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Former proofreader recalls when news of JFK death broke

November 4, 2012
By WARREN SCOTT - Staff writer (wscott@heraldstaronline.com.) , The Herald-Star

NEW CUMBERLAND - Claudia Musick Flowers, a New Cumberland resident and Weirton native, remembers vividly where she was when she heard about the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.

"I was sitting at my desk at the Steubenville Herald-Star, where I was employed as a proofreader. The daily paper had already been put to bed, so I was at a slow period of a normal day."

But that quickly changed, Flowers recalled, when her boss, an editor at the paper, "was running toward us, frantically waving copy off a wire service story and yelling, 'The president has has been shot, stop the press!'"

Article Photos

Warren Scott
LOOKING BACK — Claudia Musick Flowers of New Cumberland, a former proofreader for the Herald-Star, looks at a reproduction of a front page covering the national response to the death of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Flowers was on the job when news broke of the president’s assassination.

"There were gasps from everyone that turned to a deadly silence as we quickly collected our thoughts so we could function and do our jobs," she said.

Flowers, who was then 19 and had begun working at the paper earlier that year, said, "There were people running back and forth and shouting. It was very tense."

As one of three women who served as proofreaders, she was charged with checking copy for errors in punctuation, spelling, grammar and wording while seated at the center of the busy newsroom and in front of the noisy teletype machine.

"I proofread the short first copy that said very little other than the president was shot at 12:30 p.m. while riding in a motorcade in Dallas," Flowers said.

She said Kennedy's visit to Dallas for Democratic Party business was considered minor news locally until word broke of his assassination while riding in a motorcade bound for a luncheon with civic and business leaders in the city.

Flowers said following that first, brief wire transmission, "Copy kept coming, each with more details. Typesetters set the story and reset the story many times as new updates came through.

"Then at 1 p.m., I proofread the heartbreaking news that a priest had announced the death of President Kennedy. Our grief enveloped us as we put the final update into type and sent it to the press," she said.

"In the short span of 30 minutes, a story had a beginning and an ending that stopped the world. Our hands had held it for those few moments of time, and then it was history," Flowers said.

Among the many who witnessed the tragic incident firsthand was Secret Service agent Clint Hill, who ran after the presidential limousine in order to shield first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, whom he was assigned to protect.

Hill and journalist Lisa McCubbin will speak about their New York Times-best selling book, "Mrs. Kennedy and Me," at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 14 at the Steubenville High School as part of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce Concert and Lecture Series.

Flowers said the pressure of reworking that day's Herald-Star to include the devastating news seemed to override any questions the newspaper staff had about a motive and to some extent, the sorrow they felt.

"After our boss said 'that's it,' we all collapsed," Flowers said.

When their work was finished, she and other staffers took turns calling family from the break room. She noted in those days there were no cellular phones, and there was a radio, but no television, in the newsroom.

Her husband at the time was a Weirton police officer, and he also was shocked, Flowers said.

"I was a big Kennedy person. There was absolute sadness because he was such a great president," she said. She added she had taken a photo of him riding in a car through downtown Steubenville during a campaign stop before his election, and she was impressed by his public speaking.

Flowers said her favorite Kennedy quote is: "Ask not what your country can do for you -ask what you can do for your country." The statement was part of his inaugural address.

Flowers said despite the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, identified initially as a lone shooter responsible for the president's death, some citizens believed others were involved.

A committee formed by the House of Representatives in 1976 found Kennedy's assassination was likely part of a conspiracy involving others and that earlier investigations by the FBI and Warren Commission - a committee formed by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson - that found Oswald acted alone were flawed.

Flowers said when Oswald was shot and killed by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby, she was unhappy, not because of sympathy for him but because it left many questions unanswered.

"It was like you didn't want him dead because you just wanted to know why," she said.

Flowers recalled the sadness she and many others felt while watching Kennedy's state funeral as it was televised live three days after his death.

"It was everywhere. I remember being glued to the TV," she said.

"It just felt like the whole country was crying. When Jackie and the children were beside the casket, and John Jr. saluted (his father), it just broke your heart," Flowers said.

 
 

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