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Back Story: 'He was so young, no one expected him to die'

Sun reporter who wrote Kennedy obituary 50 years ago today recalls the assassination

By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

11:43 AM EST, November 22, 2013

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As Lee Harvey Oswald, sitting in a sixth-floor room of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, carefully aimed his rifle at President John F. Kennedy's motorcade and fired three times, Joseph R. L. Sterne, who covered the Senate for The Baltimore Sun and was assistant bureau chief in the newspaper's Washington bureau, was more than 1,000 miles away eating lunch at the press table in the Senate cafeteria.

It was 1:30 p.m., Nov. 22, 1963.

Merriman Smith, White House correspondent for United Press International who was riding in a pool car equipped with a mobile phone fourth from Kennedy's Lincoln Continental limousine, dictated the bulletin that stunned the world.

"Three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade in downtown Dallas," dictated Smith, two minutes before the president's car arrived at Parkland Hospital, where doctors made a desperate attempt to save the 46-year-old president's life.

That was 1:34 p.m..

Edward M. Kennedy was presiding over the Senate when Richard L. Riedel, a press liaison, whispered in his ear that his brother had been shot. He immediately left the chamber.

Sterne and his colleagues were still in the Senate cafeteria when news of the attack on the president arrived.

"It was about 1:35 p.m. Suddenly, everyone stood up and rushed out. There were lots of unpaid bills that day," Sterne, now 85, recalled the other day.

"I then rushed onto the Senate floor — that was permitted in those days for members of the Senate press gallery — and it was there that I encountered Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen," said Sterne, a Sparks resident.

The Senate took an emergency five-minute recess, as the UPI ticker and AP Teletype in the Senate lobby kept up a steady rhythm of bad news.

"It was Dirksen whom I heard ask the Senate chaplain how soon he could give a prayer. He answered, 'Five minutes.' At that time, it was around 1:40 p.m.; Kennedy had not been pronounced dead."

Mansfield then ordered the Senate back into session

Frederick Brown Harris, the Senate chaplain, asked everyone to stand for a moment of silence before intoning the prayer that Dirksen had requested.

"At that point, Kennedy was still alive," said Sterne.

"Our Father, thou knows that this sudden, almost unbelievable, news has stunned our minds and hearts. We gaze at a vacant place against the sky, as the president of the Republic, like a giant cedar green with boughs, goes down with a great shout upon the hills, and leaves a lonesome place against the sky," Harris prayed.

"We pray that in thy will his life may still be spared. In this hour, we cry out the words that were uttered in another hour of deep loss and bereavement: God lives! And the government at Washington still stands," he concluded.

"The big question at the moment was whether the president was dead or alive," Sterne said.

Pandemonium ensued as official word of the president's death at 2 p.m. swept the Senate floor and corridors.

"It was quite dramatic," recalled Sterne, who tried calling the Sun bureau in the National Press building at 14th Street N.W. but found the phone system "overwhelmed."

Sterne and three other reporters were able to flag down a taxi, and upon arriving at the National Press building, Sterne hastily made for the newspaper's office on the 11th floor.

Sterne told bureau chief Gerald E. Griffin that the news was "hard to believe."

"Gerry told me there was something else that was unbelievable: There was no advance obit for the president. He was so young, no one expected him to die," said Sterne.

Caught up in the "electricity and pressure of the moment," said Sterne, it was his task to do an appraisal of the president who had "served 34 months and 3 days," he wrote.

Armed with an Associated Press biographical sketch and a few reference books, Sterne sat down at his typewriter and began a marathon of writing — with much of it drawn from his memory — that commenced at 3 p.m.

As the clock edged toward 1 a.m., Griffin approached Sterne, and said, "'There is nothing more you can add; you better stop writing,'" recalled Sterne.

It ran nine columns on the front page. In the paper's first edition, the byline of "Joseph R.L. Sterne. Washington Bureau of The Sun" had been mistakenly omitted, and was later added for subsequent editions.

"It was the longest thing I've ever written," Sterne said.

By the time he had stopped typing, Sterne had smoked four packs of cigarettes and vowed to never smoke again, he said.

Sterne, along with other reporters, was in the Capitol Rotunda when Jacqueline and Caroline Kennedy entered at 2:17 p.m. Sunday and knelt at the catafalque holding the president's casket.

It was an unbearablly emotional moment in a weekend of emotional moments, he said, with many reporters who witnessed the grief-stricken scene dissolving into tears.

"Jackie whispered to Caroline, who put her hand under the flag, and then she and her mother kissed the flag," he recalled. "At that moment, we all lost our professional aplomb."

In addition to giving up smoking that evening, Sterne never read what he wrote that emotion-packed night 50 Novembers ago.

Sterne, who joined the newspaper in 1953, went on to be editorial page editor for 25 years and retired from The Sun in 1997.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.