Remember JFK: 50 years ago

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

It's been 50 years since President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed. Today, the nation is remembering him, his life and the tragic event that ended his presidency. Here, you will find remembrances from locals and from the Journal-World about JFK and learn about how his death unfolded in Lawrence.

Around the world

We asked you, our readers, to submit your memories about where you were when you found out Kennedy has been shot. Click each marker to reveal a memory that took place at that location. Use the regions below the map to zoom to the different parts of the globe where memories took place. All marker locations on the map are approximations.

Map by Alma Bahman

In Lawrence

In 1950, Bill Mayer joined the Journal-World as a reporter. He worked at the newspaper for 60 years. He was managing editor in 1963. Here is his remembrance.

Former editor recalls sadness, shock, sense of duty

It was a little after 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 22, 1963, and the Journal-World was on the verge of being put to bed for that seemingly quiet Friday, 50 years ago today.

The signal bell on the idle but humming Associated Press printer in the newsroom suddenly broke the silence with five "dings." In those days, that meant a bulletin. Almost simultaneously, a telephone rang. On the other end was Gene Fewel, Journal-World backshop printer employee who'd dropped by his home during the lunch hour.

"Bill," he gasped. "I turned on television for a minute and they just said Kennedy's been shot!" He never got an answer, or waited for one. He was dashing on his way to the car to rush back to work.

Robert Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson/AP Photo

I swung around to the AP printer which had momentarily stopped its clattering. An eerie silence had been restored, the humming had resumed, and there it was: "DALLAS (AP) - President Kennedy was shot today as his motorcade moved through downtown Dallas."

That was about the last time the machine would be quiet that day as reporters and editors worked feverishly to put together a full and accurate account of the crime that "couldn't happen" in the genteel and civilized United States of the 1960s. Yet somehow it had.

George Catt, then a young reporter and later an attorney and municipal judge, was one of the few in the newsroom over the noon hour. Without a word he began to dig out telephone numbers of key people to call for reaction. News editor Jack Zimmerman quickly pitched that day's Page 1 layout into the wastebasket, started writing a list of "things to do" and mumbled something like, "This is one you hope you never have to handle."

That was the last overt bit of personal emotion anyone could afford for a hectic three hours while Earl Morey, Genevieve Balyeat, Shirley Peterson and Marian Warden scuffled to get everything possible and verifiable into that day's paper.

Pain, anguish, anger, shock, tears . . . all these and every other imaginable emotion simply had to be temporarily pigeonholed in the interest of presenting what most would later agree was the biggest national or international news story they ever had personally been associated with as newspaper people.

Almost immediately Dolph Simons Sr. and Dolph C. Simons Jr., attending a business meeting in Kansas City, were on the telephone with some helpful advice and with the report that they would stop by the Associated Press Bureau and rush back the latest pictures of the tragedy in time for that day's Journal-World. In typical fashion, they returned quickly to contribute to the staff effort.

Kennedy Funeral Procession from the Capitol/AP Photo

From those five fateful rings by the AP printer until the press began to roll just after 3:30 that day, it was mostly reflex action on many counts, with a lot of people to contact and little time to do it while the AP continued to round up the very latest details and put them together for a coherent narrative.

I had never been prouder, and never would be, of the way any news staff filed away personal feelings and responded to a major story in the interest of giving readers the most complete package possible with the time and resources available. The AP may never have done a better job of covering a breaking story of great magnitude than it did that day - after some communications glitches in the early moments while the mortally wounded president was rushed to Dallas' Parkland Hospital.

Ours was a small but closely knit news staff that delivered in the clutch as true professionals. Despite heavy hearts and staggering shock, they performed under pressure the way they were trained to do, the way writers script it in the movies or on television, better than Lou Grant and Co. ever did it - only this was heart-rending, real, life in the raw, not some grade-B fiction offering like "The Day After."

That night's paper carried in detail the death of President Kennedy, the shooting of Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit by Lee Harvey Oswald, and the arrest of the 24-year-old Oswald for questioning in the presidential assassination. There were numerous comments from local people about what many still regard as an unthinkable crime. There was an announcement that ministers had designated the coming Sunday as an occasion to preach national unity rather than discord and retribution. The next day the Kansas-Missouri football game was postponed a week.

It was a privilege, honor and comfort the be associated with those J-W people that terrible day and share those shattering moments like family. It was truly a Black Friday when a nation lost its innocence and suddenly had to face up to the grim reality that Camelot exists only in people's minds . . . that the real world is often as cruel as even the noble King Arthur eventually found it. It was a loss of something important that America has never quite regained, and may never get back.

When Dallas Dolan began to roll the Journal-World presses, most of us slumped back into chairs, sitting at desks, staring blankly in shock, some shedding tears . . . of shame, of anger, of regret for the Kennedy promise that would never be realized, and tears of fear about what such disdain for the nation's highest office might lead to.

Robert Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy and Ted Kennedy/AP Photo

There still are innumerable missing answers to questions posed so cruelly by that tragic day in 1963.

I think the thing that will always stick out in my mind was that eerie ding of that AP bell . . . somehow THAT day it sounded so different," Judge Catt later said. "When you heard it, you knew something big was up. None of us dreamed THAT big! In your life, you forget a lot of things but can always remember where you were and what you were doing on certain occasions. Few have trouble with November 22, 1963."

Personally, there was Dec. 7, 1941, when on Pearl Harbor Sunday I was reading "Ivanhoe" and listening to a Kansas City radio station playing Count Basie's "Fiesta in Blue." There was V-E Day in May of 1945; that hot August day in 1945 when I and other servicemen back from Europe heard about the atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima announced on the Air Corps base public address system at Sioux Falls, S.D.; then V-J Day and the fantastic celebration in downtown Sioux Falls that night, and the realization we wouldn't have to be shuttled off to the Pacific war.

And always Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, another of those stinging pinpoints in time when you recall exactly where you were and precisely what you were doing, and that you wept, and really didn't care who noticed.

Bill Getz remembers

I was eating lunch that day in the Kansas Union cafeteria. A bowl of macaroni, a bowl of baked beans and a soda, all most likely for under a dollar. On the jukebox someone played "Long Tall Texan," a popular tune of the day. Those are the kinds of things you remember.

Cramming for my afternoon class, I had not noticed the movement around me until the girl at the next table began gathering up her books. "They say the television is on in the lounge," she said, "and everyone is going up to watch a news bulletin. Someone seems to have taken a shot at the president. I think I'll go up to see what all the fuss is about." I raised my eyes to see the cafeteria nearly empty, with a few stragglers headed for the stairway.

The TV was usually turned on only for sports events. But now the semicircular pattern of spectators who had mingled around it during the recent World Series had expanded to the corners of the room, and was hushed, so as not to miss a word from the familiar array of newscasters delivering reports from on-site and studio. I got there just as Tom Petit, live from the hospital, was reporting that two priests had been seen hurrying in through the emergency entrance. Some in the crowd gasped: we all knew what that could mean. A few minutes later, Cronkite delivered his terse announcement, punctuated with a suppressed sob.

The crowd fell silent for only for a moment as ripples of shock, grief and speculation began circulate. I had not yet experienced a death in my family and could only think that there would be time enough to take it in later. I was, then as now, a creature of habit. I had a class to go to.

As I walked along Jayhawk Boulevard towards Strong Hall I was aware that many of the passers-by had no idea of what had happened. For all appearances, it was a normal Friday afternoon, with students heading home for the weekend. They were being informed by people rushing out of buildings along the way announcing the news to perfect strangers with what I thought to be unbecoming enthusiasm. With a cold November wind blowing in my face I decided to cut through Strong to my classroom in its west wing. Each of the offices I passed along the dark hallway was alight with people clustered around their radios.

Professor Robinson ordinarily lectured formally, but now he sat astride the desk, tie loosened. As we filtered in, he repeated that there would no class that day, but that he would stay the hour for anyone who wanted to talk. The rest of us were free to go. Having nothing yet to say, I took him up on it.

On the way down to my apartment on Vermont with the wind now at my back, I hunkered down in the upraised collar of my jacket, an empowering gesture that had always reminded me of James Dean. I knew I would never imagine that again. As I rounded the corner to head down 14th, the campanile began to chime. The carillonneur customarily played an impromptu concert of college fight songs on Friday afternoons. But now the tones resonated long and dark. I was a farm boy from western Kansas. I had never heard bells tolling before.

Stopping in at The Wheel on the way home to inaugurate the weekend was a Friday- afternoon ritual of mine. The tables were packed with men down from the houses, but my former roommate Jerry was seated at the bar and motioned for me to take the empty stool beside him. His eyes on the TV set behind the bar, he said nothing, merely shaking his head. Behind us a reveler stood up, beer raised as if in a toast. "If they use this as an excuse the cancel the Missouri game next weekend, there'll be hell to pay with the alums." Then he strode to the dormant jukebox, dropped in a load of dimes, and turned to lead a rebel yell from the brothers as the first strains of "Long Tall Texan" sounded out.

Jerry set down his beer. I knew him to be a conservative, a Goldwater man, but a man with a heart as big as his athlete's frame. Without saying a word he walked over to the Wurlitzer and, with a single blow of his oversized shoe, knocked the accursed thing off its moorings. For a moment the bar fell silent except for the muddy tremolo of the dying record and the slam of the adjacent front door Jerry dashed out of a few steps ahead of Jim, the proprietor, rushing around the bar to catch him. I stayed put, so as not to implicate myself in the fracas. Besides, there was a news update. The Vice President was alive and had just been sworn in. He would accompany the President's body and the First Lady on the flight back to Washington.

After a decent interval, with Jerry long gone and the patrons helping Jim reset the jukebox, I crept out the door. The street was deserted except for a couple embracing at the corner of 14th and Vermont, the lady sobbing on his shoulder.

I had grown up in a prosperous imperial country whose leaders, if not always judicious, were thought to be sound and secure. Our high-school commencement speaker had told us that, in the promising future before us, everything was possible. Now I knew he had misstated it. From now on, rather, anything could happen.


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