Former Senior Investigative Reporter and Anchor on “The Texas Daily”, Robert Riggs Remembers JFK

RiggsOn the 50th Anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the inevitable questioned will be asked, “Where were you when you heard the president had been shot?” Among baby boomers the dominant answer is: “I was in school.”

It was a watershed event for American school children who were 17 and under on that tragic day. In hindsight, the assassination appears to have ushered in the turbulent decade of the Sixties, the protest on Vietnam, the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and a growing distrust of government which feeds conspiracy theories until this day.

And then came Watergate which left our confidence in all institutions shaken.

For me, the an age of 1950’s innocence came to an abrupt end. One year earlier the world had been on the brink of nuclear war over the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In the wake of the assassination, the concern among our families and friends in Paris, Texas centered on whether the Soviets had killed our president. Would the U.S. launch a retaliatory nuclear strike or had the Ruskies already launched after decapitating our political leadership?

Were we on the brink of World War III? That was the discussion as we gathered around the dinner table to watch news coverage in black and white.

Time was frozen. I sat in front of the TV mesmerized. My dad and I were watching when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald to death on live television as the accused assassin was being transferred to the Dallas County Jail.

The assassination marked a dramatic turning point for journalism. The entire nation simultaneously shared the experience of one story as they watched it unfold live on television.

Television suddenly became the place where the majority of Americans got their news. That era has now been washed away by the Internet.

So where was I when I heard the President had been shot? Sitting in the 9th grade history class of Mrs. Muse at the newly opened Crockett Junior High School. I remember that we had been studying events in Vietnam and the Buddhist monk who had burned himself to death in Saigon protesting the policies of the Diem government. President Kennedy had reacted to the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph saying, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”

I asked my classmates on Facebook to fill in the blanks from that day. In effect, we crowdsourced the collective memory of November 22, 1963.

Here are their posts in response to my question:

Johnny Williams I was a sophomore at Paris High School. We had a pickup football game going during the lunch hour between 3rd and 4th period. Another student walked by and told us President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. A short time later in 4th period English class, PHS Principal Dee Cunningham came in and talked with our teacher. She immediately broke down and started crying. Mr. Cunningham then announced that President Kennedy was dead. School was dismissed early. Paris High had a District football game scheduled that night in Sulphur Springs. The game was played but if I remember correctly, only two numbers were played by the bands. SSHS band played the National Anthem and the PHS band played Hail To the Chief. The mood throughout the game was very subdued. Oddly enough, I don’t remember who won.

Ida Bray Deats I was in Crockett Jr High study hall(home room) after lunch. Announcement came over PA from our principal, Felix Gibson. Went home regular time i think ; no one could drive so buses ran regular time, some were picked up early by parents. Very quite and many tears. Paris was a largely Democratic town at that time. Kennedy had won his election by a huge margin in Lamar County. School closed day the of the service and I think day before as well. All activities were canceled that I knew off. I know my dad shut his construction company down which never happened if weather permitted Remember watching the shooting of Oswald on the big tv in our den. Sad and changing time for our country. Watched the swearing in of Pres. Johnson, the surreal look on Mrs. Kennedy’s face, the body lying in state in the Rotunda, the processional and the service. The lighting of the flame representing eternal life. So much in such a short time. Texas had a President but our country lost an incredible leader. Wonder what he would think today?

Tony Booth I was pulled from class at Paris High School and told to go to Principal Dee Cunningham’s office. Couldnt’ imagine what I had done. When he ask if I would call KFTV, where I was the afternoon DJ at 14, to see if the rumors from Dallas were true. The phone lines were busy and I ask if I could have permission to go up and see what was going on. I was granted permission and, when I got to the station, I have never see six folks walking around in ‘shock’ and, yet, acting as professionals reading all the information from UPI wire service. I called back to PHS and reported the news.

Paul Hutchins As a Junior at PHS, I was playing sandlot football (during our lunch hour) between the school and the Band Hall. A boy came running up to where we were playing hollering, “Goldwater in 64!”. We asked him what was the deal and he informed us that the President had been shot. Went inside for fourth period and they announced that he had died and they dismissed all schools for the rest of the day. Sad surreal day.

Larry McGee How well I remember. I was in my Junior year & working afternoons at The Paris News. I was leaving the north entrance to Paris High on my way to work. Someone had heard it on their radio on the way back from lunch & was conveying the message to everyone leaving by the North entrance. Upon arriving for work at the newspaper, I got the entire story along with AP photos, etc. We then started gearing up for publication of the only EXTRA edition that I experienced in my 10 years working there. What a somber, tragic, and painful time for everyone…especially for us Texans!

Skipper Steely 4 Parisians were attending Kennedy that day….or taking photos. Crenshaw, Baxter, Walker and Beall. I was in the study hall when the news came, and we got in a car outside the school to listen to more.

Anna Townsley I was in Mrs. Early’s 5th grade class at Fourth Ward when Principal Tommy Duncan came over the recently installed speakers and gave us the news.

Emily O’Connor I remember being at Crockett, too. I was in Mr. Ralph Shelton’s science class. Everyone thought the snakes in Mrs. Topp’s class had escaped since all the teachers were out in the hall acting like something bad had happened. I think the teachers told us in the classrooms. Then I remember watching everything on TV at home. Robert, I wonder if you were in Mrs. Muse’s history class. I don’t remember Mrs. Rheudisal at Crockett.

Derald Bulls I too was at East Paris and remember being taken into the auditorium with two big black and white TV’s to watch quietly. I was in Mrs. LaRoe’s class.

Jack Pieper I was taking a midday nap on the couch after completing the am shift at KPLT. My wife came running into our apartment on Culbertson street to tell me to turn on the tv. And there it was. I returned to the station to do what I could with limited resources. We had A.P. at the time and the bulletins came fast and furious. Tried to call Dallas radio or tv with no luck. Finally reached somebody from WBAP tv in Fort Worth. He was a runner called in to help. But he stayed on the line with me almost an hour..talking with me as often as possible. We had on scene coverage which often beat the wire service during that crucial first hour or so. KPLT was music radio back then and when it was apparent the President had been assassinated we switched to appropriate somber music. I failed to save any of the A.P. copy.

Paula Morrow Walker Robert, we were in Mrs. Muse’ s class. I don’t believe school was dismissed. I do remember everyone being very quiet and somber. …which didn’t often happen in the ninth grade. We didn’t watch daytime TV at my home, but I remember being glued to that tiny set. I think we all realized that this tragic, horrific event would forever change our state and our country.

James Jeter I was at Crockett and the principal (Hoot Gibson??) asked me to lower the flag to half-staff.

Nancy Marlowe Reep I was in Ben Dickerson’s 8th grade math class with all of my good friends, and we had all just been lambasted for doing poorly on a big test…..Mr. Dickerson was called out of the room for a few minutes. He walked back in with really strange look on his face, and Anne Drake, who was never shy, said, “What’s wrong, did the president get shot or something?”…..he just looked at her for a long moment and said, “That’s exactly what has happened.” We didn’t believe him for a moment, but the truth and the shock finally hit us, and then the test scores were suddenly a lot less important. When the bell rang, there was bedlam out in the halls. Some kids were crying, but I heard one boy named Ronnie say that he was glad Kennedy had gotten shot. We had to go to PE next, and I remember that all sorts of rumors were flying about LBJ getting shot, too, and that Connally was dead. My mom picked me up after school and we talked about it all the way home….and for many, many days afterward.

Ron Ragan I was in school, Crockett Junior High. I was running projector in Ms Muse class. I remember next period seeing several men teachers weeping. For some reason seeing that put it all into perspective; the enormity of what just happened. Years later at Channel 8 in Dallas one of my first jobs as a brand new cameraman was to transfer hours (days actually) of video archives to fresh, new tape. I watched it happen all over again and it brought back those same Crockett memories. This year (50 years later) I was asked to photograph the School Book Depository Building window where Oswald shot JFK. It was removed from the building years ago. I spent many hours alone with the window, photographing every part of it in a large quiet room and as I imagined Oswald leaning through this same window I was leaning through, the whole tragic experience became real for me once again.

Dwight Woolston   I was sent to the library to listen to the radio and report back with all the information. I can’t remember whose class I was in, but I think it was Mrs Sherman. An unbelievable day! One thing on my mind was the question did Russia have anything to do with it and how was it going to affect the draft! Turns out it didn’t affect the draft immediately, they got me anyway, a couple of years later!

The Kennedy assassination marks a defining moment in life for boomers, but it appears to be a mere historical footnote for younger generations who did not hear the news at school.

As a baby boomer, I suspect no one in our generation will ever be totally satisfied that Oswald acted alone. CBS journalist Bob Schieffer who covered the assassination as the Fort Worth Star Telegram’s 26-year old crime reporter concluded in a recent story for AARP The Magazine, “…there are still questions about the details of Lincoln’s assassination. For that matter, there are still questions about the assassination of Julius Caesar.”

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 http://www.twitter.com/JFK50Texas and liking our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/JFK50Texas.

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