The cop had a sheepish expression. Embarrassed. It wasn’t a look I usually saw on a cop, especially not in 1963 before things like sensitivity training were introduced.
His Virginia Beach PD cruiser slid up beside our stopped press car with “Virginian-Pilot” on the door. We had a remote phone, front-line technology in that day.
He rolled down his window and leaned out toward me. He didn’t say hello. He hesitated, not wanting to sound the fool.
“You hear anything about the President being shot?”
Perry Breon, the photographer at the wheel, and I looked at each other. He reached the mic first and keyed the city desk.
“We just heard that the President’s been shot. Is that true?”
“That’s correct.” It was Chuck Marshall, city editor, whose early baldness made him feel avuncular to me. “We want you to get some color, then come in. We want Hollander to write the local lead.”
I was 22, the youngest on the staff, and it was my proudest moment in journalism. If Hemingway thought the place to be as a young man was Paris in the Twenties, I knew even then that the moveable feast just given me was to be a cub reporter on the day JFK was shot.
Fifty years later I still know that.
We left the cop and stopped at the first house with a car in the driveway. I knocked, said we were with the Pilot and could we watch the TV?
The lady was wearing an apron. She nodded, and let us in without a word. The black and white, console TV was on as they would be across America for the next four days. What we saw was a blur: Parkland Hospital, Dealey Plaza, the Trade Mart, Air Force One, maybe Walter Cronkite. I think she was too shocked even to ask us to sit or to have coffee.
After a few minutes we thanked her and left. I’m not sure she moved from the TV.
Perry turned the car to Frank W. Cox High School. A blonde girl born the year FDR died, sobbed.
“I just don’t know what’s going to happen,” she sniffled. “Maybe it will bring the country closer together.”
A civics display case had a magazine cover: “Kennedy’s Worry: Solid South Lost for ’64?” I scribbled it in my reporter’s notebook, and used it later in my story.
So the next morning, 122,000 readers at breakfast saw it spread over eight columns. And 50 years later that social studies teacher’s display must endure still in yellow, brittle-edged papers in dried cartons under attic rafters across Norfolk.
The newsroom didn’t seem any different than usual. The wire machines clattered. Whether the stories were the death of a president or a cat stuck up a tree, the robo-typing sounded the same. The bells that rang when a bulletin was being sent had long since stopped.
I sat at my desk and waited for reporters twice my age to feed me anecdotes from their beats. Suddenly I felt alone. JFK had been my president, elected in my sophomore year at Brandeis. After eight years of Eisenhower who looked like my father’s father, here was a movie star intellectual, and I bought into it all gratefully. Fifteen years later I woke crying in the middle of the night, and a girlfriend comforted me: “You must have loved him very much.”
The anecdotes were passed to me on scraps of cheap copy paper: A tug on the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River cut her engines and lowered her flag; a woman called the Norfolk police hysterical: “Why did you let them do it?”; a Hampton man heard the news and died of a heart attack; “Who’s going to be President now,” a little boy wailed to his father on Brambleton Avenue. “Jackie?”
I started to type on my manual, upright Royal with carbons between the sheets: “In a red-eyed city echoing with the cry of `Extra, extra’ they mourned and mourn still their President.
“Beneath the half-masted flags…they gathered in small, quiet groups around TVs and radios, listening and shifting from foot to foot, like children trying to understand where they’ll be when they die.”
The story ran Saturday across the top of the local section: “On a Sunny Afternoon, Death Turned City’s Face Sad.” I walked along Granby Street already decorated for Christmas. A bookstore had a black-bordered portrait in the window. A TV in another showed mourners in Washington, but pasted on the screen was “No Money Down.”
I would report from many places in the years to come: Africa, China, the Amazon, and cover presidential campaigns. But still today I am that boy reporter telling Tidewater that its President was dead.