BURNET—They were four young reporters, and TV and radio news was somewhat young, too. The quartet would have various assignments for what could very well be the greatest single story they’d ever cover. That lofty possibility was tragically eclipsed.
A horrific homicide intervened; it left the nation stunned and in mourning, and it may have been the number one single-event news story of the 20th century.
Bob Huffaker, Bill Mercer, George Phenix, and Wesley Wise were KRLD-TV and radio journalists in Dallas and right in the crowded web of delivering news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, November 22, 1963. They have collaborated on a book, When News went Live, Dallas 1963, about those haunting days, and three members of the group told their story at the Herman Brown Free Library in Burnet, January 12.
“I was broadcasting the motorcade for radio on Main Street,” said Huffaker. “It looked like the whole city was there with confetti flowing from the tall buildings. It was beautiful, gratifying, wonderful.”
It was indeed, along the route to Dealey Plaza, but Dallas was holding its breath, as President and Mrs. Kennedy, and Governor John Connally and his wife, Nellie, waved to the thousands in this doomed motorcade. The city was known for being arch-conservative, and a few citizens had disgraced it with treatment of Vice-President Johnson in 1960, and a placard was thrown at United Nations ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, just a month before Kennedy’s visit.
Many of his friends and advisers did not want Mr. Kennedy to make the trip, designed to heal the animosity between liberal and conservative democrats in Texas. He was just under a year away from running for re-election.
Huffaker told his Burnet audience that he said into his microphone, “Any fear of embarrassing demonstrators was unfounded.” Mrs. Connally’s comment would vibrate with a fist thrown at fate, and fate would ignore it: “Mr. President,” she said, “you certainly cannot say Dallas does not love you.”
Then there were the three blasts from the assassin’s Italian infantry rifle, a Carcano or Mannlicher-Carcano. Huffaker: “I was ready to go home just before then, but when I got back to the KRLD newsroom, I was informed the President had been shot.
“I was soon driving on Harry Hines Boulevard to Parkland Hospital,” where doctors would valiantly try and save JFK’s life. They had no chance. Governor Connally, seriously wounded himself, survived.
“There were no markings on my station wagon, so I jumped a curb and bounced across medians and got to within 150 feet of the emergency room at Parkland.
“I had to stay on the air,” Huffaker recalled, “so that the audience knew we were there. It was probably something like World War II, when Edward R. Murrow was broadcasting for CBS from London.”
Bill Mercer, incredibly fit at 85, was a sportscaster in 1963. He was hauled into these life-changing, nation-changing developments.
“It was around noon,” he said, “and everyone was crying and screaming in the newsroom. I talked to people by phone all over the world.”
Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin; he would leave the Texas School Book Depository’s sixth floor, which overlooked Main and, from which, he had a deadly view of the presidential party. His escape resulted in his killing Dallas police officer, J.D. Tippit, before being captured in the Texas Theater in Oak Cliff.
Mercer: “Some 200 reporters were yelling questions at Oswald when he was brought in by officers to face the media. He replied to one, ‘I haven’t been charged with anything.’ Yes, you have, I yelled back.”
George Phenix was a 24-year-old photographer, who had been on the job at KRLD for about a month.
“I was transported back in time,” he advised his audience concerning the effort of writing this book. Nearly a half century after the murder of the young president, his voice turned emotional, as he said, “I discovered that we did not get a chance to grieve.
“I filmed Jackie Kennedy at Parkland.” Of course, he remembered the blood on that pink dress. That dress and the pill-box hat achieved immortality like the woman who wore them.
Phenix was there when Jack Ruby, on Sunday morning, November 24, 1963, shot and killed Oswald, who was being transported from the Dallas police station to the county jail.
He wrote: “Suddenly Oswald was coming through the jail office door. I had him centered in my viewfinder when—ka bam. Ruby’s gun was really loud.” Later, when Phenix saw what his big 16 millimeter camera had produced, after the film was processed or developed, he wrote this: “There Jack Ruby was, standing just off my right shoulder. He stepped in front of my camera and—bang.”
In the more than 48 years since the assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald remains the lone gunman and only man officially guilty. The spokesmen in Burnet do not believe in conspiracy theories.
Countless reporters will follow those men and search for answers which today are unseen and silent. The assassination will be scrutinized until the hands of time chase each other to eternity.