Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Barry ZeVan, Tom Ryther and JFK

Anyone who was at least five years old on November 22, 1963 remembers where they were when they first heard the news that President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas and later died. Those who were children then most likely heard about it while in school. Adults heard about it in all different ways, likely either from a television or radio report or through word of mouth.

Whenever I interview someone who was around then, especially people who had careers in media, I like to ask them where they were on that fateful day. I've had the pleasure of talking many times to a couple of talents I grew up watching on television in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Barry ZeVan and Tom Ryther. The two of them were colleagues and friends who worked together in the Twin Cities market in the 1970s and 1980s, and separately in various other cities. They didn't meet until about seven years after the JFK assassination, but when it happened both of them were young broadcasters, 26 years old at the time, and they both have their own unique stories of where they were when they first heard the news.

KSTP-TV ad promoting Barry ZeVan
 the Weatherman from 1971.
Recalls Barry ZeVan:

I had been attending one of the first BPA (Broadcast Promotion Association) conventions at the Jack Tar Hotel in San Francisco from the 16th to 19th of November, 1963. I had friends in Yuma, Arizona, who asked if I could drive there to visit for a day, and since I had the time, I decided to do so. I arrived in Yuma the night of the 20th, spent the day of the 21st there, then started to drive back home (which was Idaho Falls, Idaho, at the time) the morning of the 22nd. For some reason, I chose to not have the radio on while driving, but decided to turn it on around Noon, Pacific Time. I had just crossed the Colorado River into Needles, California, to get on the highway that would lead me to Las Vegas and northward to Idaho. Just north of Needles, after a commercial had played, I heard Fulton Lewis, Jr., a highly-respected newscaster and commentator, talking about Presidential succession. I thought to myself, "Why?'. Then he stated, for those just tuning in, President Kennedy had been killed. I screamed and nearly went of the road, just south of Searchlight, Nevada (Harry Reid's hometown).

Because there were no cell phones then, I had to wait until I got to Boulder City, Nevada, to call my wife to assure her I'd be driving all night to get home, and for her to not worry about the survival of this country. When I got to Las Vegas about a half-hour later, I heard on the radio all lights on The Strip and downtown, on Fremont Street, would not be lighted until Midnight that night. It was raining and snowing, mixed, that late afternoon and evening, and very chilly for Las Vegas that time of year. The skies were crying, too. I drove through blizzard-like weather all the way to Idaho Falls, which I reached about 7 the next morning. I never turned the radio off. At about 4 a.m., I heard the comforting words of then Senator Hubert Humphrey and Rhode Island's Senator John Pastore, reassuring the nation that all would be well, regardless of the horror we all endured the preceding day. I didn't know at that time Senator Humphrey would become a very good friend to me in later years.
The night I emceed Vice President Mondale's pre-inaugural banquet at the Washington Hilton in January, 1977, former Vice President Humphrey was in the audience and I got to introduce him to come to the podium for his remarks that evening. I told the preceding story (regarding my memories of him that early November 23rd on the snow-swept highway in Southern Idaho), and how he'd inspired me and the rest of the nation, I'm certain, to know we would survive the event of that terrible preceding day.

Tom Ryther became the KSTP-TV sports director in 1971.
Tom Ryther was on the air on radio station WIBV in Belleville, IL, a suburb of St. Louis, when the news broke. His story appeared in my web article, The RYTHER Factor.

It was high noon on that day in 1963, and we had an old newspaper guy who was our news director and all he did was rip and hand us the news copy [off the news wire]. He hands me this thing, ‘There have been shots fired in Dallas. It is believed that President Kennedy has been wounded.’ I was on the air reading a newscast, and I said, ‘We’ll bring you further details as they develop.’ Al [the news director] goes to lunch. When he came back I said "Al, what the…the President of the United States has been shot!"

In the hour after the first bulletin had cleared the wire, while the news director was out to lunch, Tom ran back and forth between the newsroom and the studio, getting reports from the Associated Press and United Press International wires and getting the information on the air as quickly as possible while playing records and taped commercials in the interim. Finally came the bulletin, which he read on the air:

“Word just in from the Associated Press, President John F. Kennedy has died of wounds suffered in Dallas during a motorcade. It is unknown at this time who did the shooting. Investigations are underway.”

Luckily I had gotten some training so I had some experience, [and] I had a cool head that day.

As a journalism student in 1958, Tom had actually met then-Senator Kennedy when he went to Washington with other journalism students as a guest of Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri. The future President met with the students outside of Senate chambers and answered questions from the students, including Tom. He says:
I never wrote a story about it, but I was in on the interview. I sat there, asked him questions, talked to him. Great charisma.

(Find out about Tom Ryther's memoir, "The Hummelsheim Kid" here.)



  2. I was one of those five year olds who witnessed the days (and week) events mostly through the adults around me. First my older sister came home from school and said that her teacher was crying. Then my cartoon watching ended for the week as the television provided wall to wall coverage of the events that day and ending with the funeral in Washington DC. Being all of five, it was frightening hearing that the man who shot the president was somewhere out there and could hurt someone else.

    1. I can imagine it would have been hard for a small child to process. I was just reading about how when Captain Kangaroo finally returned to the air the following Tuesday, he dedicated the entire program to the memory of the President, and read the speech he was to have delivered in Dallas on the previous Friday.

    2. And as we all know, Jack Ruby took care of the man who shot the President in short order.

  3. I was a copywriter for WQAD-TV in Moline. A group of us were at lunch at the Hasty Tasty, a restaurant just a few blocks up the street. Shirley, our wait person, came to the table and said, "The station just called, you are to get back there immediately, President Kennedy has been shot and killed." I also remember the switchboard coming alive during the President's funeral with people complaining because "General Hospital" wasn't on that day.