Fifty years ago today, long before I moved to Evanston, I was a copy editor for the Jacksonville Journal, an afternoon metropolitan daily newspaper in north Florida.
On this particular day, a Friday, the deadline for the second (and final) edition was 2 p.m. Eastern time. Presses were scheduled to run at 3 p.m.
At about 2:30 p.m., however, one of the reporters came running out of the wire room and yelled, “Kennedy’s been shot.”
“Those damn Birchers,” mumbled one of the reporters sitting near me. As if on cue, the newsroom sprang into action.
From out of nowhere, the managing editor suddenly appeared and began shouting orders.
“Call city hall and get the mayor’s reaction.”
“Somebody get out on the street and do an MOS (newsroom shorthand for man-on-the-street interviews).”
“Tell the composing room to hold up on everything and wheel out the Kennedy page.”
Most daily newspapers have three pages already made up in case of a sudden death. One is the President; a second is the Pope; and a third is the mayor.
In each case, the pages are sitting in the corner, complete with photos, sidebars, and bios.
As the hum of the newsroom increased in volume and intensity, there was almost an automatic reaction that set in.
Here was a story that was bigger than any that had been experienced by anyone at the paper, with the possible exception of the old reporter at the desk in the rear of the newsroom, who started as a copy boy on the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
Yet everyone instinctively seemed to know what to do. Who to call. What sidebars to write. What angles to explore.
One reporter, without being asked, took up a position in front of the television set in the managing editor’s office. When a big story breaks, television provides a ringside seat that cannot be ignored by the print media.
“We’ll remake the front page, insert the Kennedy page, and start rolling the presses at the regular time,” the managing editor trumpeted to the key editors. “Then we’ll put out an extra.”
An extra edition was almost unheard of since the advent of radio and television, which had pretty much preempted the market for breaking news.
The timing was such that the extra edition would be hitting the streets in downtown Jacksonville just at quitting time, and the impact would make it all worthwhile.
The banner headline on the regular “final” edition that rolled off the presses on schedule at 3 p.m. read: PRESIDENT KENNEDY SHOT.
Much of that afternoon is still a blur in my mind…the phones ringing, the alarm bells on the wire machines clanging, the typewriters chattering, the TV set blaring…the hubbub, verging on bedlam, that characterized a newsroom with about 50 people operating on heightened doses of adrenalin.
But the single detail that was burned into my consciousness for all time, was one single act on the part of the managing editor.
With a proof sheet of the final edition in front of him, he made one change in the banner headline that would appear in the extra edition.
He drew a line through the word, SHOT, and replaced it with the word, DEAD.
PRESIDENT KENNEDY DEAD screamed…no, wept…the banner headline atop Page 1 of the extra edition.
As I recall these events 50 years later, my mouth turns dry, and I fight back the tears that memory generates in reliving the day that surely will enter the history books as the most memorable day of the 20th Century, for those of us old enough to experience it.
Since graduating from college some four years earlier, my career had been drifting, as I sought out what it was that I wanted to do with my life.
During that time, I taught high school English, secured a masters degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and worked as a radio news editor.
But what about my future? Would I go back into teaching? Would I try my hand at sales? Would I audition for a gig as a disk jockey, as I had done in college?
In the course of a few hours, on that remarkable Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, all of those questions found answers. There was no doubt that journalism was my calling.
I was hooked, and no job would ever be the same again.