Tornado Drills and John F. Kennedy’s Assassination

Blaring klaxons at Alma Schrader School

Just as I stepped out of the car in front of Alma Schrader School Friday morning, an ear-splitting alarm cut the air. “Wow, that’s some greeting,” I thought. “They’ve got the sensor on the StrangeCharacter-o’meter set just a little bit too sensitive.”

When I got inside, I saw little kids hunkered down in the hallway and teachers taking headcounts. I glanced out the window where the skies were gray, but not particularly threatening. “Tornado drill?” I asked a staffer. “It IS a drill, right?”

I was assured that it was merely a drill, something they practice several times a year. I hope it’s more effective than the Duck ‘n Cover exercises we did to prepare for nuclear blasts.

It was a productive visit. Principal Ruth Ann Orr, administrative assistant Stephanie Voil Depro and counselor Julia Unnerstall were a great help in matching names to faces in the photos I shot of the school’s 50th Anniversary Celebration March 11.

What does Alma Schrader have to do with JFK?

My memory is a funny thing. It’s full of old stuff waiting for some kind of electrical spark to flicker between it and something I encounter in Today’s World. When I looked out the door at the gray skies, I flashed back to a stormy Friday afternoon on November 22, 1963.

The American History teacher was droning on. We were waiting for the end of the day and the start of the weekend. The PA crackled to life and we looked out at the threatening clouds wondering if we were going to hear a tornado alert.

Principal Fred Wilferth announced that President John F. Kennedy had just been shot in Dallas, Texas. Not long after that came the bulletin that the President was dead.

The Missourian reported that Central High School “held a period of respect and remembrance [that began] at 2:45, lasting several minutes.”

“All you could hear was breathing”

Shortly after that, a television set with rabbit ears was wheeled into the gym, where shocked students watched the story unfold. As soon as I saw the scene, I called The Missourian and told Editor John Blue that I’d have something for him. That promise would soon come back to haunt me.


He said the paper was going to publish an EXTRA edition, but I’d have to hurry. They wanted the paper on the street by 6 p.m.

I ran up to the school darkroom, grabbed the Crown Graphic 4×5 camera and two holders of film. One side was empty, so that left me three shots. I didn’t see the school’s electronic flash, so I grabbed three old-fashioned flash bulbs on the way out the door.

Without getting too technical, the camera had to be set differently for each type of light. An electronic flash fires a very short burst of light, so the shutter has to be fully open when it goes off (that’s the X setting). A flashbulb ignites, then it gets progressively brighter until it dims out. That means it has to fire slightly before the shutter does so it is at maximum brightness when the shutter is open all of the way (that’s the M setting).

In my excitement, I didn’t notice that the camera was set for electronic flash. When I pulled the dripping film out of the fixer, my heart sank. It was almost blank. There was hardly any image on it at all. The flashbulb hadn’t had time to get to full brightness before the shutter closed.

Darkroom Magic

I knew I didn’t have time to reshoot the picture, even if the students were still around. I pulled out what meager little bag of magic darkroom tricks I had learned and managed to come up with a shot that made the paper.

It was the last time in my entire career that I ever told an editor that I had a picture before I saw it. You have to remember that my first Missourian news photo was published April 18 of that year. My credibility was on the line. You don’t tell someone to hold space in an EXTRA! unless you can deliver.

By the way, the “pupil” quoted as saying all he could hear was the sound of his fellow classmates breathing was me. The Missourian had this quaint style rule that you were a “pupil” until you were in college. Then you were promoted to “student.” I tried every way I could to get the style changed, but never succeeded.

Here’s a link to the EXTRA! edition. You’ll have to play around with the zoom settings on the page to be able to read it.

Polio Vaccine and Lee Harvey Oswald

I’ll publish all three photos, warts and all. In some ways, the dust spots, fingerprints and bad exposure makes the images feel more “real.” Or, that’s the excuse I’ll use.

My family and I went to Central High School on the Sunday after the assassination to get sugar cubes with drops of polio vaccine on them. When we got into the car to go home, we heard the news that Jack Ruby had shot Lee Harvey Oswald while he was being transferred from the jail to an interrogation room.

A change in the news business

The assassination, Oswald shooting and Kennedy funeral changed the way Americans would get the news. I know the The Palm Beach Evening Times put out an EXTRA! edition when the Challenger exploded. I’m pretty sure that was the last extra edition I ever worked on.

Radio and TV were much better equipped to handle breaking news. (I would argue that the 24-hour cable channels have mishandled breaking news in recent years with their obsession of staying live when there’s nothing going on.) The printed newspaper provided a keepsake and tangible proof that an event happened in a way that broadcasting couldn’t, but the Internet has essentially driven a stake through the heart of traditional media.

The screen shots, by the way, were taken off the Steinhoff family Zenith TV in our basement.

Innocence ended

JFK’s assassination was the first in a wave of killings and attempted killings: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan

None of us who lived through that era emerged untouched. If you don’t believe it, look how a tornado drill at an elementary school in my home town can give me a flashback to a Friday afternoon nearly half a century earlier.

Central High School Then and Now

Central High School for the 1965 Girardot yearbook

I shot this night-time photo of Cape Girardeau Central High School for the 1965 Girardot yearbook. About all I know about it is that it was taken on 4×5 film with the school’s Crown Graphic press camera mounted on a tripod.

Cape Central High School (now Junior High School) Oct. 13, 2009

I published these two photos on my bike blog back in October to show how easy digital photography is to do, but I should have put them up here, too.

When I shot the original Girardot photo, I had no idea until I got the film processed in the darkroom if I even HAD a photo. If the exposure had been off or if I had bumped the tripod, it would have meant setting up on another night to try again.

I shot the second photo with a Nikon D-40 DSLR

The second photo was taken Oct. 13, 2009, at 21:39:50 with a Nikon D40 SLR. The zoom lens was at 18mm (27mm in 35mm-speak). I underexposed the picture 1-1/3 f/stops, with an exposure of five seconds at f/5. The  “film” speed was ISO 200.

How do I know all of that? It’s easy. The camera records that info when you push the button. I shot exactly eight frames to get this picture. The exposure was OK on the first photo, just letting the camera do its thing, but I took a few more “insurance” shots at different settings to be on the safe side. The last photo is the one that had the best exposure and was sharpest. The best part is that I could look at the photo as soon as I took it to see if it looked good.

I underexposed the scene to keep from burning out the highlights. (It always easier to lighten shadows that are a little dark than it is to get detail back into the light areas if they are overexposed.) I picked a relatively slow film speed, which necessitated a five-second exposure, to have less “grain” or “noise.” Both photos required a little burning and dodging to take down highlights or bring out shadow detail.

Central High School looks pretty much the same today

Our 1965 Central High School has been converted to a junior high, there are a bunch of new trees in front of the building, and it looks like it’s air conditioned now.

I suspect the changes to the building are a lot fewer than the changes undergone by the photo staff that worked on the 1965 Girardot. I know I have a lot less hair to comb.

The photographers are, from left to right: Jim Stone, Ronald Dost, head photographer Ken Steinhoff, Skip Stiver, Joe Snell and Gary Fischer. It was taken in the Central High School darkroom sometime in 1964.

Our old darkroom is now a copy room

I was disappointed, although not surprised, to see that the room where students learned the magic of photography has been turned into a copy room. All of the plumbing and darkrooms at my old newspaper were ripped out five or more years ago now that digital photography has replaced silver film and paper prints.

The shelves that were behind us in the Girardot photo staff photo are still there, but our processing sink is gone and only the stubs of plumbing remain. I printed the spot news photo that launched a lifetime career in that room. Copy machine or not, there will always be a piece of me in there.

What are those strange symbols?

Any idea if the decorative brickwork above the door leading to the auditorium on the left means anything or if it’s just an accent to break up the otherwise dull brick wall?