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How Chattanoogans learned about JFK assassination

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John Gray, Roy Morris, Joan Barry and Don Fischer in 1963 John Gray, Roy Morris, Joan Barry and Don Fischer in 1963

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."

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