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Fledgling journalist managed to talk his way into JFK history

By Dick Ahles

Publication: The Day

Published November 24. 2013 4:00AM

Fifty years ago tomorrow morning, I was in a white station wagon with a gaudy "WTC-TV3" written large on its doors, driving the governor of Connecticut from Washington's Shoreham Hotel to St. Matthew's Cathedral on Rhode Island Avenue to interview him before President Kennedy's funeral.

I was there helping the reporter, Stan Simon, and the photographer, the late Dick Heinze, cover Connecticut people who were in Washington to mourn the slain president.

The day before the funeral, I had been in a meeting with Paul Morency, the president of the Hartford radio and television stations, when Stan came by to tell the news director that Gov. John Dempsey and his wife Mary were going the funeral and he assumed we'd want to be there too. Stan and I had come to Channel 3 from The Courant the previous year. He would later return to print journalism, covering criminal justice issues for The New York Times, Washington Post and The Courant where he was also city editor. He would also later work at The Day. He's now retired and living in Groton. I was the station's information director, a fancy title for the guy who did publicity, but I was hoping to do news documentaries.

I volunteered to go along, noting I could drive the black and white film we shot to the airport and be generally useful, but Mr. Morency, as we called the boss in those more formal times, knew what I really had in mind.

"You want to be a part of history, don't you?," he asked. I admitted I did.

But before I could become part of history, I needed some traveling money in those pre-credit card days. With only $3 in my wallet, I asked him and the others if they had any cash and collected about $100.

After 50 years, I'm fortunate to still have a memo I wrote a few days after the funeral as a memory aid. Unfortunately, I didn't record what was said in our interviews because we had carefully stored all the film in a safe place and thought we'd always have first-hand accounts. But in the ensuing 50 years, the film disappeared.

What struck me then about the assignment and still does was the easy access we had to people and places, beginning with that drive to the cathedral. My notes bear it out:

"I was sure we'd be stopped at any moment by a policeman or MP but we weren't and I was able to park directly across the street from St. Matthew's. About 50 policemen watched as we set up our camera equipment without inquiring who we were or what we were doing but when the interview began, one asked me who was being filmed."

The cop had a name tag with an Irish name and "I told him it was Governor Jack Dempsey of Connecticut, the only Irish-born governor. The policeman said, 'Is he now' and walked away." We would end the day filming the governor a second time following an 8 p.m. meeting he and other governors had with President Johnson at the White House.

Throughout the day, "we were never asked to identify ourselves even though we were all over the Capitol." That included a memorable ride on the Senate subway with Sen. Tom Dodd, an early gun control advocate, who had a replica of the mail order rifle used by Lee Harvey Oswald wrapped in a newspaper.

We spent most of the day around the Capitol because most members of Congress were waiting there to be taken by bus to Arlington National Cemetery for the graveside service but our most moving story came, not from politicians, but from some children.

At one point, when we were parked at the east entrance of the Capitol, "I saw a three little girls with flowers, standing at the foot of the Capitol steps and thought there might be a story."

There was. Their father had driven all night to pay their respects to the President and the children were holding flowers that had fallen from the Kennedy casket as it was carried down the steps from the rotunda. Better yet for our purposes, they were from a place called East Hartford, Conn.

We also got some hard news. Late in the day, we were using Dodd's office to make phone calls - cell phones were far in the future - and when he returned from Arlington, "he told us Senate leaders were thinking about a quick adjournment that would postpone action on major Kennedy legislation until the next session."

It was the first indication of President Johnson's intention to push through a civil rights bill and other legislation in his predecessor's name in 1964 and "we had it on the air before anyone in the country. CBS didn't have it until 24 hours later."

Finally, late in the afternoon, we talked with John Bailey, the early Kennedy supporter who was rewarded with the party chairmanship. He was just back from Arlington and asked Stan to mention it "to explain this 1930s costume with the wide lapels," the morning coat and striped trousers he was wearing.

I said we could call him Mr. Farley - after Roosevelt's national chairman - and he smiled, maybe for the first time in four days he, or any of us, could.

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