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.

6 Replies to “Tornado Drills and John F. Kennedy’s Assassination”

  1. My first Extra! edition was 9/11. My second (and last) was the Shuttle Columbia blowing up. The teamwork and logistics necessary to get from ‘something goes kaboom’ to the slap of the paper hitting the driveway in four hours instead of 24 is a modern miracle and far more impressive than sending electrons down the intertubes.


  2. While some things change, some things never change.

    Probably everyone has memories of the tornado drill and fire drill. I did them as a “pupil” at Puxico where I grew up. However, today’s students have added the earthquake drill and the intruder drill. I had to laugh as I was checking the halls during the drill to have students literally begging to do the intruder drill…I guess the element of controlled danger makes it a popular drill.

    I was only two when JFK was shot, so I don’t carry that memory. My mother certainly does as she was a teacher at Puxico at the time. Like you, she can also remember vividly that Sunday when Ruby was shot as she was playing the piano for church and came home to have my father tell her about it. She thought he was playing some type of joke when he said he watched in on TV.

    However, 9-11 is that watershed moment in time for many of us. I’ve thought about it a lot because I was also teaching when the Challenger disaster happened. While Challenger was tragic, it seems to me to have been a terrible accident. 9-11, like the JFK shootings, seems to have been one of those times when you realize that evil, pure evil, exists in the world. We want to pretend we hold it at bay and can prevent it or, at bare minimum, control it…but as I tried to sleep that night, I realized exactly how powerless I really was in protecting my children.

    Mayor Knudtson alluded to our Constitution Day assembly that Schrader holds each year. We established that in 2002 to recognize our community heroes in deference to those heroes who responded in the wake of 9-11. My secretary and I observed that after this year’s third grade class leaves Schrader, none of the children in the building will have even been born when 9-11 occurs. That memory is still so vivid to me…but time marches relentlessly onward.

  3. I’m going to have to share my Challenger story, even if it contains one of the more embarrassing quotes of my career.

    Background: the paper I worked for in West Palm Beach was owned by Cox Enterprises. It was actually two papers: The Evening times, which was an afternoon, very conservative paper, and The Palm Beach Post, a liberal morning paper. Each paper had its own writing and editing staffs, but they shared advertising, photo and production departments.

    I was director of photography at the time.

    The two papers had just merged staffs, but they were maintaining the fiction of being two publications until The Post gobbled up The Times.

    The education writer of The Evening Times had gotten credentials to cover the Challenger launch before the merger because of the teacher in space angle.

    The Post city editor (somewhat miffed because HIS education writer had shown enough initiative to get accredited) told The Times education writer that he wasn’t going to send her to the launch. “We’ll just send a photographer.”

    That was a phrase that got under my skin, and I thought the Times writer was getting a raw deal, so I said, “If it’s not worth sending a writer, then it’s not worth sending a photographer. Besides,” I said, in a sentence that would haunt me, “these things are getting so routine that I might as well send somebody out to the airport every afternoon to shoot Delta taking off twice a day.”

    A few days later, I’m was in my windowless office when I heard a deputy radio dispatch to ask if they had any reports of unusual smoke trails in the sky. She told him about the shuttle explosion.

    I raced to the roof of our building, where the swirling smoke trails were clearly visible, some 200 miles from us.

    We scrambled resources and managed to get out an EXTRA! edition of The Evening Times, the last one before it disappeared for good.

    When I saw the explosion video, I remarked to someone, “That’s not a bad way to go, just a big flash of light and it’s over.” It wasn’t until much later that we learned that at least some members of the crew survived the blast and were probably alive during the long plunge into the ocean.

    Some time after that, I went to the Cape to photograph the burial of the shuttle debris in some of the abandoned rocket silos on the base.

    It’s quite common for us to be able to watch shuttle launches from our front yard in West Palm Beach. I never get over the little shiver I get when I hear the phrase, “Go at throttle up” about 73 seconds after liftoff.

    Here’s some accounts of shuttle launches we’ve seen:

    (That one has video of a launch.)

  4. The day JFK was shot I was in History class at the Junior High (the old one) in Cape. When it was announced to us, I thought someone was making a very bad joke. I remember all of us looking at one another with these incredulous looks…it couldn’t be true. Of course, when reality set in, and we knew it was not a joke…we were all dumbfounded and totally silent. I think the entire Jr High was completely silent. Until JFK’s funeral was over, our TV at home stayed on. I can still see that little boy saluting his father’s coffin being pulled by horse-drawn carriage and Jackie with her face veiled in black holding his hand. It seemed like the funeral procession would never end, and the horse’s hooves clop-clopping still echoes in my mind. I admired Jackie’s ability to remain stoic through all that. Those who were old enough to remember that dark time can probably still hear the Battle Hymn of the Republic that was playing:
    Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
    He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
    He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
    His truth is marching on.
    Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
    Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.

  5. Ken, you definitely have a super talent with words!

    You certainly have captured so many historical events starting a very young age. We are blessed to have your historical reports!
    Keep sharing!

    Mary Seabsugh Francis

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