• From JFK to eye in the sky

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On a fall afternoon 45 years ago today I was the assistant sports editor — a lofty title for the No. 2 man in a two-man department — of a smalltown Pennsylvania newspaper. I’d been in the business barely a year and the biggest story I’d helped cover was the upset of a local high school football team in a game against its arch-rival.

The editor and the sports editor both were out of town at a meeting, so I was sort of the “senior” editor on duty in the tiny newsroom.

Suddenly, the alarm bell on the Associated Press newswire machine began clanging. In normal times, a series of rings from one to three indicated the importance of the news bulletin that was about to be transmitted. But this day it was different. The bell started its staccato sound and didn’t stop for perhaps 30 seconds, an eternity when no one knew what was going on.

It was, we quickly learned, the bulletin:

PRESIDENT SHOT

No more details, just that chilling and virtually impossible to absorb message. As the moments slipped by, the condition of John F. Kennedy and some details of the motorcade he’d been riding in through downtown Dallas dribbled in.

For some reason, the few people in the newsroom began looking at me. It dawned on me they were waiting for me to make some sort of leadership move. I think it was a matter that these were smalltown people, most of whom had never been outside the county they were born in. I was from New York State, so they always attached some sort of cosmopolitan magic to that fact even though I was a wet-behind-the-ears writer in his first real journalism job.

Fortunately, the magnitude of the situation quickly dawned on me. We had been about to begin printing that day’s edition, just after lunchtime at the afternoon-cycle newspaper. For the first and only time in my 40+ years in the business, I rushed to the pressroom and yelled “Stop the presses!” Just like in the movies, but this was real life. Too real.

Those few people in authority who were on the premises — the production boss, the delivery manager and me — created a new and arbitrary deadline, hoping we would get the definitive word on the President’s condition before we absolutely had to go to press.

It never came, so I wrote the most important headline of my life with what little we knew:

KENNEDY SHOT IN CAR IN DALLAS

That was then. This is now. In today’s world, and after many more assassinations of important leaders and heads of state, video and still photos are continually being shot of every moment of their lives. No one wants to be part of the news agency that misses THE event, and our all-pervasive technology reduces that possibility to almost nil.

Unfortunately, much of that technology also is used to snoop and pry, to harass and annoy, people of both high and low birth and rich and poor lifestyle. Used by the papparazzi and Homeland Security, angry neighbors and military planners alike.

It is, therefore, an irony in one comment that JFK made during his brief time on the national scene:

“I am sorry to say that there is too much point to the wisecrack that life is extinct on other planets because their scientists were more advanced than ours.”

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About Bill Dowd

Webmaster/social media coordinator for the Southern Rensselaer County NY Rotary Club.

One response to “• From JFK to eye in the sky”

  1. Joe Claeys says :

    WOW! What a start to a great career. That shows you were marked for greatness so early and you achieved it. That must have been tough when you were just a “young sprout”.

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