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The Times’ newsroom and JFK, 50 years ago

POSTED: November 17, 2013 1:00 a.m.

In the days leading up to Nov. 22, 1963, the Hall County community was preoccupied with the usual issues and autumn activities.

There was no reason, of course, to suspect the impending disaster at Dallas that would shorten the life and service of the nation’s 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Hall County Hospital was embarking on a $1.2 million expansion and renovation project.

Whitey Butler was the county Extension agent who wrote a column in what was then called the Daily Times.

Sylvan Meyer, editor of The Times, wrote his column on the movie, “PT 109,” which was about U.S. Navy Lt. John Kennedy’s heroics in World War II. An editorial he wrote endorsed a compromise civil rights bill that was being debated in Congress.

Hall County Community Chest was struggling to meet its $126,000 goal and would fall $6,000 short before the end of the month.

Milton Hardy was mayor of Gainesville, and John Cromartie and Harold DeLong were running for re-election to their city commission positions, which they would win in December.

Gainesville golfer Tommy Aaron won $2,050 for a second place finish in the Fig Garden Open in Fresno, Calif., and would finish high in other tournaments that fall.

Everybody was excited about “Billy Day” in Gainesville. It would honor two former Gainesville High School all-star athletes, Billy Lothridge and Billy Martin, who were then helping Georgia Tech win football games. Tech Coach Bobby Dodd was the speaker for the Touchdown Club banquet.

A Hall County grand jury lamented crowded conditions at the courthouse and basement library.

Phil Landrum of Jasper was an influential member of the U.S. House of Representatives, serving the 9th District. Gainesville was one of several sites around the state being studied as locations for possible junior colleges.

On the morning of Friday, Nov. 22, things progressed fairly normally in the Daily Times newsroom. Scant attention had been paid to President Kennedy’s trip to Texas.

The Daily Times’s lead story that day was the county commission’s Citizens Advisory Council disbanding over a controversy about tax equalization. Another front page story was the planned dedication of the brand new E.E. Butler High School Sunday, Nov. 24.

The newspaper’s deadline in those days was noon with a press start of 1 p.m. It was the fading era of what was called “hot metal” printing before photographic offset printing became prevalent. Clunky, noisy Linotype machines laboriously spit out lines of lead type to fill the newspaper pages in the Press-Radio Center on West Spring Street.

The United Press International teletype machine clattered away in the back of the newsroom, which was practically empty as reporters and editors lunched. Three bells on the machine would announce an “urgent” story coming across the wire; five bells were a bulletin; 10 were a flash.

Five bells sounded as the first news of a shooting in the president’s motorcade came from the teletype. Other bulletins followed.

Finally, the fateful flash: The president had died of gunshot wounds.

The day’s paper was already off the press. Editors decided to remake the front page and print an extra. The news that the president might have died came at 2:20 p.m. UPI made it official at 2:38 p.m.

The front page already had been remade with the headline that the president had been shot. When the news came that he had died, editors scrambled to substitute another story, and the press rolled at 2:45 p.m. A formal picture of the president had been engraved and waiting in the production department in case of an emergency someday, nobody in their wildest nightmares imagining it would be used for the president’s assassination.

About 5,000 copies of the extra came off the press, most of them sold that afternoon. They remain collectors’ items.

News staff and others at the newspaper stood around shocked, some tears being shed. There was no Saturday paper in those days, but previous plans for the Sunday paper went out the window as reporters and editors began to gather reaction and follow-up on one of the biggest stories in decades.

Sunday’s Times carried a front page editorial, bordered in black, encouraging as part of JFK’s legacy “a deeper commitment to individual responsibility in making freedom work on the part of all his countrymen.”

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.


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