On November 22, 1963, I worked on a story in a high school journalism class in Floyd, Virginia, when assistant principal William Davis came on the intercom to announce President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas.
At first, we didn’t know if the President survived the shooting. We sat there in shock for a few minutes before my journalism teacher, Ruth Hallman, encouraged some us to fan out around the school to gather reaction from students and faculty.
I grabbed my camera — a 4×5 “Crown Graphic” press camera that the local newspaper editor, and Mrs. Hallman’s husband, had donated to the school and visited classrooms to capture photos of stunned students and teachers listening to the radio newscasts that were piped through the school’s intercom system.
Teacher Roberta Hewitt, an unabashed fan of JFK, sat at her desk at cried, along with some students in her class.
At 15, I was a reporter, columnist and photographer for the school paper and the school’s student photographer. While shooting a photo in one classroom, a reporter on the radio broadcast announced the President was dead. A few minutes later, the school day was cut short and students boarded buses for the trip home.
I didn’t go home. Instead I headed to the town’s local newspaper for my after school job as a reporter and photographer. For the rest of the day, I visited local restaurants and businesses, interviewed locals and photographed the reaction of the community.
Like most Americans, the day President Kennedy was assassinated is burned into my memory. A serious head and brain injury from last year has left gaps in my memories but I have written about the day often over the past half-century and have those articles to review.
If I had any doubts before that day that I wanted to be newspaperman, they disappeared in the days and weeks that followed. It was the day that defined what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
While it was a defining day for my life, it was — much more importantly — a defining time for America. A President has not been assassinated in this nation for a long time. The last publicized event was an attempt on the life of President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933 which left him unharmed but killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak.
To say Kennedy’s assassination changed America is an understatement. Today, 50 years later, many people still question the “official” story of his death from the Warren Commission. Some say questions about his death sparked the birth of “conspiracy theories” that continue question many things that happen in America, from the killing of JFK to the terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001.
Two years later, I would graduate from high school in that Blue Ridge mountain town and — with help from weekly newspaper editor Pete Hallman — land a job with the daily Roanoke Times.
It was a time of racial turmoil in the city and strong emotions that defined the news. In 1968, I would witness the shock of local residents reacting to more public assassinations: The killing of Civil Rights Leader Dr. Martin Luther King and the death of Robert Kennedy at the hands of an assassin in Los Angeles while he was running for President.
Violent deaths of public people, sadly, became more common in American society.
America wasn’t the same after Nov. 22, 1963. Neither were we.