Where I was on the day President Kennedy was shot

Pub date November 22, 2013
SectionBruce Blog

By Bruce B. Brugmann

On Nov. 22, 1963, I was a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal, a famous MIlwaukee daily newspaper always rated among the top ten U.S. newspapers.

I was packing with my wife Jean and two kids, Katrina and Dan, to go to San Francisco with the idea of starting a newspaper, which three years later became the San Francico Bay Guardian.  But I was still on duty in the Journal newsroom on the  Friday morning of the assassination. 

Early in the morning I got a call from the publicist of the Moscow Circus, which was finishing up its highly successful run in town. I had covered the circus as part of my show business beat and had rated it highly as the splendid show it was. The publicist, a good guy and competent at his job, wanted me and the Journal’s music critic, Walter Monfried, to go with him to lunch at a nearby German restaurant called Mader’s.

“I will buy the lunch,” he said, ‘”and you won’t have to write a thing.  You will be doing me a big favor.  I have lots of money left over on my expense account and I need to get it spent.  I want to spend it on the two of you.” And he repeated the point  for emphasis, “You will be doing me a big favor.”

And so Walter and I, after our noon deadlines on the afternoon paper, headed out for Mader’s,  planning for a big meal and lots of drinks.

We had a couple of drinks and ordered some German specialties of the house and settled in for a long lunch. Word of Kennedy’s death came to Milwaukee at 12:49 p.m. on Nov. 22, but Walter and I got the news by special messenger. Suddenly, Gus Mader, the proprietor, broke the lunch decorum by running around the room carrying a little sign.  “Kennedy’s been shot, Kennedy’s been shot,” he said in an excited voice.”Kennedy’s been shot.” Ane he kept running around the restaurant with the message.

I looked at Walter and said, “Walter, you know Gus. Can he be believed?”   Walter replied, “Yes, he can.  Kennedy’s been shot.”

We quickly finished our meals and did what newspeople do in the news business when disaster and a big story breaks.  We immediately went  back to the Journal newsroom.

It was pandemonium but functional pandemonium. The staff had only minutes to make the final deadline on the afternoon edition. Someone called downstairs to the press room,  nobody knows who, to yell “stop the presses” All the wires were pumping out copy relentessly,  AP, UPI, sports, regional wires, all of them. Our ace reporters had already been dispatched to the scenes, Bob Wells to Dallas and Harry Pease to Washington. Editors were conferring with reporters. Reporters were on the phones or typing furiously on their typewriters. Ruth Wilson was handling the mountains of material streaming in from the wires. The city desk was organzing local coverage and reaction followups and coverage from our Washington bureau. Things were tense and the air crackled but I was amazed at how efficiently and professionally the paper moved along.

The assassination was of particular moment for the Journal and its talented staff. They liked Kennedy and his politics and had a special personal and political affection for him. J. Donald Ferguson, the Journal editor sitting on the Pulitzer Prize board  in 1957, was responsible for the choice of Kenendy’s book, “Profiles in Courage,” to be given a Pulitzer for the best biography.  “The book had not been considered by the other judges until Ferguson won them over, telling the board he had read it aloud to a 12-year-old relative, “‘and the boy was absolutely fascinated,'” according to a Journal history.

Kennedy had visited the Journal newsroom during the crucial 1960 Wisconsin primary and was friendly with many of its reporters and editors and his administration hired some Journal staffers, including Ed Bayley, former star political reporter  and later founding Dean of the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism  The  Journal warmly endorsed him during the primary and general elections. Kennedy was a welcome change after the Journal’s famous battles during the 1950s with its native son Joe McCarthy and the national scourge of  McCarthyism.

The story made the final edition and then there were other extras, with huge “EXTRA ! EXTRA !” at the top of the front page. When the first of l00,000 copies of an extra rolled off the presses with more details, the Journal lobby was jammed with people waiting to buy papers.

The  Journal rose to the occasion magnificently, put out a special edition on deadline, and produced some of the nation’s best coverage of the assassination and funeral of any paper in the country.  We were all sad about Kennedy but very proud of our newspaper. . b3