Sunday, November 17, 2013

"Get off get off get off"—Chicago spread the shocking news from Dallas

     This started as a story about Chicago the day Kennedy was killed, but the more I found out about the UPI office here, the more that seemed the story to tell—given how familiar we are with the Kennedy assassination, it struck me as something that most people would not know about.

     Nov. 22, 1963, was a Friday. Unseasonably warm in Chicago, in the mid-60s, cloudy with light rain.
     There was plenty of news going on around the city. At the Municipal Court, Hugh Hefner was on trial for obscenity. Miss December sat in the gallery, in street clothes.
     At 9:30 a.m., the World’s Invitational Bowling Championship kicked off at McCormick Place. Members of the Bowling Proprietors Association of Greater Chicago proudly wore identical maroon sports coats made for the event.
     Not all news of interest to Chicagoans was happening in Chicago. Cassius Clay, “the punching poet,” was in New York for a broadcast of the Jack Paar show that put him in the ring with another flamboyant showman, Liberace.
     Longtime Sun-Times Washington correspondent Carleton Kent was in Texas, traveling with President John F. Kennedy, at a breakfast with the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, where its colorful president, Raymond Buck, “Mr. Fort Worth,” praised “our great, courageous and brilliant leader of the world’s strongest nation.”
     Kennedy then flew 30 miles away, to Love Field in Dallas. From there, his motorcade headed to a lunch at the Dallas Trade Mart. Kent, 54, but with hair that turned snow-white during one endless night on Guadalcanal in World War II, was in the press bus, following along at hundreds of yards behind the president’s blue 1961 Lincoln Continental limo. Unable to see ahead, he looked at the buildings, noticing signs in the windows: “Because of my respect for the Presidency, I despise you and your brand of socialism,” read one.
     His colleagues on the bus agreed that Kennedy probably laughed at that.
     Further ahead was Merriman Smith, of United Press International, a “reporter’s reporter.” He was in the front seat of the press pool car, on loan from the local Bell Telephone office because it had a radio-telephone. Two other newsmen were in the car, one Jack Bell of the Associated Press.
     “Suddenly we heard three loud, almost painfully loud cracks,” Smith later recalled. “The first sounded as if it might have been a large firecracker. But the second and third blasts were unmistakable. Gunfire.”
     After the shots echoed across Dealey Plaza, there was a tussle for the phone. Smith won. He grabbed the receiver and rolled under the dashboard, curled up dictating as Jack Bell beat him on the back with his fists.

   ‘Stay off all of you’

    Chicago was the headquarters of United Press International’s broadcast department, UPR. Step off the elevator at the fifth floor of the Apollo Savings & Loan building, 430 N. Michigan, and you would hear the teletypes, 100 machines in a row, a constant clattering “din-din-din” as they spat out news, at 62 words a minute, from bureaus across the country, plus an “A-wire” for national feeds, a B-wire for lesser news, a London wire. The UPI and UPR office had a staff of 22, ran in three shifts 24 hours a day, editing the news into readable prose and transmitting it to UPR’s 3,500 radio and TV subscribers.
     It was a smoky room of scattered coffee cups and take-out trash. At 12:30 p.m., Henry Renwald, a shortish, quiet teletype operator, flipped a switch, “splitting the line,” to allow regional offices to transmit nationally.
     At 12:34, five bells — hollow metallic dings — pinged, an “urgent,” as the A-wire clacked out the news that Smith had dictated into his phone to UPI’s Dallas office as the press car veered out of the motorcade and chased Kennedy’s car toward Parkland Hospital.
     “Hey look at this,” said Bill Roberts, second desk editor. He tore the sheet off and read, “Three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas.”
     “Jesus Christ!” replied editor Larry Lorenz, a bespectacled Marquette English major.
     Stories were typed, creating holes in a pale yellow tape then fed into machines that sent it over Western Union lines. Renwald started to resend the news to his broadcast outlets, but Kansas City was transmitting a weather report:

     Chicago had the power to override the feed, and tried:
     But Kansas’ tape kept transmitting. Renwald typed “GET OFF GET OFF GET OFF” then sent:
     Meanwhile, the A-wire machine started ringing again: 10 bells this time. A “flash”— the most urgent code they had. Roberts brought him the copy:
     New York tried to resend the news from Dallas, but Renwald warned them off: STAY OFF ALL OF YOU GET OFF.

     Here is a bulletin

     “As the World Turns” was broadcast live in Chicago on the CBS affiliate, WBBM Channel 2. At 12:40 p.m, the image shifted to a card reading “CBS News Bulletin” and the voice of Walter Cronkite read a report rewritten from the UPR’s Chicago feed:
     “Here is a bulletin from CBS News. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say that President Kennedy has been seriously wounded by this shooting. More details just arrived. These details about the same as previously: President Kennedy shot today just as his motorcade left downtown Dallas. Mrs. Kennedy jumped up and grabbed Mr. Kennedy, she called ‘Oh, no!’ The motorcade sped on. United Press says that the wounds for President Kennedy perhaps could be fatal. Repeating, a bulletin from CBS News, President Kennedy has been shot by a would-be assassin in Dallas, Texas. Stay tuned to CBS News for further details.”

    Flash president dead

     At 1:30 p.m., Alice Guenther, took over the teletype keyboard at UPR Chicago. Four minutes later, official word from Dallas: The president was dead.
     UPR’s national news editor, John Pelletreu, a lean, hawk-eyed man with a small mustache, said, “Alice, type ‘Flash President Dead.’” Instead she raised her hands from the keyboard, covered her face and cried out, “Oh my God.”
     In one smooth motion, another operator lifted her by the elbows out of the chair, eased her, sobbing, onto the floor next to her desk, and sat down to type the words.
     Of course UPI was only one of several wire services — there was the Associated Press, Reuters. The news filled the newspapers — Chicago had four, the Sun-Times, its afternoon sister the Daily News, the Tribune and the American.
     The news spread, passed along by radio, TV, “Extra” editions, word of mouth. Chicagoans heard the news in their schools, homes, restaurants and experienced a surreal shock that would remain a vivid emotional wound for the rest of their lives.
     When Larry Lorenz got off work at UPR, he walked over to the Chicago Press Club for a drink, but a couple of advertising men at the end of the bar were complaining loudly about how their commercials had been yanked off the television. He couldn’t take that and left, walking south down Michigan to the Radio Grill, where he knew other UPI colleagues would be gathering.
     It was raining again. Lorenz started to cry, thinking, goddamn it. He was glad it was raining so nobody would see him. Newsmen weren’t supposed to cry.

Larry Lorenz’s online essay, “FLASH President Dead,” contributed to this story.


  1. I don't know how I missed that column, but I did. It really brings back the moment. I read the paper that morning and found it remarkable how many negative stories there were about the President. Later the abrupt shift to idolatry seemed sadly ironic.


  2. Being 4 at the time, I barely remember all this...

  3. That Lorenz essay link is now defunct. Here's a link from the Internet Wayback Machine from when Neil originally posted in November, 2013:

  4. Six years old, and in first grade. We all got sent home and my folks spent the rest of the day glued to the Black-And-White or on the phone.


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