The 60th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is this month. Talk to just about anyone who was alive Nov. 22, 1963, and they will remember what they were doing that Friday afternoon when learning the 35th president of the United States had been murdered in Dallas, Texas.
Both UPI and AP ran the first news stories. CBS Radio’s head anchor Alan Jackson is believed to have broadcast the first national bulletin right after 1:30 and it was heard live in Chattanooga on WDOD AM 1310.
Within the hour, WDOD radio listeners heard Jackson say, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States is dead; John Fitzgerald Kennedy has died of an assassin wound received in Dallas, TX.” Jackson became emotional and the network engineer immediately went to a military band playing the “Star Spangled Banner.”
About the same time TV anchor Walter Cronkite read the same news to a national TV audience carried live on WDEF (channel 12) in Chattanooga. Cronkite noted the president died about 2:00.
News Free Press Editor Lee Anderson said the afternoon paper was being printed for distribution when the press was stopped and the front page quickly re-set announcing the news.
The giant headline on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, said it all, “Kennedy murdered by assassin in Texas.”
Mr. Anderson wrote, “The murder of President Kennedy was an attack on all Americans.”
WDEF radio’s morning personality Luther Masingill said he’d just returned to the station from lunch when engineer Buddy Houts told him the news.
Massingill said, “Buddy started out by saying Luther, this is no joke, President Kennedy has been shot, so we walked down the hall to the WDEF TV studio and watched as CBS TV news anchor Walter Cronkite announced the president had died from a gunshot.”
Luther said until after the President’s funeral WDEF Radio joined NBC radio for continuing coverage but did have several hours of local programming featuring comments from officials and listeners.
Luther said the network’s coverage was very special because newsman Russ Ward was one of the anchors. Masingill said, “Ward grew up in Chattanooga and went to Glenwood Elementary School. Ward anchored the 7:00 NBC Radio newscast every morning on my program.”
Tennessee Senator Albert Gore Sr. was on the Senate floor when, like the other senators, received the news. Senator Gore told NBC news, “It’s just horrible, that’s all I can say.”
Third District Congressman Bill Brock flew home to Chattanooga and met with reporters in his downtown federal building office. Broadcaster Steve Conrad said he covered the Congressman and remembered, while answering questions, Mr. Brock choked up and could hardly speak. Conrad said the tragic death of JFK was a very difficult time for everyone.
Congressman Brock’s administrative assistant Gene Hunt said he attended the Kennedy funeral with Brock. Mr. Hunt said Congressman Brock (a Republican) had met President Kennedy (a Democrat) several times and liked many of his policies. Hunt said there wasn’t a hint of politics at the funeral as everyone was there to honor and remember the President of the United States.
Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Charles H. Coolidge said he was sitting in the office at Chattanooga Printing and Engraving downtown when his wife Frances opened the door with the news, “Charles, the President has been shot.” Coolidge said, “I looked at Frances in dismay but couldn’t respond; there were no words.” Coolidge said they had several radios in the print shop and listened as updates were broadcast. Coolidge said, “I never thought something like this would happen in my lifetime.”
As a tenth grade student at Kirkman Technical High School downtown, it was during the one o’clock hour that Principal Jack A. Carr and his assistants began circulating around the campus spreading the word to dozens of shops and classrooms that President Kennedy had been shot. This was before the days of school intercoms.
There were a few televisions and radios in the building so students and teachers gathered to hear Walter Cronkite’s live coverage on CBS, Chet Huntley on NBC or Howard K. Smith on ABC.
Gaylord McPherson was on duty at WDOD when the CBS Radio network broke in with Alan Jackson reading the bulletin. McPherson said station employees were answering the phones as fast as they could. He said listeners couldn’t believe what they were hearing.
Reporters in Dallas hurried to find telephone booths or a business to call back reports to their New York newsrooms. There were few mobile phones in those days.
TV Broadcaster Roy Morris was on the air live on Channel 3 and read the Associated Press bulletin. A short time later the station joined NBC for coverage that lasted the next 70 hours. Channel’s 12 and 9 also relied on their networks for coverage.
There was live network radio coverage on WDOD, WDEF, WAPO, WFLI and WDXB as various broadcasts were interrupted with special reports and the continual coverage began that lasted through the president’s funeral.
The late Tommy Jett said he was on the air at WFLI radio when the Associated Press bell rang and the bulletin came across the wire.
“I couldn’t hold back the tears and started playing Elvis’ Gospel recordings,” the announcer said.
After it was confirmed that the 35th President was dead, Principal Carr cancelled classes for those who wanted to leave but said the school would remain open until the regular 3:30 dismissal time. Dozens of students filled Mr. A.R. Witt’s radio and TV shop to watch anchor Cronkite announce at 2:00 that the president had died.
As a young radio intern I decided to hurriedly walk from school down Chestnut Street to the WAPO studio in the Read House basement. When I got to the station, general manager Frank Hubbs greeted me; “Am I glad to see you, can you help us answer the telephones.” That’s where I spent the weekend, mostly listening to dozens of emotional callers who were just finding out about what had happened.
Many learned of the assassination from their car radio on the way home from work. If they had one, Southern Coach line bus drivers turned on their portable radios. Driver Bill Shauf said he was heading toward Alton Park and turned up the sound so everyone on the bus could hear. Shauf said there was silence on the bus as passengers listened in disbelief.
When the first news broke, driver Delmar “Goatman” Hoskins remembered stopping in front of Miller Brothers at Seventh and Market Street to pick up passengers. “I stopped the bus and we all listened; many of my passengers became emotional,” he said.
With Christmas a month away downtown would normally be swarming with shoppers but that wasn’t the case this weekend.
Managers at Sears, J.C. Penneys, Miller Brothers and Lovemans said shopping almost came to a stand still. Lunch counters at W.T. Grants, McClellan’s, Woolworths and S.H. Kress had a few coffee drinkers but customers didn’t seem in the mood to eat. Many stores decided to close early and send their employees home.
Radio and television stations all across the United States turned to their networks for wall to wall coverage. WAPO joined the ABC radio network and one of the anchors was veteran newsman Don Gardner who had traveled and covered the young president for his network.
The station was airing a music program when Gardner broke in with the bulletin. Click here to listen.
First Presbyterian Church pastor Dr. James L. Fowle said there wasn’t a seat left for the Sunday morning worship. The service was broadcast live over WDOD with Dr. Fowle calling on everyone to pray.
WDEF broadcast the morning service of First Cumberland Presbyterian Church with Dr. J. Fred Johnson speaking. Dr. Johnson said in his message there’s not words to explain the events of the last 48 hours and he called on the city to pray. Dr. Johnson said he found comfort in Psalms 121 and urged his audience to meditate on it.
WAPO broadcast the morning service from Centenary Methodist Church where a special prayer was offered for the Kennedy family and the new President.
There were special services at Chattanooga’s synagogues and a community prayer service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
During the weekend, newly sworn in President Lyndon Johnson asked Dr. Billy Graham to address the nation. The Christian evangelist went on national radio and television and for 30 minutes Dr. Graham delivered a message entitled “Our Fleeting Lives” that was heard on nearly every broadcast outlet all across the United States and by short wave overseas.
Dr. Graham said, “For a few hours the nation has stopped, cried and prayed. The great question everyone is asking me is why, how could this happen in America. Where shall we turn, I say we turn to God.”
Chattanooga Mayor Ralph Kelley said Kennedy’s election inspired him to run for office. Mayor Kelley requested and received air time on radio and TV to reflect on what had happened in Dallas, Tx. Mayor Kelley urged everyone to attend a house of worship and pray for our country and its people.
The late Hamilton County Commissioner Jack Mayfield said St. Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church downtown held a special Mass which he and his family attended.
Universities across the country canceled football games; the University of Chattanooga happened to be off that weekend.
Gateway Newsstand on Market Street couldn’t keep newspapers on the shelves and newspaper machines downtown were quickly emptied.
In 2018, Chattanooga television news anchor David Carroll did a story entitled, “Three Unforgettable days,” Carroll was in the first grade in Bryant, Ala. and said the principal came into his classroom making the announcement. Carroll said, “I’ll always remember that day.”
Carroll interviewed Hamilton County Executive Dalton Roberts who was 30 years old at the time of the assassination. Roberts, a Kennedy supporter, said he heard the news while riding in his car. Roberts told the news anchor, “it was un-real then and still amazes me. I really liked Kennedy and his ideas.”
News Free Press Publisher Roy McDonald decided to print a rare extra edition. Reporter John Shearer talked with the paper's political writer and city editor Julius Parker who said Chattanoogans simply could not comprehend the shocking news.
“I just can’t believe it” and “This is terrible” were among the many comments Mr. Parker received on Friday afternoon from people going home in the area of the downtown Volunteer Building.
Mr. Parker wrote, “While Chattanoogans generally took their politics seriously and many in the then-conservative city were against the Kennedy administration, the tragic shooting had at least briefly turned the city into one body grieving together.
And were the residents ever saddened, as the sudden death of the seemingly vibrant 46-year-old President Kennedy was quite shocking, even though presidential assassinations or assassination attempts had taken place over a good part of American history.
"Genuine sorrow was expressed in the faces of the purchasers as they crowded around harried newsboys who were hardly given time to place their ware on the racks,” Mr. Parker wrote.
On that Friday afternoon ABC radio announced that Paul Harvey would have a special report at 6:00. WAPO carried his comments live and this young student secured a copy of the tape and saved it over the years.
Several employees of the station gathered in the station's large studio to listen to Mr. Harvey’s comments. After those remarks, General Sales Manager Walter Stamper said, “Tell me this is a dream. I just can’t believe what has happened.”
It was estimated over a million people lined the funeral procession in Washington. NBC Today show host Hugh Downs said it was the greatest and most solemn wake in history.
Hamilton County, Chattanooga Public Schools, private schools and the University of Chattanooga all closed so students could remain home and watch the funeral that started at 8:30.
Notre Dame High School students attended a morning Requiem High Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church. President Kennedy was the first Catholic to be elected president.
On the 10th anniversary of the assassination, George Key with the NAACP said President Kennedy was his favorite president. “I was shocked like the rest of the nation.” Key said, “President Kennedy had a vision and lots of new ideas for the country but with his death the civil rights movement didn’t end and the fight continues today.”
As NBC radio concluded their coverage, Newsman Ward was nearly overcome with emotion saying, “We’ve seen another day of history made but it will be a long time before we forget it.”
Radio and television stations returned to their regular formats after the funeral but life for a few days seemed so different.
Mr. Masingill said when he came on the air that Tuesday morning Buddy Houts (his long time engineer) suggested they play “God Bless America” by Kate Smith. Luther said, “As it turned out most of our music that day was of the patriotic spirit.”
Luther said in the next few days there wasn’t a lot of conversation as everyone was just trying to process what had happened the last few days in the United States.
Click here to listen to Paul Harvey’s comments, a few hours after President Kennedy had been killed.