."

There was much talk of Oswald's communist leanings, and that the police had their man.

"District Attorney Henry Wade of Dallas was asked if authorities were looking for anyone else in connection with the world-stunning murder," an Associated Press article reported. "'There is no one else but him,' Wade said."

And, of course, there were the tales of Jackie Kennedy. "Mrs. Kennedy said goodbye to her husband with a kiss on his lifeless lips and then slipped her ring on his finger," one article reported.

There were even reports of how Jackie Kennedy went from First Lady to little lady in just a few brief moments. The Associated Press reported how Kennedy stood next to Johnson in the presidential plane while he was being sworn into office. That elicited a suggestion from Texas police captain who was at the ceremony.

"God bless you, little lady, but you ought to go back and lie down," he told Kennedy.

The article reports that she simply said "No thanks. I'm fine," and went to sit beside her husband's coffin on the jet ride home.

Lawrence residents were preparing to sit as well. Many likely would sit in front of the TV that evening while others were preparing for a memorial service at Plymouth Congregational Church. It would later be reported that 400 people attended the service. The Douglas County Ministerial Alliance played host to the service. The newspaper took the step of offering a specific Bible verse, at the recommendation of the alliance, for mourners to consider: The 90th Psalm.

It wasn't the only message delivered that day. The mayor of Lawrence, V.C. Springer, sent an official letter of condolence to the office of President Lyndon Johnson. "Our city is shocked and saddened by the loss of our President. Our thoughts and prayers are with you, Mrs. Kennedy and her family."

It was sent via telegram.

Nov. 25, 1963

It surely was one of the odder days for photos on the front page of a newspaper. In one corner of the front page was a picture of Lee Harvey Oswald in all his agony just moments after Jack Ruby had fired a pistol into his gut. In the other corner was a picture of the former first lady kneeling beside her husband's coffin.

The lead article tells how a nation and statesmen from around the globe "said farewell to the to martyred 35th President today and commanded to God the soul of thy servant John."

Oswald's death also received significant coverage.

"Millions of television viewers throughout the nation watched in stunned horror Sunday as a murder was committed," an Associated Press article reported. "It undoubtedly was the first time so many people witnessed a real life homicide."

The article went on to note that the "overwhelming majority" of people polled by the Associated Press viewed Oswald's slaying as a "frightening revolt against the American code of justice."

But the article also noted a question that continues to dog the country today.

"Still others saw in Oswald's death a practical loss. They wondered aloud whether the world would ever know if the true presidential assassin had paid for his crime."

Nov. 26, 1963

The headline was simple: "President Johnson Is In New Office Today." The article was about how Johnson had moved into the Oval Office and reported for work at 8:45 a.m.

The president had moved. It wouldn't be accurate to say that the country had moved on. But it had moved a bit, too. One of the other headiness that made the front page was that KU football running back Gale Sayers had been chosen as an All American.

An All American in a different America.


Ken Lassman 4 years ago

I so clearly remember that the JW headline was inked in blue ink, something I'd never seen before from the JW, and before color was readily available for printing pictures.

I also remember sitting in class listening to the radio through the intercom (at Cordley), with my teacher sitting down in stunned silence.

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