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Bad news sells; one more JFK story

Time was, I could look out onto the staff of a newspaper and collect some similar “where were you” feedback from staffers regarding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. No matter the anniversary date – 20 years on, 30 years and other milestones – newspapers would publish stories, local observations, remembrances about the story, thus keeping the public’s fascination with it, now 50 years later, very much alive.

That’s the trouble with aging. Now I’m the oldest rat in the barn, while the staff, seemingly, keeps getting younger.

Staff member Maureen Legerski recalls the day from her desk at the Press. She was a sixth grader at Big Horn and school was dismissed.

There’s been much in the media of late – most of it good and thorough — regarding this tragic day in Dallas. If you’re a certain age, there’s a constant retelling of stories. The memory’s always clear on this one. Here’s one more.

 

I was a sixth-grader at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Marshall, Tex., two hours east of Dallas when the news broke. Since I was one of a few non-Catholic students, I was excused from school and went immediately to my father’s newspaper, the News-Messenger, which I did every day after school. That day, however, the newspaper was flat-out buzzed with activity: reporters talking on the telephone, taking notes, the Teletype machines clacking and ringing its bells with the latest reports from Dallas; hot type production pages being reworked to publish an EXTRA! Someone had brought in a television and plugged it in, trying to get the “rabbit ears” on the set “just right” to receive black-and-white (snowy) reception. Staffers in other departments couldn’t concentrate on advertising sales or accounting; they waited anxiously by the wire service machines for updates.

The Associated Press and United Press International wire services broke bulletins and “flashes” to confirm the president’s death at 1 p.m. Minutes later, we learned of the shooting death of a Dallas police officer by a man who was the suspected assassin. The Texas governor was in surgery. There was a story, unconfirmed, that the vice-president, with a history of heart trouble, would be physically unable to take the oath of office. It was just one breaking story on top of another. Heady stuff, too, and though the incidences were tragic of the first order, that seed of working in the news business as a calling and career may have had a genesis that day with me.

We readied for an EXTRA!, a big deal then which was published after two earlier editions. I was a newspaper carrier in downtown Marshall, about 100-plus customers or so – mostly shopkeepers and professional offices. I delivered the EXTRA! to subscribers quickly and made a rerun of the route as I kept selling out. I made a third rerun and eventually just stood on the biggest intersection in town, Washington and Austin Streets, just hawking newspapers out of a canvas bag, much like you see in the movies. I wish I would have kept one of those newspapers.

 

That night, my bed covered in coins with that day’s single-copy sales, I proudly showed it off to my father who stopped into my bedroom to talk. He had a weary look — he was now the publisher of the “hometown” newspaper to the new First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. She was from nearby Karnack. The NM news staff, in addition to working the news about JFK and Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, faced double duty reporting on the local connections that now went all the way to the White House. While I was looking for an “attaboy,” he was exhausted, and said, “Son, bad news always sells papers.”

 

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