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posted: 11/19/2013 11:05 AM

Memories of two dreadful days in Dallas

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This story about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Daily Herald Lisle columnist Joan Broz first appeared in the Daily Herald on Nov. 14, 2005.

Forty-two years have passed since news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy paralyzed the nation.

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Grainy newspaper images of a grassy knoll from Nov. 22, 1963, the Texas School Book Depository and the Zapruder film replayed in my head as I traveled to Dallas for the National Convention of Newspaper Columnists in June.

I was anticipating the convention's sneak preview of a new exhibit, "Covering Chaos: How the News Media Covered Nov. 22," opening at the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, which told the historic events from the news coverage of the day.

At the convention's first breakfast meeting, a mature couple sat next to me and we struck up the usual small talk.

The man, Jim Leavelle, had a large, stately build with square shoulders -- a figure that could proportionately balance a Texan 10-gallon hat. Our conversation centered on the huge biospherelike atrium of the new Gaylord Hotel where we were sitting.

The speaker interrupted our conversation as the meeting was called to order. But Jim's personable warmth made approaching him later easy.

Dave Lieber, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist and a convention organizer, introduced "Jim" to the gathering as the retired Dallas detective who has carried himself with dignity since Nov. 24, 1963: the day he was handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald when the suspect was shot on national television.

Another image flashed in my mind's eye -- a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo -- of a tall Dallas police officer in a white Stetson and light-colored suit looking grim as Oswald scowled in deadly pain from the shot fired by Jack Ruby, the nightclub owner in a dark suit and fedora.

Lieber said Leavelle was so excited being with a group of columnists that he planned to be at a number of our events.

Later, when Leavelle took the podium, he admitted the truth. The 84-year-old minced no words saying that "sometimes working with journalists is a real pain in the posterior," and that he really took the engagement because he'd never been to the Gaylord.

Some of Leavelle's feelings were the outcome of being hired as a technical adviser to director Oliver Stone on the conspiracy movie "JFK."

"If you want to know what a technical adviser is, I can tell you," Leavelle said. "You can set up a scene and then the director will go ahead and shoot it the way he wants to. We'd have discussions over that and he'd say it makes a better movie this way."

The next day, at the Sixth Floor Museum in the building formerly known as the Texas School Book Depository, convention columnists listened to three compelling firsthand accounts of the historical events: from Leavelle; Hugh Aynesworth, former Dallas Morning News reporter and current southwest bureau chief for the Washington Times; and Bert Shipp, now retired but then with WFAA-TV.

"I was right outside this building when all hell broke loose," Aynesworth began. "It changed my life (then) and still is."

Aynesworth said everyone was excited Kennedy was coming to town. Without an assignment that day, Aynesworth walked over to see the president's caravan.

"Everyone was cheering when, zing, I heard something," Aynesworth said. "I will tell you there were three shots and no more. All of a sudden there was chaos. I thought I better start interviewing people."

Unprepared to work, the young Aynesworth pulled two utility bills from his back pocket to write on and bought a foot-long souvenir pencil from a little boy for 50 cents to take notes.

Leavelle took the podium next and said that since his partner was on vacation at that time, he was assigned to handle whatever came to the station. He went out and took a report on an officer shooting because there was no one else to send. He never suspected the developing cases were directly related.

"A lot of people in this day do not realize that all of us had to find a pay telephone if we wanted to reach our offices back then," Leavelle said.

There were no cellphones, few two-way radios and no 911 system.

"By Saturday noon, we had a hallway full of journalists and writers that had flown in from all over the country," Leavelle said. "Oswald was getting exactly what he wanted -- publicity. And I want to tell you right here, he did not shoot John F. Kennedy. He shot the President of the United States and John Kennedy just happened to be the president. (Oswald) wanted publicity."

With so many threats called into the station, the department superiors decided to transfer the prisoner. As Leavelle put two sets of handcuffs on Oswald, one to attach the two men together, he said, "I told him, 'Lee, if anybody shoots at you, I hope they are as good a shot as you were.' Meaning, of course, that they would hit him and not me.

"(Oswald) kind of laughed and said, 'You're being melodramatic. Nobody is going to try and shoot at me.'"

Minutes later, everyone watching television across America became an eyewitness to history. Out of the corner of his eye, Leavelle saw Ruby with a pistol. Leavelle knew instinctively what was going on and tried to pull Oswald behind him, but it was too late.

All three speakers discounted any conspiracy theories. The events, they said, were the result of a disturbed man.

"The security was pretty darn good," Aynesworth said. "I was stopped three times. It was a one-in-a-million deal that Ruby got in."

Shipp condensed his take on the historic events to the photos he took at the Parkland Hospital where the president was taken. The photographer jumped in a passing car and had the driver speed across town to the television station to deliver the photos.

"I asked him if he had a good heart," Shipp said of the high-speed drive. "He answered, 'I won't after this.'"

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated along the presidential motorcade's route at 12:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, when three shots changed the course of history. The image looking down from the corner window of the sixth floor of the building to the red "x" in the street below is now a vision that leaves a lump in my throat.

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