Young newsman Bob Schieffer almost missed the story of a lifetime

Posted Friday, Nov. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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I was not happy the night President Kennedy came to Fort Worth.

For a reporter, there’s nothing worse than being in the middle of a big story and not being assigned to cover it, and the visit of President Kennedy that fateful weekend was the biggest story of the year — or at least it seemed that way to me. Maybe because I was being left out.

In those days, I was the night police reporter at the Star-Telegram, worked 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., made $115 a week, and I thought it was the best job in the world.

For weeks, we had been talking about little but the president’s visit to Fort Worth. Presidents didn’t travel much in those days and we were proud to know that when he came to Texas, Fort Worth would be one of the cities along with San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and Austin that he would be visiting.

The city outdid itself in welcoming the presidential party. When Air Force One landed that night at Carswell Air Force Base, 10,000 people were there to cheer him; hundreds more lined the route into downtown Fort Worth. The lights that outlined our downtown buildings, which were only turned on during the Stock Show and the Christmas holidays, lit up the night sky as the president’s motorcade brought him to the Hotel Texas. It was there the following morning that he would speak to both an outdoor rally and a breakfast sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, speeches that would be the last he ever made.

The city fathers (and mothers) were determined that the Kennedys and Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson would feel welcome and see Fort Worth at its best.

No detail was overlooked. In the hotel suites where the president and his wife would be staying, Ruth (then Johnson, later Stevenson), daughter of Star-Telegram founder Amon Carter, had assembled a priceless collection of art, including a small sculpture by Picasso and a painting by Vincent van Gogh.

The van Gogh was listed as loaned anonymously, but Ruth later told me it was her painting, the first painting she had ever purchased.

“I paid $25,000 for it and my father went through the roof,” she told me many years later. “He said if that was how I intended to spend my money he would see I didn’t get anymore.”

He relented, of course, and Ruth would later become one of the nation’s leading collectors of art, was the driving force behind the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth and served on the board of the National Museum of Art in Washington, one of the world’s leading art centers.

The painting that hung in the Kennedy’s suite was later sold by the Carter family and today is valued in the millions of dollars.

Late-night antics

As mad as I was not to be part of the coverage the night the president and his party arrived, when I learned that the Press Club was being held open after hours to accommodate the visiting White House press corps, I headed over there when my shift ended around 2 a.m. I couldn’t wait to meet all the famous reporters, whom I knew only by their bylines.

It was quite a party by the time night city editor Phil Record and I arrived and, when one of the visiting reporters said he had heard of a local coffeehouse called the Cellar, Record and I were appointed to take them there. What we learned later is that some in the crowd were off-duty Secret Service agents who were later criticized for being up so late.

Because I was out so late, I was asleep the next day when the president and vice president spoke first to a cheering crowd in the parking lot next to the Hotel Texas and later to an overwhelmingly friendly group of business leaders inside the hotel, a group that included my future wife, Pat.

My brother, Tom, then a student at Arlington Heights High School, had been in the crowd outside the hotel and managed to shake hands with the president, but there was no talk of that when he rushed into my bedroom later that morning and woke me saying, “You’d better get to work; the president has been shot.”

‘Total bedlam’

What followed was an adventure I have told hundreds of times, of how I arrived at the paper, went to the city desk and tried to help answer the phones.

It was total bedlam. Every phone was ringing, and I picked up one phone only to hear a woman say, “Is there anyone there who can give me a ride to Dallas?”

In truth, I almost hung up, but I said, “Lady, we don’t run a taxi here, and besides, the president’s been shot, to which she replied, ‘Yes. I heard on the radio; I think my son is the one they’ve arrested.’”

I wrote down the address and city editor Bill Hitch sent reporter Bill Foster and me to pick her up. We did and I interviewed her on the way. Newsweek and Time both paid me for the quotes — I don’t remember which paid what, but one paid me 50 bucks and the other 60. It would be my first real scoop.

Those of us who were there will never really forget that weekend, and I have thought about it many times over the years. What is often lost in the telling of the story is how stunned we were when it happened. There have been many violent events since then, but no one who was alive that day had experienced what unfolded that weekend.

The Cold War was at its height. B-52 bombers of the Strategic Air Command, armed with nuclear bombs, were always on alert, and one of the main SAC bases was Carswell in Fort Worth.

‘Work of a madman’

When the shots rang out in Dallas, we didn’t know what to make of it.

The borders of Mexico were closed off. Was this the beginning of World War III? Was there about to be a nuclear war?

We didn’t know, and the uncertainty just added to the terror that hung over the tragic events happening in Dallas.

That weekend is never far from my thoughts, and the assassination could have happened anywhere.

It was the work of a madman.

But I’ve always been proud of Fort Worth, the honor its citizens felt, and the effort they made to welcome a president of the United States.

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