Legendary Dallas TV News Anchor Tracy Rowlett Remembers JFK

Tracy RowlettIt was night time in Tripoli, Libya, the afternoon that President Kennedy was murdered in Dallas.  I was in the Air Force, stationed at Wheelus Air Base in Tripoli, and working for the U.S. Armed Forces Radio and Television Service.

We were broadcasting a base football game and I was the newsman on duty, a job that usually amounted to little more than reading a short half-time newscast.

But not this night.

Our wire services (for reasons I still can’t determine) came to us in a code which was little more than a rudimentary numbers to letters translation. Mystifying because it was a code that anyone could have easily figured out.

The young airman who was on engineering duty that night also had the responsibility of deciphering the wires and supplying me with the written translations.  Suddenly, he burst into the control room almost in a panic.  “President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas,” he was excited and shouting. “Here,” he said, “look at this.”  He handed me the first terse AP bulletin and then very abruptly turned and ran back to gather the news flashes that were now ringing the bells on the wire machines.

Tripoli was what was often called a “hyper-sensitive” area.  It was just next door to Egypt, then under the iron control of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the most revered figure in the Middle East. Increasingly, other Arab nations, including Libya, felt the pull of Nasser’s defiance of the Western powers, the first middle eastern ruler to suggest a mighty United Arab Republic.  It was imperative that those of us who represented the United States on radio and television did nothing to show disrespect for our host country or offend the Libyan people.

What could be more offensive than assassinating the very popular President Kennedy?

I paid no attention whatsoever to military protocol. Seeking permission from no one, I keyed the mike, interrupted our sports announcers, and began giving the news bulletins that were now rapidly being placed before me.  At first our sports announcers were equally stunned, but continued to call the game as best they could between my increasing interruptions.

In the stands at the game, fans who had carried portable radios began to share the information with their neighbors. And as I announced the terrible news that the President was dead, the game was stopped. People stood, some were openly crying, while some of the military personnel rushed back to their duty stations fearing what might happen as the word spread around the world of the assassination.

The only live link we had with the U.S. was the telephone, and our base lines were jammed with military commanders — Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force — getting their orders and more news from Washington.

Our small radio and television studios and offices were gradually filled by high ranking officers, CIA officials, embassy staff, US Information Agency personnel and others, all trying to see the wires as the stories came through.

I was no one’s friend that night, having broken protocol and failing to notify higher ups before going full throttle on whatever news I could report.   I was braced in the hall outside our control room and was loudly chewed out and threatened with disciplinary action before cooler heads prevailed and I was allowed to go back on the air to continue my broadcasts.

Between stories, we played heavy classical music, and the night wore on.  Through the haze of the next seemingly endless days and nights, grabbing only short naps when I could, I reported on both radio and television the events unfolding in Dallas and Washington:  Lee Harvey Oswald gunning down policeman J.D. Tippit, Oswald’s late night news conference, Jack Ruby shooting Oswald and, finally, the President’s funeral.

Reverberations from this incredible series of almost unbelievable events were felt around the world, and America was vilified in some quarters and defended in others.

Our broadcast signals reached deep into the middle east and southern Europe, and English speaking listeners and viewers responded with letters pouring into our offices.  I had never seen such impact, and realized our audience was depending on our stations for a clearer picture of JFK’s assassination and it’s terrible aftermath.

It was the recordings of our newscasts through that dark period that I used to land my first commercial broadcasting job after my military discharge less than a year later.  And 10 years later, I was hired in the city that the world would forever link to one of the saddest and darkest times in U.S. history.  I came to Dallas.

Watch “JFK 50: A Texas Tribute”, streamed LIVE on ktxdtv.com; Friday, November 22nd from 7am-7pm CST  (UTC-6 Hours). This special 12 hour broadcast will feature rare video of President Kennedy’s trip to Dallas, live interviews with people who have first-hand connections to some of the darkest days in our country’s history, and live coverage of the observance in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza celebrating the remarkable life, legacy, and leadership of our 35th President. Follow the conversation about the broadcast on social media by following our twitter page at www.twitter.com/JFK50Texas and liking our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/JFK50Texas.

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