© 2024 Ideastream Public Media

1375 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44115
(216) 916-6100 | (877) 399-3307

WKSU is a public media service licensed to Kent State University and operated by Ideastream Public Media.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

WKSU and the aftermath of John F. Kennedy's assassination

Bob Woods (right) watches as a casket draped in the American flag is pulled on a horse-drawn caisson as people line the street to pay their respects.
Dave McLean/Ted Ressler
Bob Woods (right) was a WKSU reporter in 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated. He and three colleagues managed to get access to the funeral procession on Nov. 25, to file news reports.

Bob Woods was a junior at Kent State University on Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Days later, as the 35th president was laid to rest, Woods and three other students from the university’s student-run station, WKSU, made their way to Washington, D.C., to cover the funeral.

The images from Dallas, of Walter Cronkite breaking down during a news bulletin announcing the president had died, and of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in reflect the horror and confusion which gripped America 60 years ago.

Three days later, the sound of Woods and friend Bob Baker conveyed the somber atmosphere in the capital.

Bob Woods describes the horse-drawn caisson and procession at the funeral of President Kennedy

‘Something religious’

“I was in the shower in the dorm at Johnson Hall,” Woods recalled of the day Kennedy was shot. “You hear instantly when something like that happens, of course, and I threw some clothes on and ran for the station.”

Woods remembered bursting into the control room with wire copy and asking the engineer on-duty to play “something religious.”

“He grabbed the first thing he saw,” he said “It was ‘Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’ We quickly got that turned around and we started playing religious music in between the bulletins as they came in.”

At the time, WKSU was only on-air a few hours a day, playing classical music with news bulletins under the direction of professor John Weiser.

“We had no network,” Woods said. “There was no NPR or anything like that. We got on the phone with WGAR, which had a network affiliation, and asked if we could rebroadcast their network coverage. They said yes, so that that took the weight off of us.”

Woods, Baker, Ted Ressler and Dave “Bucky” McLean took off for the capital a few days later armed only with a letter of introduction from Weiser.

‘Women wept. Men wept.’

"We arrived about 4:00 in the morning," Woods said. "A friend of a friend lived in Washington and was working for the U.S. map service or something. He picked us up and took us to WRC where Hugh Downs was doing the 'Today' show. Hugh Downs was from Lima. And so was Bob Baker."

Although the veteran NBC anchor was skeptical that the students could get access to the funeral, Downs gave them directions to the White House press area.

Bob Baker on the aftermath of the funeral

"We did something you could never do today," Woods said. "We walked up to the White House gate and told the guards we wanted to cover the event. They gave us passes and directed us to the West Wing press room. When the procession arrived from the Capitol, we walked outside and stood on the edge of the driveway right behind the ceremonial flags, mere feet from world leaders who were walking behind the caisson which carried the casket. An unforgettable experience to be sure."

Woods said that even a year later, such a feat would have been impossible due to heightened security.

"We actually got up to the steps," he said. "Then the pool camera people started complaining about us being in the way, so we backed off of that."

What followed was a day of interviews, reporting and using pay phones to file reports for their station in Ohio.

"It was somber," he said. "I mean, there we are, standing, as Charles de Gaulle and all the leaders of the free world walked behind the funeral caisson. We were certainly awed by the whole thing. And then we went out to dinner and turned around and started back."

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.