Fifty years ago this Friday I was a freshman journalism major at Arkansas State College, working as a part-time sports writer for the Jonesboro Evening Sun. Since it was an afternoon newspaper then, my duties included reporting to work at 6:30 a.m. — quite a challenge for an 18-year-old — and working two or three hours until time for class.
By the time I left the old offices at Church Street and Washington Avenue that day, I had finished my main story for the day — a preliminary on the Jonesboro Hurricane’s final football game of the season, to be at home that night finishing a long season. My boss, Sports Editor Tom McDonald, had a big story about the ASC Indians’ first ever Southland Conference game, which was to be Saturday against Trinity University at San Antonio, Texas.
Then-City Editor John Troutt Jr. was working on a story that would occupy most of the front page about a Trumann farmer who had killed four members of his family Thursday night and then himself — probably the biggest story of the year for the Sun.
Tom would be leaving with the team that day for San Antonio, which had just hosted President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy on Thursday.
Neither game would be played as scheduled. The JHS game was postponed to Monday night, and the Indians’ game was canceled.
That Friday morning, though, I went to my classes, then to the cafeteria for a quick lunch and back to my room on the third floor of old Danner Hall to await my 1 o’clock class.
As usual, I turned the radio on, which is why I heard the first bulletin from Dallas about a shooting involving the presidential motorcade.
In the hallway a few students soon gathered, some in tears, seeking solace from each other. But a fellow freshman, who hated Kennedy because of his views on civil rights, danced with glee.
Reports were still sketchy, but I knew Kennedy had been shot, and yet I went on to my Fine Arts Musical class. The instructor started playing records of the classical music we were supposed to learn to appreciate. Somehow that day it seemed appropriate, but midway through class he announced that President Kennedy had died.
Meanwhile, the Sun had gone to press with the big Trumann story under a 2-line banner headline, and about 5,000 copies had been printed when the bulletin from Dallas reached the newsroom.
In those days The Associated Press delivered state, national and world news on what was called a teletype machine — basically a clattering automated typewriter, accompanied by a paper tape punch that allowed the stories to be fed into automated linotype machines. The teletype had a bell which could be sounded to get the attention of the editor — the more bells, the more urgent the news.
That day’s news must have worn the bell out.
The decision was quickly made to stop the press to accommodate the bigger news.
That’s never an easy decision for an editor because it’s costly and time-consuming to start over. In 1963 it was much more so that today because the newspaper’s type, both headlines and text, was cast in metal; pictures and ads were engraved or matted and mounted on blocks. All that metal was then locked into heavy pages and metal blankets were cast, to be mounted on the press. The pages then were huge — 14 1/2 by 24 inches deep with eight columns compared with today’s standard of 11 by 22 with six columns. You didn’t make changes unless absolutely necessary.
This was one of those times.
In more than 50 years of being associated with newspapers, that’s the only time my newspaper’s press was stopped for a bigger story. Most dailies are now printed late at night, when not much happens. In my 30-plus years as editor of daily newspapers, I stopped the press a few times to correct a headline error or mechanical mistake but never for a bigger story.
I came close at the Batesville Guard in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan was shot as our afternoon paper went to press. But the first reports were that he wasn’t hit, and our newspaper, recovering from a disastrous fire, couldn’t afford a mistake.
The Sun in 1963 did an amazing job of remaking that day’s 16-page paper and getting a new edition to press. Only pages 1, 2 and 8 were redone. The top half of page 1 covered the assassination, with a 2-line banner head in huge all-capital letters and a couple of wire photos. One photo shows Secret Service agent Clint Hill, who recently visited Jonesboro to promote his book about the assassination, climbing onto the back of the presidential limousine. The Trumann story occupied the bottom half of the page.
Pages 2 and 8 handled the jumps and additional photos.
I went back to the Sun offices after my class, in time to get copies of both editions. No doubt, many people kept the second edition, but few have both.
For my generation Nov. 22, 1963, began a long nightmare that continued at least into the dark days of 1968 and beyond — more assassinations, the Vietnam War, civil rights violence. We moved on finally, but we were never really young again.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.