by Bill Mardis
Pulaski countians are joining millions today as they pause to remember one of the blackest moments in this nation’s history. This is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States.
The shots were heard round the world. The deathly sound reverberated throughout the biggest city and smallest hamlet. It seems as if it were yesterday. If you are old enough to remember, you recall where you were when you heard the news; the shock has not faded.
Although a half century has passed, it seems only a moment ago. The shots rang out from the sixth story window of a Texas Book Store Depository in Dallas at 1:30 p.m. Somerset time.
Kennedy died at the hands of a sniper while traveling with his wife Jacqueline, Texas Governor John Connally, and Connally’s wife Nellie, in a presidential motorcade. Time suddenly stood still.
Pulaski countians and people across the nation and the world stopped in shock and fear.
Jim Brown, a retired Somerset radio personality, said it best: “I think we lost our innocence. I think we were all changed.”
Compared to today, late 1963 was a relatively simple time in Somerset and Pulaski County:
• Pulaski countians were getting ready for Christmas, barely a month away.
• A newly formed company – Off-Street Parking of Somerset – was trying to develop off-street parking in downtown Somerset. It was reaction to the specter of an impending move of retail businesses to the truck route, now 6-lane U.S. 27 and Somerset’s main shopping district.
• Pulaski Fiscal Court was trying to decide whether to remodel the existing century-old courthouse or build a new courthouse. They chose the latter and the old courthouse, except for the west end, was razed and a new courthouse opened in 1974.
• Preliminary plans had been drawn for Somerset Community College and an appreciation banquet was held for state officials who would make it possible.
• Burley tobacco auctions were about to begin and more than a million pounds of golden leaf were on floors at Farmers and Peoples tobacco warehouses.
• Somerset Television Reception Corporation offered four channels and three networks. That’s all.
• Somerset was a Saturday town. The Hotel Beecher, now the Beecher House, was the center of social activities. Busy freight trains were constant reminders that this was a railroad culture; that this was a railroad town.
If you are old enough to remember, Kennedy’s assassination was an indelible event. Many Pulaski countians, most of whom are retired now, remember the moment; exactly where they were; the shock, the fear. How could this happen? Is our country in danger?
Retired Kentucky State Police Captain Ray Brittain was working as a state trooper in Adair County on that fateful day.
“It was my day off. I was at home. I turned the TV on and saw what had happened. I was pretty shocked. It was enough to shock you,” he said.
Brittain, who later would work as a state trooper in Pulaski County, said he doesn’t remember being afraid ... “only shocked.”
Promoted to the rank of captain, Brittain would command State Police Post 11, headquartered at London. He is now retired and lives in Pulaski County.
Louie Floyd, former Pulaski County judge-executive, vividly recalls the day when Kennedy was assassinated.
“I was coming out of Howard’s Market (now Louise’s Food Mart on East Mt. Vernon Street) and somebody told me the president had been shot,” Floyd recalled.
“I worked at a barber shop next door,” said Floyd. “We had a television set at the barber shop and that’s about all we did; watch the drama unfold on television for the rest of the day.”
“I consider Kennedy’s assassination one of the biggest losses in my lifetime even though he was not a member of my party. He was a pretty good president ... not as liberal as many people think. He did what he said he would do,” said Floyd.
Floyd remembers the 35th president as being a brave man.
“Kennedy had a lot of nerve to stand up to Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis,” said Floyd.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was a 13-day confrontation in October 1962 between the Soviet Union and Cuba on one side and the United States on the other side. The crisis is generally regarded as the moment in which the Cold War came closest to turning into a nuclear conflict.
Judge-executive from 1994 to 1998, Floyd is still considered patriarch of the Pulaski County Republican Party.
Oscar Hornsby was in his car driving down South Vine Street to park and go into Albertson’s Electric on West Mt. Vernon Street. He heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination on his car radio.
“It was on a Friday ... the weather was warm, very warm,” Hornsby remembers. “I was shocked as everyone else was.”
“Kennedy was a great president,” said Hornsby, who served as chair of the Pulaski County Democratic Party for about 20 years. “Kennedy did a lot of great things ... including building roads in Appalachia.”
Hornsby was active in building roads during his years as head of the local Democratic party. Spokesman for four governors during that period, Hornsby elicited a promise from Gov. Brereton Jones to expand U.S. 27 from four to six lanes between Somerset and Burnside. Jones got the project started and it became reality.
Tragic events seldom shock people in the news business. But this was different. The life of John Kennedy, hardly past 1000 days in office, was snuffed out. It was the first time in this lifetime that a president was killed. Radio and television, even in an early age of instant communications, spread the word like lightning.
“I was at WSFC at the time,” recalls the aforementioned Brown, later an owner of WTLO. “I had just walked in the station from lunch and the Associated Press wire service was ringing constantly.”
In those days, news was printed on paper that rolled out of a machine and folded on the floor as copy was transmitted. Ringing signaled a news bulletin.
“We (WSFC) immediately went to The Mutual Broadcasting System (an American radio network),” Brown recalled. MBS brought a blow-by-blow account of the tragedy in Dallas.
“TV was black and white in those days ... but on it Pulaski countians watched the first presidential assassination in their lifetime ... and, shortly, in the basement of the Dallas police station, they watched in horror as Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of President Kennedy, was shot to death by Jack Ruby as TV cameras rolled.
The event left an impression highlighted with moments and places; where we were and what we were doing. Even though there were presidential assassinations before, this one, with television and radio, was played out in our living rooms.
WTLO, Somerset’s newest radio station, was served with national news by United Press International (UPI). WTLO was not connected to a national radio network; UPI spit out news typed on paper and, like AP, rang a bell for bulletins.
This reporter and the late Oris Gowen, then manager of WTLO, were at Hobe’s Radio and Electronics on Crab Orchard Street. Gowen was checking on a television set when the news flashed across the screen that Kennedy had been shot.
We raced back to the radio station. The UPI machine was in constant ring mode as bulletin after bulletin about the situation in Dallas cleared the news wire.
A paid program was being broadcast. This reporter grabbed a bulletin from the UPI machine, switched off the microphone in Studio A where the speaker on the paid broadcast was talking and read live on the air about Kennedy being shot.
The UPI machine was still ringing as bulletins came in. Another bulletin, another interruption of the speaker, and so on and so on. The well-prepared presentation by the unhappy speaker was made unintelligible.
Most radio stations canceled regularly scheduled programs during days following Kennedy’s assassination and broadcast somber music. It was the saddest of times.