November 22, 1963
A Reporter’s Remembrance
I am in Oklahoma City, working my first job as a professional journalist at WKY-TV, NBC, Channel 4.
It’s the Noon hour. I am getting ready to go to work. My wife has the television on. Suddenly, the sound goes silent, a bulletin slide comes on the screen, and then a serious voice informs the world that President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, Texas, 100 miles from Oklahoma City.
I rush to the station and enter the newsroom. Usually bustling with activity I now find an eerie quiet. I see my fellow newsmen staring at the television monitor. Not a word is said.
Then, comes the announcement…”The President is dead!”
The quiet is immediately shattered with shouts from the reporters…”Oh, my God”….”I can’t believe it”…”No…no…no…”
Faces are full of tears.
This goes on a while.
Finally, the news director calls us together. We begin to work out our coverage. NBC has already announced it is cancelling all programming, including commercials, and the network will not be relinquishing its time to local stations until 10PM, Central Standard Time.
The 10PM News is the show that I anchor.
There is much discussion. Much disagreement about what we should do or not do.
The News Director finally decides that the best coverage we can provide is a look back at the times when President Kennedy visited our state.
During his Presidency, Mr. Kennedy visited Oklahoma 4 times. Our station had covered the visits extensively. We had a lot of film in our archives. That’s right…Film. Video Tape was in its infancy and not developed yet for news cameras. We only had a few hours to retrieve that film, review it, and edit it into a meaningful news report.
The News Director turns to me and says: “Virgil, this is your show. Produce it, write it, anchor it and make it good.”
I began to think “how am I going to do this?” The task is made more difficult because I am struggling with my own feelings of sadness and despair over what has happened.
I can’t help thinking back to President Kennedy’s inauguration day in January, 1961.
I am 27 years old, fresh out of the Air Force where I had served as a proud officer at a missile base in New Mexico.
I had already shot a couple of stories that morning and when I returned to the station I went into the control room to watch the ceremonies.
There stood the young President challenging America’s citizens..”Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!”
It was a speech of inspiration and I felt it deeply, especially because I had just left the Air Force where patriotism and duty surround you every day.
One of President Kennedy’s visits was to rural Oklahoma. He had come to dedicate a dam. The speaker’s podium was surrounded by wide farm fields. This day those fields were filled with thousands of people.
I had the big sound camera set up on a tripod about 30 feet from the President who was standing on a raised wooden platform.
As he spoke, I moved the camera lens for an extreme close up. I can still see the President’s face as it filled the screen. A strong face filled with fervor and intensity.
It seems only yesterday.
When the speech ended, I hoisted the big camera onto my shoulder and moved toward the platform. There was little security back in that day. The crowd jostled me, pushed me forward, and suddenly I was almost face to face with President Kennedy. He smiled and said to me…”That thing looks heavy.” “Yes Sir”, I shouted back before he was whisked away by the cheering crowd.
Now, back in the newsroom, it is 5 o’clock. 5 hours to show time. Everyone had gone home for the day except for me and my best friend, Cliff Adkins, an exceptional photographer who later followed me to WKYC and who still lives in Bay Village.
I am writing the show. On a typewriter, of course. No computers back then. As soon as I finish one page of the script Cliff takes it to the editing room where he is assembling the film.
It takes a long time. And, although it goes unspoken, both Cliff and I know we want to do our best. We know that we want our work to honor the fallen President.
A little after 9 o’clock, I begin practicing the script. At 9:30, I feel my voice beginning to tighten. Neither Cliff nor I had had anything to eat since Noon. The emotion and the stress of preparation had begun to take their toll.
“Oh, No”, I think, “I can’t lose my voice at the very moment I need it most.”
We had a kitchen at the station. It was there that I found a lemon. I began sucking its juices with the hope that they would help my voice.
A few minutes before 10, I go to the set. The studio is completely dark, except for the brightly lit podium where I am going to stand and anchor the show.
There is a lot of reading to do. I am going to be on camera several times. There is no teleprompter. I have had to memorize portions of the script. I want to do my best. I want to honor this man.
The floor director counts me down. The camera light comes on. I begin.
I have the lemon beside me. Every time we come to a sound bite and I don’t have to speak I suck on the lemon.
The special report is 40 minutes long. About 30 minutes in, I am struggling to keep my voice under control. Cliff has brought me another lemon.
I am nearing the end now. I had written a very emotional close. As I read it my voice begins to fade. I slow the pace…I pause…my voice grows softer…another pause…by the time I read the closing words…my voice is a whisper.
I step off the set. Cliff is there. He embraces me, says I did a great job.
But, I don’t think so. I felt I had let the audience down. I felt I had let the President down. I felt I had failed.
I return to the newsroom.
The telephones are ringing off the wall. The switchboard is flooded. Viewers are calling in by the hundreds. All of them want to congratulate me and tell me how much my reading meant to them.
They didn’t know I was losing my voice. They thought I was overwhelmed with emotion…the same emotion they themselves were feeling. I had only made it public, something they could not do.
Somehow my reading had bound me and the viewers together.
I remained in Oklahoma City for another two years before I had the opportunity to join WKYC-TV in Cleveland, Ohio.
During those two years no matter where I went to cover stories within the borders of Oklahoma people came up to me to talk about that night and that story.
In a way I still don’t understand…it somehow helped all of us to end that terrible, terrible day with the feeling and the faith that we would get through this tragedy…that the night would end…that morning would come…and that all of us would be all right again.
Because……because….we still had each other.