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Billy Reed: November 22, 1963, a day that changed world and a reminder not to give up on democracy


As I was driving my 1957 black Chevy convertible past Lexington’s Blue Grass Field, I was feeling good. Only 19, I already was covering high school sports for The Leader, the city’s afternoon newspaper, and I was on the way to Princeton, in deep western Kentucky, to cover a playoff game between Lafayette High, a team I had covered all season, and Caldwell County, led by Kerry Curling, a two-way star who had committed to Coach Charlie Bradshaw at the University of Kentucky.

The drive was so long and boring that I didn’t want to make it alone, so I recruited three of my fraternity brothers at Transylvania College (now University) to keep me company. One of them was sports fanatic Bill Poulson of New Jersey, but I can’t remember the others. I’m sure we were chattering about something boys our age chattered about – girls, sports, the party after the next day’s Kentucky-Tennessee game – when the car radio crackled with a bulletin that shut us up.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

It was a little after 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963.

President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.

A little more than a half-hour later came the news that the President had died on an operating table in Parkland Hospital.

The rest of the trip is a blur. Somewhere on the Western Kentucky Parkway, the sky turned dark and it started raining. When we finally got to Princeton, we went to the funeral home owned by frat brother Al Templeton’s family. They were expecting us, and had some food ready. We also got to watch some coverage of the tragedy in Dallas on a black-and-white TV set.

The game was miserable. I slogged up and down the sidelines, alternately taking notes and photos. The field was so sloppy that it robbed Lafayette of its trademark speed. When it was mercifully over, Caldwell County had won, 6-0, on a touchdown run by Curling.

The trip back to Lexington seemed to take forever. The radio was off because my buddies all were sleeping. I finally dropped them off at Transy at about 4 a.m., then went to the Herald-Leader building on nearby Short Street to drop off my film and type up my game story.

I remember the empty newsroom was strewn with copies of that morning’s Herald. Huge headlines proclaimed the President’s death. I wrote my story and finally went home, where I fell into bed, totally exhausted, at about 6 a.m.

I didn’t get much sleep. Surprisingly, the UK-Tennessee game was not postponed and I sat in the stands with my date and some frat brothers. UK lost, 19-0, and the party afterward was more of a wake. The more adult beverages we imbibed, the sadder we became. The popular song, “Cry Baby,” by Garnett Mims and the Enchanters, perfectly suited our mood.

I always dredge up those sad memories on the anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. Today, the 57th anniversary, is no exception. A lot more than the President died that day in Dallas. It snuffed out a lot of our dreams, idealism, and patriotism. It planted the seeds of the cynicism, distrust, and anger that divides our country today.

The word “charisma” may have been invented to describe JFK. Only 43 at the time of his death, he was much closer to our age than President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the grandfatherly figure who guided our nation through the 1950s. He seemed to have it all – rugged good looks, a beautiful wife, a lovely son and daughter, a lot of money, and a zest for life that we found irresistible.

In addition, he was a Harvard graduate, our first Roman-Catholic President (Joe Biden will become the second), a highly decorated PT Boat commander in World War II, and the son of Joe Kennedy, a political wheeler-dealer in Massachusetts who made at least part of his fortune as a bootlegger. He also was President Roosevelt’s ambassador to England just before the outbreak of World War II.

The elder Kennedy had decided that his eldest son, Joe Jr., would get into politics and eventually become President. That dream died when Joe Jr. was killed in a plane flying over the English Channel. So the elder Kennedy turned to John, the next son in line.

After retiring from the Naval Reserve in 1945, the young JFK worked briefly as reporter for Hearst newspapers. But his destiny was in politics. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1947 and served until ’53, when he was elected to the Senate. That’s what he was doing in 1959, when the Democratic Party selected him to run for President against Republican Richard M. Nixon, who had been Eisenhower’s Vice-President for eight years.

Kennedy won, barely. His father was accused of conspiring with Mayor Richard Daley to buy votes in Chicago. Nevertheless, the transfer of power was orderly, in keeping with long-standing tradition. In his inauguration speech, Kennedy promised America would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

The Cold War still was raging in Europe and Asia, and Kennedy believed that stopping the growth of Communism was one of the most important parts of his job. His administration, staffed by a lot of young friends from Boston, tried an invasion of Cuba that failed miserably. Emboldened by dictator Fidel Castro’s victory at what came to be known as the “Bay of Pigs,” the Russians began secretly shipping nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962.

When U.S. spy planes got photographs of the hidden missiles, it precipitated what came to be known as the “Cuban Missile Crisis.” The Russians ignored JFK’s demand to take the missiles home, so the U.S. set up a blockade designed to stop the Russian ships before they reached Cuba. As the Russians steamed inexorably toward the blockade, the world braced itself for World War III, which would have been a nuclear war that would destroy the world.

At the last minute, the Russian ships stopped. Then they turned around. As one of JFK’s aides put it, “We were eye-to-eye with the enemy and I think the other guy just blinked.”

That victory gave the Kennedy administration confidence and credibility. It was just hitting its stride when gunshots from the Texas Schoolbook Depository, and perhaps one other site, tore into Kennedy’s head as his motorcade rolled through Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963.

President Kennedy addresses the nation on civil right. (Wikimedia Commons)

Right then the world changed, never to be the same.

One reason I liked JFK was his love of sports. He was on the varsity swimming team at Harvard, and he loved to play touch football with family and friends on the White House lawn. He always attending the Army-Navy football game, dutifully spending a half on each side of the field. He tried to be neutral, but everybody knew he wanted Navy to win.

At some point, he became friends with Vince Lombardi, who was coaching the Green Bay Packers when Kennedy was inaugurated. At the end of the 1961 season, the Packers reached the NFL championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Unfortunately, it looked as if they would be without three of their best players, including multi-talented star Paul Hornung, because they had been called to active Army duty because of the Cold War.

Boldly, Lombardi called the President and asked if he could give Hornung a dispensation just for the championship game. Kennedy did just that, arguing it was good for the nation’s morale or some such. Hornung, who died last week, scored a touchdown and kicked three field goals in the Packers’ 37-0 victory, the first of their four NFL titles.

Actually, JFK and Hornung would have gotten along well. Both were earthy men who appreciated bawdy jokes, beautiful women, and a couple of cocktails. The same could be said of JFK that once was said of Hornung – women wanted to be with him and men wanted to be like him.

Over these 57 years, I’ve often thought about what the world would be like today if President Kennedy had survived. I want to believe it would be a much better place, but maybe I’m wrong. All I know is that JFK represented the best and brightest of his generation. Our task today is finding the best and brightest of this generation, and future ones, and convincing them to seek careers in public service instead of Corporate America.

The JFK in my soul refuses to let me give up on America, no matter how many of our brethren seem to prefer a dictatorship to a democracy. The old black spiritual, “We Shall Overcome,” echoes in the recesses of my mind.

Someday we again will have a President who joyously plays touch football, or maybe women’s field hockey, on the White House lawn, bright sunshine forcing today’s darkness into the shadows of history.


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3 Comments

  1. Linda Ellingsworth says:

    Loved the article about President Kennedy, I think our world be better if he had lived. But hopefully with God help we can heal and move on. Just be kind to everyone, because All Lives Matter

  2. James Miller says:

    Thanks for the memories.

  3. Michael O'Daniel says:

    Those of us who are old enough will always remember where we were on Nov 22 1963.

    One tiny nit-pick: JFK was 46 when he died (43 when he was elected).

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