It wasn't long after President Kennedy announced the debut of the Peace Corps in a middle-of-the-night speech to University of Michigan students that those same young people found themselves tasked with covering Kennedy's death. Here's how young reporters working for the Michigan Daily, the campus newspaper (of which I am a proud alum) covered one of the most pivotal stories of their generation.
By Anna Clark
One of the trickiest parts was to find type that was large enough.
Fifty years ago this fall, the college students that staffed The Michigan Daily printed one of the paper’s all-time biggest headlines.
The big block letters took up a full half-page of the special-edition broadsheet printed on Friday, November 22, 1963. A thick black border solemnly wrapped around the page.
It was one of the most significant news stories of the century, and it hit home for the young reporters in Ann Arbor, who scrambled to report it.
John Weiler, a news reporter studying zoology, was walking toward English class when somebody said Kennedy had been shot. Unsure what to do next, he continued to his lecture, where the teacher “spent an hour talking about what a terrible president he was.” As soon as class ended. Weiler “hightailed it to the Daily, because I wanted to know what was happening.” The news that the president had died came in shortly later over the flash – that is, the Teletype wire service at the Daily offices that provided news from, for example, Washington, D.C. and Dallas, Texas.
Mike Block, an associate sports editor, was a senior chemistry major. On that Friday in November, Block was, as usual, in the lab. “Someone came in with the news,” he said. “People knew he’d been shot and it was serious, but he hadn’t died yet.”
Everyone dropped what they were doing and left the lab hauntingly empty. “It’s hard to get interested in physical chemistry when something like that happens,” Block said.
Like Weiler, he ran right across campus to the Daily, where the usually playful office on Maynard Street was silent. “Everybody was numb,” he said.” They didn’t know what to say or do.” Kennedy, after all, was extremely popular at Michigan. Despite the memory of the student Republican group who had protested the night Kennedy was elected (“They were chanting something about us becoming a second-class country”), Block recalled that it was his freshmen year when the young president made his famous speech on the steps of the Michigan Union, announcing the creation of the Peace Corps. He estimated that ninety percent of the Daily editorial staff was pro-Kennedy. The campus atmosphere was one of “stunned disbelief. Not just disbelief, but almost a refusal to believe.”
Perhaps it was the sense of responsibility to the Ann Arbor community, or simply their ethic as emerging journalists, but the Daily staff shook off its collective gloom on November 22 and hurried into action: they were determined to release a special edition, rather than wait for the next day’s regular paper.
They put together the one-sheet extra. Weiler said “one of the things that was hard to do was to find type size big enough (for the headline), and make words that would fit. We had to figure out how to do it.” The staff did just that, and then hand-delivered the papers around campus and along State Street. This extra edition was free – at a time when the Daily charged seven cents for a copy of its regular daily paper.
“Oh my gosh, there were typos,” Block said of the special edition. “We were in a real hurry.” A mistake in the first run forced the staff to run it through the press again, taking the better part of the afternoon. Weiler said he still has a proof copy of that edition, swiped from the Daily’s in-house press.
By stepping up to the news story that reverberated around the globe, The Daily was building on its strong reputation as a reliable source of news, Block remembered. “You didn’t see a lot of people reading The Ann Arbor News; the Daily was where people got information,” he said. It wasn’t just students reading the student newspaper, but also faculty and Ann Arbor community members.
Weiler, too, remembers that the Daily was “well-respected” – though he’s amazed to think about what a different era it was for newspapers fifty years ago, before even the advent of color on the newsprint. (The first color photograph didn’t appear in the Daily until September 7, 1978.).
But in the wake of its Kennedy coverage, one point of criticism came through loud and clear: the big ads on the back page of the extra edition broadsheet. Underneath the news story of Kennedy’s death and Lyndon B. Johnson’s ascension to office, there was a large box urging readers to ‘Buy the 1964 Michigensian,’ and below that, an even larger box promoting the Daily’s subscription model. (“Subscriptions now $6.00, delivered.”) Some readers found these ads in poor taste for a paper specially made to issue same-day news on the assassination. In a letter published a few days later, community member Fred Katz wrote: “These ads took up almost. eight-tenths of the page. The inclusion of these or any other ads in this special extra edition strikes me as being in the poorest possible taste.”
While the extra edition took swift strategizing by the staff, it was the following editions where real reporting was called upon. One of the most significant stories on the Daily’s hands? Whether the Michigan-Ohio State football game, scheduled for the Saturday after Kennedy’s assassination would be canceled, postponed, or played. Weiler said that the uncertainty about the game “dominated the interests of many students.”
Block tackled the football story.
“We had to say something about the football game,” Block said. The stories that came through were a combination of the regular sort of football coverage – profiles of players, and the strengths and weakness of the teams – as well as features on the big question: would the game be played at all? Players, staff, and fans that had been planning on traveling to Columbus for the game were awaiting word.
But the Daily staff was getting mixed signals. Block said that student reporters were wearing out their fingers by dialing the phone and trying to get sources, acting from an ethic he suspects is still part of Daily life today – trying hard to get things right. But, on the day of the assassination of the president, “it was really hard to get information, both locally and nationally.”
The commissioners of the Big 10 were said to have left it to individual schools to decide whether to play football. While several Big 10 games were postponed or canceled, the Iowa-Notre Dame game was reportedly on, and Northwestern happened to have finished its season. The governor of Michigan, George Romney, weighed in and recommended that the games be postponed. After much hemming and hawing, the athletic directors at both Michigan and Michigan State finally decided to play their games, using the rationale that “it’s what JFK would have wanted.” (Block: “People say stuff like that. I don’t know where they get it.”)
“That’s all the information we had at deadline time,” Block said. After a debate in the sports department about what the headline should be for the article he wrote, they went with something simple for a front-page, above-the fold story: ‘M’, ‘OSU’ Still Set To Play.
But after the paper went to press late Friday evening for the Saturday edition, the decision was reversed – the Michigan-Ohio State game would not be played after all, and instead be postponed for the following Saturday, just after Thanksgiving. It turned out the university’s board of regents hadn’t been consulted in the decision, and they finally called the game off.
The postponement cost Block his last chance to cover a Michigan-Ohio State game as a Daily reporter. But in the “Chips” column he wrote for the Sunday edition of the Daily, he argued that it was for the best (despite the confusing decision-making process). “What would’ve the game been like? Would we have felt like cheering? What was the point?” he said.
Perhaps it was for the best that Block stayed home in Ann Arbor: Ohio State ended up besting Michigan 14-10, leaving the Wolverines with a decidedly modest 3-4-2 record for 1963.
In news coverage for the days following Kennedy’s death, the Daily supplemented Associated Press wire stories on the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald and the closing of the stock market with a feature by Gail Evans, associate city editor, on University President Harlan Hatcher’s decision to continue classes, while canceling on-campus events, including performances by the Gilbert and Sullivan Society and blues singer John Hammond, Jr. Evans noted that the University was “preparing a letter of sympathy to Mrs. Kennedy.” She also took the temperature of the mood on campus.
Reaction around the University has been in keeping with the atmosphere of national morning. The … all-campus dance was canceled last night. The Michigan Union called off this afternoon’s jazz program and evening’s dance. The Lawyers’ Club also cancelled its social function scheduled for tonight. The International Student Association postponed a dinner for Sunday evening, which was to be covered for a national magazine. …
After the news of Kennedy’s death was made public yesterday, many University professors dismissed classes. Last night, however, President Hatcher noted the importance of “carrying on.” He said that the country has a new President in Lyndon B. Johnson and that it must continue to function.
Later reporting focused on which campus events would be rescheduled and which would not. Not all made it back to the stage: the Men’s Glee Club canceled its joint concert with Ohio State’s Glee Club, and refunded tickets.
The editorial page of the Daily on Saturday, November 23 carried the first wave of a deluge of letters to the editor from the community that reflected the intensity of feeling. James La Palm, a graduate, wrote: “If you continue to live your life as you did yesterday, it will happen again … You have an obligation to change a world capable of such an act by changing your own life first.” Isaac Adalemo, ’65, wrote in to condemn the killing on behalf of the International Students Association. The letter from George A. White, ’65, suggested that, “(Kennedy’s) death symbolizes our own because he was alive in the place that we weren’t and never will be – inside.”
By Sunday, November 24, the Daily could report that the University was to join in on the National Day of Mourning on Monday– closing all classes, departments, and libraries for the day, and holding a memorial service in Hill Auditorium. Hatcher, it seemed, modified his earlier stance after Johnson asked the country to “pause in respect for the deceased chief executive.” Evans further reported that the St. Mary’s Student Chapel was holding an all-campus requiem mass for the president. In a box notice on the front page, the Daily alerted readers that it, too, was joining in on the day of mourning by closing its office and not producing a Monday edition.
One unusually creative entry in the Daily’s coverage came from former editor-in-chief Tom Hayden – or Thomas Hayden, as his byline read. Just a year before, Hayden was the principal author of the Port Huron Statement, the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society. He was the president of the SDS chapter in Ann Arbor. As a young reporter, he filed stories for the 1960 Democratic National Convention from Los Angeles, where Kennedy was nominated. Less than week after Kennedy’s death, on Wednesday, November 27, Hayden -- now a sociology graduate student at the University -- reviewed a play by Bertolt Brecht, written through the lens of the national tragedy. He was not much of a fan of the performance.
“Brecht on Brecht” was performed in a mournful Hill Aud. audience Monday night, and must be considered ultimately in its relation to the macabre assassinations of John Kennedy and Lee Oswald.
(Brecht) would attack an order which quietly assassinates meaning and new possibilities wherever they are dangerous to the current social system. (This performance’s) distortion of Brecht is part of the American tendency to smother conflict for the sake of an artificial consensus, a process which generates the very parodies of protest – crime, suicide, fantasy, delinquency – that occur in Dallas and, in less spectacular ways, daily in this society.
Why can’t we face matters just as they are, see the real Brecht as he was? Would not a society capable of that be freer of the poisons which illusions release?
Hayden, it turned out, learned of the Kennedy shooting while traveling on a plane to Minnesota for a student conference. The rumor on the flight, he told me, “was that the Cubans had done it.” When the plane landed, the pilot announced the president’s death to passengers. “A kid behind me in a Goldwater button, I’m not kidding, jumped up and celebrated,” Hayden said. Feeling “stricken and confused,” Hayden got on the next flight back to Michigan, where he holed up with friends to reflect and write about “what to do, how to act.”
Block graduated from the university the following spring. In a curious twist, his commencement speaker was President Lyndon B. Johnson. Just six months into office, and barely six more away from what would be a landslide presidential election, Johnson used his 1964 commencement speech to first announce his ‘Great Society’ reforms—namely, the pursuit of racial justice and the elimination of poverty. The following fall, Michigan football would break its four-game losing streak to Ohio State, on its way to winning the 1964 Rose Bowl.
Back on campus, Weiler returned to the day-to-day reporting for the Daily. “School newspapers fit a real niche,” he said. “It can’t be replicated.