Tuesday, November 19, 2013

November 22, 1963
by Ken Neal

I was the newly minted State Editor at the Tulsa World the day Kennedy was assassinated. I had just turned 28 and was overwhelmed by the editor’s job, having had no desk experience.
So I showed up for work early to get a jump on the mountain of wire copy and news events of the day, preparatory to putting out the State edition of the paper, my responsibility.

Tulsa World, November 23, 1963
As I walked into the lobby of the World building at 315 S. Boulder Ave., Nita Connors, our newsroom receptionist, told me shots had been fired at the President.

I hurried to the third floor World newsroom. I am sure every newsroom in the country was beginning to come alive with the breaking news.

The wire room was dinging and chattering when I walked in. In those days, the wire services would ding several times before an important item. The more important the coming flash, the more dings.

United Press International was still a competitor to the Associated Press, owned by newspapers and of course the dominant news service.

Even I knew of the famous Merriman Smith, who stole the story of the Kennedy Assassination from Jack Bell of the AP. I later learned how Smith had the telephone in the press car, got off a flash and held onto the only telephone until the car arrived at Parkland hospital. 

I digress. My memory is that the first flash, from UPI, was “shots fired on Kennedy” or something similar.
We huddled around the teletype machines, which clacked out the story. By about 1 p.m., our time, we knew President Kennedy was dead.
We had no television in the newsroom so we had to see the famous Walter Cronkite announce the death later on our home televisions.

I was so green in my job that I hardly contributed to the newspaper that day. My older friend/mentor/colleague, John Gold, put the paper out that day. Sid Steen, our managing editor, oversaw the operation.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was not popular in Oklahoma. Richard Nixon beat Kennedy with 59 percent of the vote in 1960. Most Oklahomans had rooted for our neighbor, Lyndon Johnson of Texas at the 1960 Democratic convention. I am ashamed to admit I voted for Nixon in that election. Alas! Well, it was a different time. We knew nothing of Watergate back then.

I can see now the beginnings of the outright prejudice that later would overwhelm Barak Obama in Oklahoma.  In 1960 Oklahoma was still solidly Democratic, but the bias against “Yankees” and intellectuals was in full bloom.

Kennedy was a Yankee, from Massachusetts, no less and besides, he talked funny. He pronounced the state “Oklahomer.” I remember a Tulsa Gridiron number after he was elected and compelled to visit the state by then U.S. Senator Robert S. Kerr.

It had Kennedy singing, to the tune of “How Are Things in Glocca Mora,” the words, “How are things in Oklahomer? Do the people still hate me there.”

When I remember Kennedy’s unpopularity I am reminded of why President Barak Obama is unpopular in Oklahoma and the south. Both men’s unpopularity is based in ignorance, or as my friends keep telling me, lack of education.

But like Obama today, educated people liked Kennedy. He was handsome, urbane, wealthy, and smart, characteristics that drove most Okies to dislike him. Obama is all of that and black to boot. No wonder his popularity in Oklahoma is 37 percent.

I remember the comment of one World executive standing in the group around the teletype when Kennedy was killed:

I am ashamed to recount that, but I remember it.

Later, it was not uncommon to hear someone say, “Well, those Texans finally got themselves a president, didn’t they?”

The conspiratorial nuts were suggesting that Lyndon Johnson was behind the assassination. It was ridiculous, of course, but it was said, and I guess, believed.

Later that same day, Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested after killing the cop outside the theater. The Kennedy assassination and what followed was the story of the century but I can’t say I knew it at the time.

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