By GUY D’ASTOLFO
Sid Davis had a front-row seat to one of the most remarkable periods in the history of this — or any — nation.
The Youngstown native was the Washington bureau chief for NBC News in the 1960s. He was there for the swearing-in of President John F. Kennedy, covered Kennedy’s assassination and witnessed the subsequent transfer of power to Lyndon B. Johnson aboard Air Force One.
“I couldn’t have chosen a more exciting time to cover the White House,” said Davis in a phone interview Monday from his Bethesda, Md., home.
Davis will speak about his experiences at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at W.D. Packard Music Hall in Warren as part of the Trumbull Town Hall lecture series. It’s great timing because the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination is Nov. 22, and interest is running high.
Davis called the Kennedy assassination “the defining story of my life.”
As a reporter, he was in the presidential motorcade when Kennedy was shot in Dallas in 1963.
“I never really could get over the fact that I was there,” Davis recalled, still awed at the historic magnitude of the moment. “It was tragic, but also a story of great courage and patriotism,” he said.
Two hours after the assassination, Davis was present for the swearing-in of Johnson as the 36th president aboard Air Force One.
“I was aboard the airplane watching the transfer of power, watching the Constitution truly work, with the casket holding Kennedy two compartments away,” he said. “There has been nothing that remarkable in American history.
“Johnson was calm, resolved and deliberate, and he did what he had to do,” Davis added. “Mrs. Kennedy was very courageous to suffer what she had just went through and then to stand with the new president as he took the oath. It was a symbol of the continuity of this country. Both performed amazingly that day.”
Davis grew up on the South Side of Youngstown, and his father owned and operated New York Bakery on Glenwood Avenue. He graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School and then enlisted in the Navy in the years after World War II. When he returned, he went to Ohio University and earned his degree in journalism.
His career began in 1952 at WKBN-TV (Channel 27) in Youngstown, covering city hall, police and crime. It was Youngstown’s heyday, and his beat was an active one.
“I came back to Youngstown because I figured it was as good a town as any to learn journalism,” he said. “You are not going to learn journalism in Pleasant Valley. You have to be where there are urban problems and political problems.”
Davis recalled having morning coffee in the old Ohio Hotel restaurant — which was across the street from the police station — with underworld figures who were being hunted by the police.
In 1959, he got his break and went to Washington as a reporter with Westinghouse Broadcasting. Before long, he was working for NBC News.
His first assignment was to travel with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev when he came to America. “I was very green,” he recalled.
At Wednesday’s lecture, Davis said he will talk about what happened the day Kennedy was killed.
He will not address the conspiracy theories that surround the assassination because he doesn’t believe them.
“The evidence is so clear,” he said. “There was not a smidgen of evidence [of a conspiracy]. Oswald bought the rifle, his fingerprints were on it and the shell casings were on the floor in the room he shot from, and people saw the rifle sticking out of the window. He was a loner, and there was no getaway car; he had no assistance from anyone.”
The Warren Commission Report also concluded there was no evidence of a conspiracy, and Davis agrees, despite conflicting opinions that persist to this day.
“When I lecture, it’s amazing how many people there weren’t even alive when Kennedy was president,” he continued. “His magnetism lives on because he was such an inspiring figure. The country was excited when the young Kennedy family came to the White House. He was a Navy hero who saved some lives. If you were in his presence you would have felt his energy. He was a remarkable young man, always upbeat.”