'They Were So Beautiful. He Was So Tanned': A Reporter Covering The JFK Motorcade Looks Back
For an entire generation of Americans, it will always be the moment they'll never forget where they were. But for the select group of Americans who were actually present, they can still picture the clear Texas sky or the pink suit from the day the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated while being driven through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas.
Friday marks the 50th Anniversary of the last time a U.S. President was murdered while still in office. (The tragedy has happened four times in American history.) A half-century later, the event still figures prominently in American life. And according to Bob Huffaker, who was then a 27-year old police reporter for local CBS outlet KRLD covering the president's Texas visit, there were "irregularities" in Dallas leading up to the fateful November day.
One example Huffaker recalled while speaking to AOL Jobs was from that year's commemoration of UN Day, which falls on October 24. The US Ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson, happened to be in Dallas for a celebration. And during a ceremony, Huffaker said, "he was heckled at, spat upon and struck in the head with a placard that said, 'Who elected you?'" While such vitriol, from both the right and left, has been a constant of American life up to the current day, "Our nuts were maybe louder, meaner and more conspicuous than in most American cities at the time."
So on November 22, Huffaker was expecting problems for the president, who was visiting a rightwing city in what was then a true-blue Democratic state. Assigned to cover the motorcade as an on-air reporter, Huffaker said he was pleasantly surprised by the good cheer that kicked off the day. Situated on the corners of Main and Akard Streets, Huffaker recalled the crowds cheering, "Jackie, look this way!"
"The morning opened with misty skies but the weather agreed as the day continued on. It was a beautiful blue sky; it looked like spring," he said. Huffaker, who's now 77 and still resides in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, said the image of the president passing by him in the convertible is "vivid." At the moment Kennedy's car rolled past him, Huffaker was completing an on-air report about rivalries within the Democratic party. The image of John and Jackie Kennedy endures in his memory. "They were so beautiful, he was so tanned," he said.
'Faster than that Mercury was designed to go'
Huffaker said he was located no more than 1,000 yards from Dealey Plaza where Kennedy's life was eventually taken. After the presidential motorcade passed him, he lost sight of the president and was unable to witness the shooting. He also was unable to hear the gunshots. So after he wrapped up his report, Huffaker headed back to his station where he was greeted by his newscaster, Warren Fulks, who notified him the president had been shot. The two decided to get immediately back in Huffaker's car and headed to Parkland Memorial Hospital where Kennedy had been taken. "We drove that Mercury car faster than it was designed to go," he said.
When they arrived at the hospital they noticed the police barricades had already been set up. It was of course hard to report on a story that was developing right before their eyes. And when he tried to interview visiting congressmen, Huffaker said he was often told the men "saw things they hadn't wanted to see." But he refused to speculate on air about what was going on, aware of his station's reach throughout all of Texas, the Rocky Mountain region and much of the midwest. But he said he privately began to suspect the president was dead when he noticed two priests walk into the hospital, presumably to perform the Catholic ritual of the last rites on Kennedy.
In short order, Huffaker soon noticed a white hearse with lights flashing pull up to the hospital. But he made sure not to make any pronouncements on air until official word came through on the two-way radio around midday confirming the president's death. "At first, I had difficulty speaking," he said. "Nothing remains to be said," he recalled saying before signing off on the report.
More to the story
Huffaker's job was not done. He stayed at the hospital past midnight and the following day began reporting for duty at the local police headquarters. He was of course unaware the next chapter of the story would take place within his reporting beat. But again, he said, there were signs of the future problems; no one was checking the ID badges of people passing through the police headquarters, even though threats on Lee Harvey Oswald's life were being made as soon as he was apprehended by the police.
Security did finally ramp up ahead of the transfer of Oswald on Nov. 24, he said. And as Oswald was being escorted out of the police headquarters, Huffaker was holding the microphone hoping to record natural sound when a burly man "lunged" past his team, he said. Distracted with his microphone work, Huffaker's attention was not focused on Oswald when he heard a scream, "Oswald's been shot." Local nightclub owner Jack Ruby had shot Oswald, and Huffaker was standing no less than ten feet away.
He said his reaction was very different from two days earlier. "I had already had my sadness for my president," he said. "I had no sadness for his killer." So he made sure to focus on his work. "We got to get this broadcast right," he remembered thinking.
Life beyond tragedy
The saga around the assassination would continue to occupy Huffaker's working life. He covered Ruby's trial and death, among other aspects of the story. But he recalled thinking, "I did not want this tragedy to dominate my life." So he wound up leaving broadcasting and got a masters and PhD from the University of North Texas. He ended up teaching English literature for decades at Southwest Texas State, which today is known as Texas State University.
Last decade, however, he decided to return to the story. "I was getting old and I felt I owed history a book about the assassination," he said. And so in 2004 he, along with his fellow former KRLD reporters Bill Mercer, George Phenix and Wes Wise published the book, "When the News Went Live: Dallas 1963."
In the book, the reporters recount their experience from the assassination, which for Huffaker makes it clear that Oswald was the shooter. "There are flaws in the Warren Commission, and I can't know who or what influenced Oswald," he said. "But the evidence is clear. There were eyewitnesses to Oswald over those days. It was Oswald's rifle and they had evidence of the mail-order purchase."
For his part, Huffaker said, "the tragedy still lives with me. When I hear hateful remarks about our president today it makes my blood run cold and my teeth on edge. Hatred can become tragic."
Where were you on November 22, 1963? Share your recollections in the Comments below.