Martinsville Bulletin, Inc.
P. O. Box 3711
204 Broad Street
Martinsville, Virginia 24115
Toll Free: 800-234-6575
Former newspaper worker recalls hectic, shocking day
In November 1963, David Woodall was 19 years old, working at his first full-time job in the composing room at the
Martinsville Bulletin. Woodall was working the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. At left, Woodall displays copies of the Martinsville Bulletin and other publications he’s saved from the days following the Kennedy assassination. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
On Nov. 22, 1963, at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while his motorcade traveled through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas.
In Martinsville, it was 1:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, and David Woodall was helping put the finishing touches on the Friday edition of the Martinsville Bulletin, just a half hour before the evening issue was to go to press.
Woodall, 69, is a Stuart native who lives in Roanoke. In November 1963, he was 19 years old, working his first full-time job in the composing room at the Bulletin.
At that time, Woodall “was a printer’s apprentice. I proofed the type. I carried it to the proofreader, and when the corrections were made in the galleys (the metal tray into which rows of type were laid and tightened into place), I put in the corrections and put it in the proper place.”
Before computers became widespread, Woodall said, the industry standard for assembling newspapers was the linotype machine. Text was typed into the machines on a keyboard, and the machines cast a line of metal type. The lines were assembled into the story, and the stories were assembled into the page. In that way, newspapers were assembled line-by-line.
In those days, Woodall said, Associated Press wire stories arrived through a teleprinter that emitted yellow strips of tape, about one inch wide. The strips had different combinations of six holes punched in them. When the strips were fed into another machine, it translated the punched holes into text and printed out a copy of the AP story.
That afternoon, Woodall was correcting type before the paper went to press when then-editor Kay Thompson stepped into the composing room, waving his arms.
“‘Hold everything,’” Woodall recalls Thompson saying. “‘The president’s been shot.’”
At that point, Woodall said, they pulled the previous lead story from the front page of the Bulletin and began replacing it with The Associated Press story on Kennedy’s assassination. Every few minutes, he said, the Bulletin would receive an updated version of the story from the AP.
Woodall remembers confusion.
“Nobody knew what to do,” he said. “I didn’t think (Kennedy) was killed. He wasn’t dead right then, but they announced later that he was dead. In those days, you didn’t hear things like that. We didn’t know what was going on.”
Almost immediately, however, theories began to spring up around the composing room.
“A lot of the older folks,” Woodall said, “they thought that it was something to do with Russia taking over the country. We had very strained relations with Russia. It was an uncertain time. The government was probably more stable then than it is now, but people didn’t know what to expect.”
Many of the older employees, Woodall said, wondered aloud if America was about to be bombed by Russia.
When the Friday edition finally went to press, Woodall remembers coming upstairs into the Bulletin front office and, to his surprise, finding it packed with people standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
“It was just frantic, sort of like Black Friday,” he said. “People were stopping, coming in from all directions and wanting a paper. You know, you didn’t have the Internet, you didn’t have anything like that. You had the paper or the TV, and they thought, well, maybe the paper’s got more than the TV’s got.”
Woodall remembers plenty of tears that day. That weekend, the area dance clubs closed, and restaurants unplugged their jukeboxes out of respect.
Kennedy stands out in Woodall’s mind, he said, because Kennedy was president while Woodall was a senior in high school. In a way, he said, Kennedy was the first president of his adult life.
When Kennedy successfully ran for president against Richard Nixon in 1960, Kennedy loomed large.
“He was charismatic,” Woodall said. “He was more relaxed. I just think President Kennedy carried himself better.”
In those days, Woodall said, far more than today, “The presidential office was respected. The president was somebody that the people looked up to. People liked President Kennedy ... it was just an ideal family.”
Now, Woodall said, presidential candidates appear on late-night talk shows and crack jokes, and programs such as “Saturday Night Live” poke fun at the president at every turn. Up through Kennedy’s presidency, the president and the first lady were treated with more respect, he said.
Despite the passage of 50 years, Woodall’s memory of that November day remains clear.
“It seemed like to me, driving home, I just didn’t know what to expect next,” he said. “Nobody ever experienced anything like that before.”