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Catonsville resident honors memories of JFK assassination 50 years later

By Julie Baughman, jbaughman@tribune.com

6:00 AM EST, November 5, 2013

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Almost every American who was alive when it happened can remember exactly where they were, who they were with and what they were doing on Nov. 22, 1963, when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

Catonsville resident Gus Russo recognized this phenomenon and — in partnership with Tom Brokaw and NBC — has filmed a documentary and written a book chronicling the stories of American citizens and where they were on that fateful day.

Kennedy was riding in a presidential motorcade with his wife, Jacqueline, Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife, Nellie, in Dallas when, at about 12:30 p.m., he was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald. He died later that day at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.

"It was such an incredibly dramatic moment for those of us who lived through it," said Russo, 64. "It's burned into our cortex, every detail of where we were."

Russo was a student at Mount St. Joseph High School when Kennedy was shot. He still has vivid memories of that fateful day 50 years later.

"I was in the hallway before eighth period, Mr. Hall's biology class," he said. "Just going down the hall and there was this whisper, 'Did you hear? Kennedy's been shot. The president's been shot.'

"We go into biology class and the principal came over the intercom," Russo said. " 'The president has been shot.'

"It was the worst thing. The principal told everybody to pray," he said. "We went to our homeroom and then the announcement came that he was dead.

"A room full of boys and half of them were crying, sobbing," he said.

Russo, a renowned author and documentary film maker, has spent more than 20 years researching and writing books on the Kennedys and organized crime.

In 1993, for the 30-year anniversary of Kennedy's death, he was one of two leading reporters on the documentary "Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?"

He is also the author of "Live by the Sword: The Secret War Against Castro and the Death of JFK." The book went on sale Nov. 5.

Earlier this year, as the 50th anniversary of the event approached, Russo got a call from his friend and long-time 60 Minutes producer, Harry Moses.

"He said 'What are we going to do for the 50th?' " Russo said.

Moses asked Russo where he was when he heard the news in 1963 and, with that, the "Where Were You?" documentary was born.

"It just kind of came up haphazardly," Russo said.

Once Russo was partnered with NBC and Brokaw, he only had about four weeks to gather his research before the team's first filming in New Orleans.

"It was a very quick thing," he said. "I had no time, by comparison to other projects, to do the research that I wanted to do."

Luckily, he had almost 25 years worth of research and sources from previous projects. As interviews for the documentary progressed, Russo felt there was something missing.

"It's really tough to do something like this in a very short time," Russo said. "With any of these [documentary] shows, you film people for an hour and you use about eight seconds. It's frustrating having an hour of great material whittled down to a few seconds, especially something as emotional as this."

So Russo and Moses struck up a deal to publish transcripts of the full interviews in a book, in order to do the extensive, often heartfelt, interviews justice.

"That's part of the reason for doing the book," Russo said. "To explain to people who weren't born why it was so important to us.

"I'm going to do a project about what it was like to live through it," he said. "It's a very big deal, because I don't think there's anything that could happen today that would be comparable."

Russo compared Kennedy's presidency to something of a fantasy. When he was killed, that illusion was not the only thing shattered.

"Before Kennedy came along, in the world of the 1950s, everything was gray and black and white and was run by very old people," Russo said. "It was just boring and a different world.

"His [Kennedy's] inauguration was the first one in color," Russo said. "He was gorgeous. He looked like a movie star. His wife looked like the most beautiful woman you'd ever seen. It would be like, today, having Brad Pitt and Angelina [Jolie] as the president and first lady," he said.

"And then all of a sudden he gets his head blown off and you're back to LBJ, another old politician," Russo said. "It was jarring."

George Derek Musgrove, assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, agreed with Russo that nothing in modern day history — except perhaps the terrorist attacks of 9/11 — has had a comparable impact on the American people.

He said the invention of television also played a big role in the impact the event had on the public.

"It was almost entirely a TV event," Musgrove said.

"Large numbers of Americans saw the motorcade and the fatal shot, his wife scrambling out of the car and much of his funeral was on TV live. That in and of itself was a remarkable departure from past political events," he said. "There was both a national trauma, and a national attempt to come to terms with what had just happened.

"It was the only assassination of a modern American president," he said. "The last assassination [before Kennedy] was [William] McKinley in 1900 and you don't even have the radio announcing it to everyone then.

"Everyone has come to the understand that the event was so jarring, and so important that anyone that was alive when it happened can say exactly where they were when it happened," Musgrove said.

Russo's documentary is scheduled on NBC Friday, Nov. 22.