By PAUL C. JAGNOW
Nov. 22, 1963, dawned with a chilly wind in Warren, location then of The Youngstown Vindicator’s two-man news bureau in the Automotive Building on Pine Avenue Southwest.
That said, blustery weather is no stranger throughout Northeast Ohio just about any time of year, and Warren is no exception. To this day, just to hedge my bets, I still toss one of my shooting jackets in the back of the Jeep regardless of the season.
Technically, in 1963, we correspondents reported to work at 8 o’clock, but more often than not, we were on hand by 7:30 a.m., and sometimes even earlier.
The bureau chief, Fred T. Kearney, and I, a 23-year-old shavetail reporter, split the morning rounds. Fred took the Warren police and fire departments, and I sifted through crime reports at Sheriff Bob Barnett’s headquarters across High Street from the county courthouse, which also happened to be my beat.
If he happened to be about, I would sometimes kill a few minutes next door talking with Dan O’Conell, who taught me history at Austintown Fitch but served the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Department in his spare time as a gifted cruiser mechanic.
Dan wasn’t around Friday, Nov. 22, which was probably good, as that particular Friday was shaping up as a busy one, like most other Fridays, when the Warren team not only had to meet the 11 a.m. story deadline for Friday’s Trumbull edition but also polish articles in gestation for the Saturday and Sunday issues, which had a sizable readership in Trumbull County.
As the courthouse reporter, my responsibilities extended beyond criminal trials to meetings of the county commissioners and other officeholders involved in newsworthy undertakings.
On Nov. 22, 1963, for example, the three commissioners had reserved an available courtroom in which to have a public hearing on a sewer project. Such improvement projects were frequent then.
After lunch, Fred went his way, and I went mine to the commissioners’ hearing and secured a seat in the courtroom’s third row. Unlike many such hearings, that particular one drew a sizable gathering of residents to devise and dissent.
The 1 o’clock hearing convened as scheduled, but its duration was brief. In the early stage of the debate, a courtroom functionary peeked in from the adjacent anteroom to the courtroom and motioned to Roy Stillwagon, chairman of the board of commissioners. Roy excused himself to hear the employee’s problem out of earshot. He wasn’t gone long.
Returning to the hearing location, Stillwagon, gentlemanly, silver-haired and silver-tongued, called the gathering to order.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he declared. “It pains me to report that the President of the United States has just been shot! This hearing is hereby adjourned!”
As expected, the hearing attendees were flabbergasted, as was this reporter. My immediate objective was to hasten to The Vindicator’s Warren office in hope of gaining a clearer understanding of the Dallas catastrophe and who was responsible.
Foremost in my mind was John F. Kennedy’s October campaign parade through Warren, which was the closest I would ever get to see John F. Kennedy.
I wish I could have been wrong.
When I left the probate courtroom after adjournment of the commissioners’ hearing, I was surprised to find many of the attendees milling around the courthouse corridors, apparently trying to console one another and come to grips with an attack that cried to heaven for rational explanation. Somber clusters of Trumbull Countians spoke in whispers — as if to do otherwise would border on heresy.
Leaving the courthouse for the two-block trek to the office, I asked myself, “Where do I go from here?”
What do I write to help enlighten and reassure The Vindicator’s readership in the midst of a national calamity playing out hundreds of miles southwest of us and, at this point, defying rational explanation. Somehow, I reasoned, there must be a way to define President Kennedy’s worth to the American people in general, and Vindicator readers in particular — if only the euphoria of his campaign visits to Youngstown and Warren.
Back at The Vindy’s bureau, I called our editor, Bob McGill, in Youngstown to tell him what I had to report from the day’s abortive hearing by the Trumbull County commissioners. Bob warned me that with President Kennedy’s assassination and related developments, space in Saturday’s issue would be in short supply. In other words, keep it short.
Because the hearing was cut short by the assassination, keeping it short wasn’t any hardship.
By the time I finished my hearing article and transmitted it by Teletype to the paper’s Youngstown headquarters, my bureau partner, Kearney was coming through the door with his own idea of what we should feature on President Kennedy in the Saturday paper: The story about the guy whose life John Fitzgerald Kennedy saved in the Pacific theater of World War II.
The only catch? The availability of Daniel J. Russell for an interview.
Fred reached for the phone.
Russell, an optometrist, was indeed available, and willing to talk to us.
His story was compelling, as one would expect from a man whom Kennedy rescued in his patrol torpedo boat from a shell-pocked island during World War II.
The president’s death came about, Dr. Russell said, because “he never placed his own well-being above his sense of duty for his fellow man.”
Dr. Russell said he believed the president considered himself first, last and always a public servant.
Lt. Kennedy’s boat plucked Marine Sgt. Russell and his company from a small island in The Solomons shortly after Kennedy returned to duty after the sinking of his PT-109.
Dr. Russell and Kennedy renewed their acquaintanceship during the 1960 election campaign when the presidential candidate made a swing through the area in October.
“I am sure President Kennedy would attach no more importance to his own death than to the deaths of those who lost their lives in World War II, in Korea or even in the brush fire battles of Vietnam today,” Dr. Russell told us for a story published on Nov. 23, 1963.
Who could ask for something more pertinent and timely than that?