I was in the college cafeteria having an early Friday lunch with some of my fraternity buddies.
All at once, they looked over my shoulder. I turned to see what caught their eye. They were watching my girlfriend quickly making her way toward our table.
Charlene Valentic was the stepdaughter of one of Arizona's most successful sheep ranchers. Tall and attractive she had all the confidence in the world, yet at this moment I could tell something was very wrong. She was rattled. She grabbed my arm and blurted out, "the president has been shot and they need you at the radio station right now, lets go."
November 22nd, 1963 the day John F. Kennedy died and it was the day I grew up.
I was 21 years old, a student at Northern Arizona University, had lettered in Varsity Baseball, was a rock 'n roll DJ and morning news man at KEOS Radio 1290 Flagstaff, managed and booked a local garage band, had a 1957 Volvo, and for a college guy, a little money in my pocket. The university was located in Flagstaff one of Arizona's most beautiful historic towns. The Grand Canyon was just an hour away, Sedona was 20 minutes down Highway 89-A. Life was pretty good on that late November day.
The ride to the radio station was anything but good. We were two bewildered college kids for the first time ever dealing with evil in the world.
KEOS Radio was located down a dark hallway of the Nackard Building at 13 North San Francisco Street. Station Manager Russ Huntington was on the air reading the latest news out of Dallas. I was not clear on what had happened and the condition of the president. Russ had dropped all the commercials and breaking-in whenever new information crossed the United Press International wire machine. He saw me barge through the door. He stood up and said, "take over, I have to get some classical music."
KEOS was a top 40 radio station. We had plenty of The Beach Boys, Little Stevie Wonder, Skeeter Davis singing "End of the World." There nothing proper for a respectful broadcast in this dark time. Sugar Shack by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs did not work. We needed appropriate music to fill the time between bulletins. KEOS was an independent radio station. There was no network to go to. It was just us and a United Press International wire machine.
I slid behind the mike and looked down at the wire copy. There it was. The words jumped off the yellow UPI wire copy paper:
(DALLAS)--PRESIDENT KENNEDY IS DEAD.
HE WAS SHOT TO DEATH BY AN ASSASSIN IN THE STREETS OF DALLAS.HE WAS 45.
Russ had delivered the news, the President was dead. Now it was up to me to carry the rest of the broadcast day. It would be a day full of doubt, fear, and for the first time ever:a true burden of responsibility to others, the listeners, fell square on my young shoulders.
It was on thing to be a "Rock Jock" and another to be the guy that was delivering unthinkable news to an audience, many without TV sets, others in their cars, folks at work that might have had a radio. I wondered what travelers were thinking as they drove towards California across Northern Arizona on U.S. 66.
I ripped the latest wire of the UPI Wire machine which was spewing out words on an endless roll of yellow paper. Back in the studio I went on the air with the latest bulletin. Those bulletins just kept coming. Ten rings of the wire machine bell meant a "flash " was coming off the wire. There were plenty of those "flashes" on November 22nd, 1963.
As soon as I would get back to the mike and read the latest dispatch, I would hear the constant ringing of the wire machines alarm bell.
I told Northern Arizona listeners that Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president, that Kennedy's body departed Dallas on Air Force One, a Dallas police officer was shot and killed, and there was an arrest of some one named Lee Oswald.
The station phone rang non stop.
"Is it true, tell me it is not true," a tearful voice blurted out.
Call after call piled in as I kept playing rock n' roll and reading bulletins that were spewing out of the wire machine.
Russ finally hustled back into the station with an arm full of 33 1/3 RPM classical albums. I grabbed an album, put it on the turntable and then mumbled something to the effect of "we will continue in a classical music format in respect for President Kennedy."
Looking at the albums it was pretty clear they had come from someone's private collection. They were a lifesaver.
Russ puffed on one more cigarette then left, the station was deserted. There I was, all alone for the rest of the day with classical music I knew nothing about, a microphone, and a wire machine that kept ringing, grinding out details of the Dallas tragedy.
When there was news to report I would put down the classical music and read the wire copy, put it back up and took phone calls.
Even in Northern Arizona, which in a less than a year would send Senator Barry Goldwater forward to challenge Lyndon Johnson for the presidency, there was a stunned reaction. On the phone with one of my college buddies the report was "the campus was like a funeral home."
During a lull in the wire machine news, I walked out of the Nackard building to check out San Francisco Street. The was a small group standing outside McGaughs News Stand. Few folks heading down the street told me they were heading to the bar at The Monte Vista Hotel.
"Hear they have a TV set up so we can watch, " said a guy that ran a small variety store across the alley from the station.
The phone was nonstop. People were reaching out. It was a great lesson for someone who would spend much of the next 50 years in broadcast news. People depended on us to provided vital information.
In this case, the news was stunning and bewildering. Through the afternoon I grew more patient with the callers. I realized that many of them probably were alone just like me. They had no one to talk to. They had reached out to someone they knew. It was that day I realized that I was not talking to a microphone. I was talking to people and they were listening. The phone calls brought the conversation full circle.
I was reporting border crossings with Mexico were closed, SAC bombers were in the air, all branches of the services were on alert. Telephone exchanges in Washington and Boston went down. There were quotes about a possible coup or overthrow of the government. It was an overwhelming amount of information that was coming out of the UPI machine.So much so that I could not get it all on the air. I had to edit, determine what was the most important news for my listeners. It was another responsibility learned that day. I was the gatekeeper for a good portion of the Northern Arizona listening audience and to me, alone in the studio reading bulletin after bulletin, it seemed to me like the world was coming apart.
KEOS was a daytime AM radio station. The station signed on at sunrise, went off the air at sunset. November 22nd, 1963 sign off was at 5:15 p.m. I produced a lengthy 5:00 p.m. newscast, read it, looked up at the control room clock. The hands on the clock pointed to 5:10 p.m. I had had enough. I signed the station off the air five minutes early.
I checked in at the Monte Vista. Not everyone tossing down drinks were unhappy that Jack Kennedy was dead. I was not ready to hear that so I called my girlfriend and she picked me up and we headed to dinner at the NAU Student Union Cafeteria. The dining hall scene was hushed. There was no beer fueled Friday frivolity. Fellow students wanted to know what I knew. I repeated what I had said on the air but the bottom line was none of us could comprehend what had gone on in Dallas. Innocence seemed shattered. A much bigger word of reality had invaded our campus life.
But there was a thread of understanding on the horizon. We had seen some mimeographed notices pinned on campus bulletin boards. They said something to the effect that Dr. Ed Walker would answer questions and reflect on the death of the president in his classroom. I really did not know him that well, but I thought it would be good to hear what he had to say. I remember walking through the crisp, cool Flagstaff night not sure about what we were going to hear. Even then, just hours after the death of the president mystery was creeping into the story.
The crowd was huge spilling out in to the hallway of the Education Center.
Dr. Ed Walker was well -respected on campus. He smoked a pipe, had white hair, was probably in his mid sixties, regarded in conservative Northern Arizona as being "a little liberal," but he was perfect for the role he was about to play. He spoke and took questions. He had no insights on the motivation for the shooting. But he was sure we would quickly know since there was a suspect in custody. That of course, as soothing as it sounded that night, was not to be.
It has been so many years I can't recall much else of what Dr. Walker had to say except he repeated several times that though a tragedy the death of one man, even if it was our president, would do nothing to alter the American system. That the Constitution, and the defined legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government were bigger than John F. Kennedy.
"You have every right to grieve, but in your grief you should feel secure." --Those words I do remember and have stayed with me always.
Sunday, the 24th, I was back to the radio station to sign on the early religious programming that generated a hefty portion of the station's weekly revenue.
That done I grabbed some breakfast at the El Charro Cafe on South San Francisco Street. I jumped in my trusty Volvo and headed for campus, walked into the fraternity dorm where I found a bunch of my Sigma Nu fraternity brothers glued to the TV set.
"Somebody shot Oswald," one of the guys said to me.
I turned around and headed back to the station. "
When is this going to end?" I kept saying to myself as I parked on North San Francisco Street and headed down the hallway to the studio and cued up some more classical music, ripped the wire machine, settled in behind the mike and said,
"From United Press International and the KEOS Newsroom, here is the latest from Dallas...