Daily Tar Heel alumni recall the death of a president

Click here to read The Daily Tar Heel’s coverage following the assassination.

Click here to read a column written by UNC alumnus Timothy Reardon on the 25th anniversary of the assassination.

Halfway down the stairs leading from the Daily Tar Heel offices to the ground floor of Graham Memorial was a landing with a television. Jim Wallace stopped for a moment to glance at the screen, taking in Walter Cronkite’s solemn face.

Wallace needed to get to Franklin Street quickly to photograph mourners for the next day’s paper, but he paused. He stood listening long enough to hear Cronkite say the words that everyone in the DTH newsroom had been stuck on for minutes — the president is dead.

When shots rang out in Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963, the ringing didn’t stop in Dallas. That afternoon, journalists across the nation — and at UNC — scrambled to rewrite newspapers while coping with their own grief. Whether or not they stayed journalists in their lives after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, those who covered his death still recall the urgency of that day 50 years later.

Gary Blanchard — along with David Ethridge, one of The Daily Tar Heel’s two co-editors in the fall of 1963 — found out about the assassination in the newsroom.

“I remember I was up in the office of the Tar Heel on the second floor of Graham — at the time it was the Student Union,” Blanchard said. “And as we watched (the television), the words came across: ‘Dallas, Texas, 1:06-or-something p.m., the president has been shot.’ We were so stunned. Things just began to be a big rush after that.”

For Blanchard and everyone at the paper that day, the next several hours were a blur of rapid-fire questions: “What do we put on the front page?” “Was it Cuba or Russia?” “Do we have pictures on file of Kennedy?” “How many shooters were there?”

“What happens next?”

When Wallace returned to the newsroom from Franklin Street, his camera full of images of Chapel Hill’s grief, Blanchard and Ethridge told him it would be one of his old pictures that would run on front the next day.

“I had photographed Kennedy in 1961 when he spoke at Kenan Stadium,” Wallace said. “We made proof sheets — it took up less than half of a 35 mm frame. And I asked Dave what size he wanted it and he said he wanted it full-sized. I went down to the basement of Graham Memorial and was able to make an 11-by-14 print.”

A couple of blocks away, freshman Jock Lauterer was just getting to work at The Chapel Hill Weekly printing office, which was also responsible for printing the DTH. Lauterer, who also worked as a photographer for the DTH, said his memory of the day starts and ends with him learning about the assassination.

“I just remember fade to black — everything just stopped, Kurt Vonnegut’s bug in the amber,” said Lauterer, now a lecturer in the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “Time stopped, the air is sucked out of the room, it’s the end of innocence.”

Soon after, Wallace also arrived at the printing offices to have a plate made of his photograph for page 1. But the largest plate The Chapel Hill Weekly could make was 8-by-10 — too small for the dramatic tribute the DTH editors had planned for the paper. Undeterred, Wallace rushed to The Durham Morning Herald in The Daily Tar Heel’s truck.

“Of course they were filled up to the brim making their own plates for the next morning, but somehow or another they worked it out,” he said.

When Wallace returned to Chapel Hill, he, Blanchard and Ethridge worked to assemble page 1, settling on a simple layout with Kennedy’s image inside a black frame. Just before they sent it to press, printing shop foreman Charlie Campbell suggested the addition of a headline: “1917-1963.”

“We put the paper out to press and it rolled,” Wallace said.

In the days after the assassination, life at UNC grew quiet and somber. A memorial service was held, flags were lowered, a game against Duke was canceled, students moved slowly forward into a new America.

Alongside his wife and a few friends, Blanchard went to Washington, D.C., to attend Kennedy’s funeral, arriving in a capital full to bursting with Americans hoping to get in a final goodbye.

Blanchard called in a story about the funeral to The Daily Tar Heel, and to this day he can recite the conclusion he wrote word for word: “Suddenly the tears you had thought were spent flooded forth anew, and the night was incredibly sad.”

Now retired from a New Jersey government job, Blanchard remembers the pain of fall 1963.

“Even now as I tell you about it I get a little sad,” he said. “I see and I know it and I remember it, but there’s still kind of a little wall of insulation. We will never know to what heights he would have led us, and what he did leave was so impressive.”

Though half a century sits between the JFK assassination and the current lives of the journalists who covered it, Wallace said the events of that day endure in his work.

“Whether you’re a reporter or a photographer, I think everything is a product of your experience.”

university@dailytarheel.com

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