Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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November 22, 2013

Emotions boiled 50 years ago today after a killing changed the world

The date of Nov. 22 is an historic one. Many younger than me haven’t a clue why, though perhaps this year they will become aware, at least temporarily, of its significance.

The gunshots that rang out in Dallas, Texas, 50 years ago today changed the world forever.

Of course, we cannot know what could have happened if President John F. Kennedy had not been killed at Dealey Plaza. What America did know on the afternoon of that fateful day was that a hope, a vision, a promising change of policy and attitude had been extinguished.

The Peace Corps, the Alliance for Progress, the development of the Appalachian Regional Commission, the commitment to put an American on the moon before the decade was out — all these seemed to spring from the vigor of a new president, after years of complacency and “normalcy” in the staid 1950s.

Now the political leader of this revival, this joint national exercise in hope and aspiration, was gone. His replacement was an old-school Texas rancher and politician, “Landslide Lyndon” Johnson, who I always felt had been added to the 1960 presidential ticket to balance Kennedy’s urban, Yankee appeal and to deliver key voting precincts, rather than because he was the next best man to lead the Free World.

I was 9 years old when we were informed at Union Elementary School, in a rural corner of West Virginia, that President Kennedy had been shot. That afternoon, Principal Fred Taylor tuned into a radio newscast and piped it into all the classrooms over the intercom system in that brand new school building. The whole complex was a quiet place that afternoon, listening to the mournful cadence of the newscasters, weighed down by grief.

I reacted in the only way I could think of, drawing a cartoon depicting in graphic detail what I thought should be done with the man who had killed the president. The drawing on blue-ruled notebook paper was the over-reaction of a fourth-grade student who at the moment wanted nothing but revenge.

I came face to face with that feeling again a few days later when Dallas night-club owner Jack Ruby shoved a pistol at Lee Harvey Oswald and killed the man who killed Kennedy. I regretted my feelings of revenge, and for the first time thought about the reasons we have trials and appeals, rather than lynchings, for even the most heinous crimes.

On the evening of Nov. 22, 1963, I was among the millions of Americans who flipped on their televisions to one of the three network newscasts, so Chet Huntley and David Brinkley or their somber colleagues could tell a stunned public the authoritative details from Dallas. We hoped they also would advise us what would happen next.

As the next few days played out, we saw snapshots in the newspaper of Johnson as he was sworn in as president aboard Air Force One.

We saw live television coverage of the funeral procession with its riderless white horse.

We saw the indelible images of Kennedy’s wife Jacqueline and their two young children, including John Jr. returning the salute of soldiers as they passed by.

For the first time, through television, most Americans viewed those moments live, as real as if we had been among those lining the streets of Washington, D.C. The still-new field of television news reporting met its first real opportunity to unify the nation in portraying a major event.

More than a few saved their copy of the Nov. 23 edition of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph as a physical reminder of national history.

Today, in the Daily Telegraph newsroom, only a minority of us — Senior Editor Bill Archer, obituary clerk Barbara Lewis, copy coordinator Sue Richmond and myself — are old enough to have a clear memory of that day half a century ago. Others may choose to read the recaps and analysis, view the images and consider its importance. I hope they do.

Some dates in the calendar celebrate beginnings, like Lincoln’s Birthday or Christmas. John Kennedy’s birth date of May 29, 1917, goes practically without notice. But his death in Dallas is more similar to days like Sept. 11, 2001, or Dec. 7, 1941. Days that change the world are seared into our collective memories forever.

As Walter Cronkite put it on his CBS newscast every night, “And that’s the way it is.”

Tom Bone is a Daily Telegraph sports writer and cartoonist. Contact him at tbone@bdtonline.com.

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