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JFK, 50 years later: Local news brushed off the page by president's death

POSTED: November 18, 2013 11:21 a.m.

News of the day included a residents’ group disbanding over a tax equalization issue in Hall County and the Georgia Poultry Federation protesting a claim the U.S. had lost $26 million in exports.

Those were top stories in the Nov. 22, 1963, edition of The Daily Times, an evening paper that circulated in Gainesville and served as the precursor to The Times.

They would soon be overshadowed.

"It had been a routine day up until then," said then-managing editor Johnny Vardeman of The Times. "We didn’t have a Saturday paper at the time, so Friday afternoons were usually a little more relaxed and (about) preparing for the Sunday paper."

Then, shots rang out in Dallas, killing the nation’s 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

"People in the newsroom and throughout the building were stunned," Vardeman said. "Some tears were shed when the confirmation of his death came."

The newspaper "started remaking the front page when we learned about the shooting," he said, adding the paper had an engraving of Kennedy in the production department.

"It was about to go on the press when the death announcement came, so we had to remake it again with a new headline and the short piece that the president had died."

Vardeman’s own yellowed copy of the paper shows his notes from that day. It says the paper heard about Kennedy’s death at 2:20 p.m. and got official word at 2:38 p.m. The press rolled at 2:45 p.m.

"We printed about 5,000 copies, I think, and they were sold on the street," he said. "I believe most of them were sold."

The Daily Times headline read: "President Shot, Dead; Assassin’s Bullet Fatally Wounds Kennedy in Texas." The story fills half the front page, with the engraving and a picture of Kennedy speaking.

The rest of the page is normal day’s coverage, including the poultry story.

The newspaper had a Habersham County bureau in those days, reporting on several stories, including that authorities were looking for possible moonshiners who stole 3,780 pounds of sugar.

Sunday’s front page was filled with coverage of Kennedy’s death, including an above-the-fold editorial that lauded the president as someone who "exuded a vitality that endowed his programs with the pulse of life and the ongoing business of the nation with a sense of urgency and interest."

The editorial also expressed outrage that anyone "could commit such a monstrous deed."

"The only monument we can think of that would be meaningful to a man such as ... Kennedy would be a deeper commitment to individual responsibility in making freedom work on the part of all his countrymen," the piece stated.

Sunday’s coverage also included a story about Lee Harvey Oswald’s arrest, with police saying "they have the evidence" to prove he was Kennedy’s killer.

"They said he had no accomplices," according to the article.

Local coverage also kicked in for the first time on Sunday, with stories about businesses and schools closing.

"In downtown Gainesville, the normal operation of business came almost to a halt as people gathered around radios and televisions to hear the latest scrap of information," stated another article.

People were stunned but also fearing "that the country might be in a short period of extreme danger," the article stated.

Events surrounding Kennedy’s death continued to unfold on Sunday, meanwhile, with nightclub operator Jack Ruby fatally shooting Oswald in the basement of Dallas police headquarters. That was the lead story in The Daily Times’ Monday edition, with the headline reading "Case Closed on Oswald."

The paper featured more Kennedy stories, including one about new President Lyndon B. Johnson "leading the world in mourning."

One story featured reaction from area residents to Oswald’s death, including Clarence Mack saying, "Now they won’t be able to find out who else was in on it."

Local news coverage also began to resume in Monday’s edition, including one article about area law enforcement searching for a "service station bandit."

Overall, those days provided a journalistic, emotion-filled challenge for the small-town newspaper.

"It was exciting as far as being in the middle of all that breaking news," Vardeman said, "but at the same time it was so sad."


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