SARANAC LAKE - Fifty years ago today, Howard Riley was working in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise newsroom. It was 1:30 p.m. Eastern time when President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, and it was a little after 2 o'clock when the bell started to ring on the Associated Press wire machine.
The machine spat out state, national and world news on narrow strips of perforated paper. It would ring when there was an urgent news bulletin, although that didn't mean the Enterprise should necessarily drop everything to fit it in. This time, though, yes.
That afternoon's paper was mostly laid out, almost ready to be printed. Back then the paper usually hit the streets around 3 p.m.
Howard Riley talks about working in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise newsroom on the day President John F. Kennedy was shot, Nov. 22, 1963. In front of him is a copy of that day’s paper.
(Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)
"Peter (Cox, the editor) was downstairs putting together page 1 with the printer," Riley said. "The bell started ringing on the Associated Press machine, and I went over, and it was like two sentences - and then it stopped. And I read it. It said, 'President Kennedy was shot in the hand' - is what I read.
"Then it stopped, and the bell started ringing again. They started to put a new lead on it. ... It stopped again, after about three sentences. And then the bell would ring and it started a new lead, because they were trying to get the story out to all the papers.
"It was the third time that it started before I read 'head.' It just had to be a denial thing. I was so relieved; I said, 'Shot in the hand. I can't imagine how he got shot in the hand.' And the third time I read it I said, 'Oh, my God. He was shot in the head.'"
Riley spread the alert to the guys setting the pages in hot lead type, and for the next while the Enterprise staff "tore down" page 1 - leaving only part of one column of local news briefs - and replaced it with assassination coverage the AP wire machine churned out. There was the main story, another on the speech Kennedy was supposed to give in Dallas, a biographical piece titled "John F. Kennedy Was the Youngest President in American History," a sidebar of "latest bulletins," photos of Kennedy, Texas Gov. John Connally and president-to-be Lyndon Johnson - who hadn't been sworn in as of press time - and this brief front-page editorial, headlined, "The president is dead":
"The Enterprise staff stood stunned at a little after 2 p.m. today as the first announcement came that John F. Kennedy was dead. We were joined by millions of Americans around the world in our sorrow.
"It is hard to believe that it could happen, although it has happened before.
"Our reaction was at first one of disbelief; when the full realization of the events came upon us, we were stunned.
"At this time, we can only join in prayer for a man who felt it was his duty to dedicate his life to his country."
The other 11 pages of the paper remained unchanged.
"To redo a page then was quite a job," Riley said.
Jim Bishop was one of the composing room staffers who redid that front page, and he also had a motor route delivering the paper. Even though it was late that day, "We were probably the first paper in the country - one of the first - that had the thing out on the newsstands," he said.
Kennedy meant a great deal to the Enterprise leadership at the time. While Saranac Lake was a largely Republican town, co-owners Roger Tubby and James Loeb were longtime Democratic Party activists who, at the time of the assassination, were actually employed by the Kennedy administration in foreign diplomatic roles: Tubby in Switzerland and Loeb in Guinea.
Cox and Riley were also active in the party: Cox had helped a Democrat campaign to be governor of Maine, and Riley had just been elected that month as a Democratic village trustee. (He would become mayor the next year.)
Also, Cox was in his mid 20s and Riley in his early 30s, so they identified with the young president. In a front-page editorial titled "The young generation" that Monday, Nov. 25, Cox wrote, "We admit that our objective analysis of everything John Kennedy did was tinted by emotion. We felt very much that he represented us; readers of this editorial must recognize the fact that it represents feelings toward a 'young' president by a young man."
Ten months later, when the Warren Commission published its investigative report on the assassination, Cox bought Riley one of the first copies that arrived at the local bookstore.
"He walked into my office and said, 'Here, you're so obsessed,'" Riley said. "I was obsessed with this. I read everything."
"I was so thrilled with the guy," Riley said of Kennedy. "I just loved him, as a lot of people did. My family, like everybody else's did, had a picture of Kennedy on the living room wall next to the picture of the pope - especially with the Irish Catholics. I didn't ever miss of a newscast of his because he was so witty and he wasn't uptight about them asking any kind of question they wanted to ask."