John Gray, Roy Morris, Joan Barry and Don Fischer in 1963
CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) -
Fifty years ago Chattanooga had three TV stations, each with
only a handful of news reporters. There were about a dozen radio
stations, mostly on the AM band. The city had two
daily newspapers. In the twenty-two years since the attack on Pearl
Harbor, there had been no "earth-shattering" moments that stopped the
presses or interrupted the flow of game shows and hit records. Then
came November 22, 1963, at 1:40 p.m. Eastern time.
WFLI's Tommy Jett was looking for his
next record when the white light started flashing, the one connected to
the AP wire machine. The teletype printing went on around the clock.
Every hour or so, he would rip a few stories off the wire and condense
them into a brief newscast. On this day, Jett was finally bothered enough by
the flashing light to start to check the wire machine. About that
time, the "hotline" rang, the phone number known only to WFLI's
management. Chief Engineer Joe Poteet had heard the first reports from
Dallas. "The president's been shot," he said. "I turned white as
a sheet," Jett said. "I was 23 years old and I didn't know what to
do. We didn't have a national radio network, we were all local. I
tried to keep going, and read the wire copy, but I was really having
trouble." Another engineer who doubled as a deejay, Ed Aslinger (known
as Ed Gale) stepped in and calmly kept listeners informed. "Thank God
for Ed," Tommy said. "I was too torn up, I was just shocked."
At Channel 3′s studio on McCallie Avenue, a local talk show called
"Bulletin" was on the air. Roy Morris hosted, joined by fellow staffers John Gray, Joan
Barry and Don Fischer. Director Wayne Abercrombie can't recall exactly what the conversation
was about, but he remembers hearing the alarm sound off on
the AP machine across from the control room. He made the short walk
to the newsroom, and couldn't believe his eyes. "I had to look twice,"
he said. "I walked into the studio while they were in the middle of
talking, and just handed the copy to Roy. He looked at it, then looked
at me and said ‘Is this for real?' This was on live TV. I shook my head
and said yes. That's how we broke the news." By 2:00 p.m. NBC took
over the airwaves with near-nonstop coverage that would span four days.
There would be no local news on Channel 3, or other TV stations until
after the President was buried on Monday, November 25.
When the news reached the Chattanooga News-Free Press newsroom, the
final edition of the afternoon paper was already rolling off the
presses. Reporter J. B. Collins said there were two daily editions.
The "Home Edition" had a mid-morning deadline, and was on the road for
delivery throughout the region by early afternoon. The "City Edition"
deadline was 12 noon. It allowed for coverage of late-breaking morning
stories and was primarily sold and delivered within the city limits.
Collins says that when the JFK news broke, there was only a skeleton
staff in the newsroom. "Most everybody had gone home, the papers were
done." But editor Lee Anderson was still on the job, and brought the
presses to a halt so the front page could be updated. By 4:00, the
tragic event that had occurred just a few hours earlier was in the paper
on the streets of Chattanooga.
Radio personalities all over the local dial were stunned. At WDXB,
deejay Jerry Lingerfelt thought his newsman Lloyd Payne was kidding at
first. "We were always messing with each other, I thought he was
pulling my leg until I saw the look on his face. We were all in shock.
Tears were rolling down Lloyd's face and mine too." Earl Freudenberg
had just turned 16, and was called in to answer the phones at WAPO. "I
was just a part-timer, but they needed help. People were calling,
wanting to know what happened, and when the funeral would be held. We
started playing a lot of Mahalia Jackson's gospel records. She had sung
at the president's inaugural ball, and she was his favorite." On
Monday morning, the day of the president's funeral, WDEF's top-rated
Luther Masingill shelved all the lucrative commercials, and let
listeners call in and pay their respects. "We couldn't get them all on
the air, but we had a lot of them. And they sure loved him."
Eastside Junior High principal Jack Benson said he was in his car, returning to the school from a home visit. He noticed people had pulled over on the side of the road, some in tears, others visibly angry. "I turned on the radio to see what was going on, and that's when I heard the news," Benson said. "I didn't want to make an announcement on the school intercom, so I rounded up all the students and we had an assembly in the auditorium. They took the news quietly, and returned to their classes without a sound."
Chattanooga businessman Roger Layne was in the 8th grade at Benson's school, and remembers the day vividly. "We were worried. We had a fallout shelter at the school, and for all we knew, this might be the beginning of a war. We didn't know what would happen next."
Benson said he too, had national security on his mind. "Was this just the shooting of a president, or was it something bigger? We had no idea. But somehow we got through the day."
Monday, August 21 2017 4:21 AM EDT2017-08-21 08:21:48 GMT
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