Certainly I will never forget where I was that day. I was standing by the news desk in the Dallas office of United Press International, mostly trying to stay out of the way.
I had been working at U.P.I. for only two months. News agencies like U.P.I. and the Associated Press, U.P.I.’s chief rival, provide news stories to newspapers and television and radio stations. It was my first job after finishing the University of Texas in Austin that summer, and I was still learning the ropes.
It had been very hectic in the office for the previous two days. President John F. Kennedy was making a highly publicized trip to Texas, going to five cities and making a major speech in Dallas. The Presidential visit was what was called in those days a fence-mending trip. The Texas governor, John B. Connally, and the state’s senior senator, Ralph Yarborough, were involved in a political feud that even Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who was also from Texas, couldn’t patch up. So Kennedy himself was coming to the state to try to reconcile them. Connally, Yarborough, and Johnson were all traveling with the President in a public display of unity.
Everybody in the Dallas office had been busy on the story. Everybody, that is, except me. Since I was the most inexperienced reporter on the staff, I did not have a lot to do with covering Kennedy’s trip. As a result, I had felt like a fifth wheel around the office since the President had arrived in Texas.
The only part I had played so far in covering the President’s visit was to take some dictation over the telephone the previous day from Merriman Smith, who was U.P.I.’s chief White House reporter. But that was about to change in the next couple of minutes. In fact, my whole life was about to change.
Merriman Smith was known to everyone by his nickname, Smitty, and he had been covering Presidents since Roosevelt. Since he was the senior White House reporter, Smitty always traveled with the President and always rode in the press car in Presidential motorcades, right next to the car phone, which was still a rare enough item to be considered modern technology. After taking the dictation from him, I gave Smitty’s notes to Preston McGraw, who was known as Mac, to turn into a news story.
Everyone else had worked late the previous night. But when I had asked Jack Fallon, the U.P.I. division news manager, if he wanted me to stay and help out too, he told me no, I could go on home. It was a disappointment to me.
So, there I was, standing by the news desk, while there was a lull in the Dallas office. President Kennedy had arrived at Love Field, the Dallas airport, on a five-minute flight from Fort Worth, and he was at that moment driving through downtown Dallas in a motorcade on his way to the Trade Mart, where he was to make his speech. Governor Connally was riding with him.
There had been a flurry of activity in the office with the President’s takeoff from Fort Worth, where he had spent the previous night, and his arrival in Dallas. Although Dallas was considered hostile political territory to Kennedy, a large crowd turned out to greet him at Love Field. Jackie Kennedy was given a bouquet of roses and both the President and the First Lady went over to shake hands with some of the people at the airport.
And all along the motorcade route through downtown Dallas, thousands of people lined the sidewalks along Main Street to see the President as he drove by. Smitty had even called in from the telephone in the press car to dictate a paragraph to Jack Fallon about how surprisingly large the crowds were.
But the office was quiet now, everyone relaxing for a few minutes until the President arrived at the Trade Mart, and the frenzy of covering an American President would resume.
So I was alone as I stood by the news desk that day. I was wondering whether I should offer to get sandwiches for the rest of the office from the diner across the street, and whether I would get to stay and help out that night when the President flew on to Austin, the last stop on his trip.
Suddenly the telephone rang. I picked up the receiver and answered, "U.P.I."
I immediately recognized Smitty’s voice from the day before. But this time Smitty was shouting.
"Bulletin precede!" Smitty yelled. "Three shots were fired at the motorcade!"
Kennedy Assasinated. Copyright (c) 1997 Wilborn Hampton. Candlewick Press, Inc., Cambridge,
Excerpted from Kennedy Assassinated! The World Mourns by Wilborn Hampton. Copyright © 1997 by Wilborn Hampton. Excerpted by permission of Candlewick, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.