The day after President Kennedy’s assassination was unlike any other I can remember in my life. I’d just turned 16 and was in the 10th grade at Kirkman High School but only had one interest - radio. The owners of WAPO let me serve as an intern and even paid me a few dollars to file records and keep sports scores.
That Saturday morning after the assassination of our President, I went to the radio station in the Read House basement to help answer the telephone. Around noon, the general manager, Frank Hubbs, came to me with a special assignment; my first real reporting challenge. He wanted me to survey Chattanooga’s downtown department stores and the four five and ten cent stores to find out how the murder of our President was affecting their businesses. Mr. Hubbs gave me a steno pad and had written several questions for me to ask managers or just anyone who would respond.
It was a month before Christmas and downtown was usually crowded with shoppers trying to find parking spaces and bargains in the stores. Southern Coach Line buses were always standing room only, but that day there was no problem finding seats.
Before the afternoon was over I’d been to Sears, J.C. Penney’s, Miller Brothers and Lovemans. Sears had opened their Toyland in the basement. “Santa Claus is coming to town” by Gene Autry was playing in the background but the Santa chair was empty. There were no children around having their pictures made.
Across the street, J.C. Penney’s only had a handful of shoppers.
I visited McClellan’s, W.T. Grants, Woolworths, and S.H. Kress, the city’s main five and ten cent stores. Lunch counters were usually full, but this Saturday it wasn’t business as usual.
I told a few employees and customers what I was doing and most answers were short and of shock to the previous day’s events. It was very hard to find anyone who wanted to talk.
The manager of Woolworth’s knew my dad who was a regular customer purchasing many chocolate cakes from the store’s bakery. The manager was a veteran of World War II and wished me good luck with my project, but shaking his head said he couldn’t really express how he felt. I remember him saying that he liked President Kennedy and his military service to our country.
There were a few coffee drinkers at the lunch counters but downtown looked almost like a Sunday. The eatery at Miller Bros. mezzanine was all but deserted with only the cashiers present.
The Miller’s manager told me that many stores were planning to close early and workers would make their way home.
While walking from store to store I ran into Buddy Martin, one of WAPO’s co-owners and partner in the Martin-Thompson Sporting Goods Store on Cherry Street. Mr. Martin said both his store and neighboring Lookout Sporting Goods had closed because there was no interest in shopping.
I remember late in the afternoon seeing my seventh grade Red Bank Jr. High School history teacher Joseph Mattis at the Kress lunch counter eating a sandwich. I told him about my assignment and let him see my notes. He only shook his head and we chatted a few minutes. His feelings were much like the others I’d just talked with, “I never thought this would happen in the United States.”
My teacher even offered to buy me a hamburger, but I told him I needed to get back to the station with my findings.
As I walked up and down Market Street going in and out of stores both the Chattanooga Times and News Free Press newsstands were emptied about as fast as newsboys could fill them. The front pages were filled with stories about the last 24 hours.
My final stop was the small Krystal restaurant on Market Street between Eighth and Ninth streets. One of the employees was a North Chattanooga neighbor; we rode the bus downtown together just about every morning. She fixed me a complimentary box of Krystals and French fries to take back to those working at the radio station. When I was leaving, a sobbing server said something to the effect, “I liked President Kennedy a lot and will miss him; he seemed to care about the struggling poor people of our country.”
When I returned to the station and showed my notes to the manager we went to the big studio and talked on the air for a few minutes about what I’d learned; Mr. Hubbs told me good job and thanked me for completing the task.
Chattanooga morning radio personalities Luther Masingill (WDEF), Peanut Faircloth (WAPO) and Dale Anthony (WFLI) would play the 1962 recording of “PT 109” by Jimmy Dean, a song about the combat service of President John F. Kennedy and the crew of the PT boat in World War II.
It would be a few weeks before things began to return to near normal. I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience like this as I saw my hometown really hurting just like the rest of our country. Regardless of one’s political beliefs, the entire United States grieved together. No one can forget pictures of the eternal flame at President Kennedy’s grave in Arlington Cemetery reminding us of what had happened that sunny afternoon in Dallas, Texas.
Lunch counters were mostly empty