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Memory fades, but some memories linger

It was long ago. So very long ago.

Strange, how passing years chip away at memories, even meaningful ones. Much as the incoming tide gradually washes away an “I love you” etched on a sandy beach.

So it is with that long-ago day.

It was October 1959. I was 29 years old and going on six years with The Journal Gazette and here I was, in a Keenan Hotel room, waiting to interview a senator from Massachusetts.

Fifty-four years have passed. Not much remains in my memory of that meaningful day in a Keenan Hotel room. Even the stately Keenan is long gone.

The event was set in motion midweek when Journal Gazette publisher James R. Fleming walked into the newsroom. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted him heading for my back-row desk. And there he stopped. Uh oh!

Not one to make small talk, Fleming, a smallish man with a piercing gaze, got right to the point.

“How would you like to interview the next president of the United States?” he asked.

When does a young reporter say “no” to the publisher? But I was honest and told him I was committed to attend a party for comedian Danny Thomas in Chicago.

“You’ll be back in time,” he said.

And so it was that I was also committed to interview John F. Kennedy at the Keenan Hotel.

Kennedy, a Massachusetts senator, had yet to declare his intention to seek the Democratic nomination to run for the Oval Office, but it was pretty much a given. He was to be in Fort Wayne to campaign for a Democrat whose name I’ve forgotten.

The publisher and Journal Gazette editorial writer Frank Roberts escorted me to the hotel and waited in the room with me. We watched from a window as the motorcade pulled up. Shortly, we were joined by the senator. Fleming made introductions and then I was alone with … the next president of the United States?

Kennedy took a seat on a sofa. A coffee table was in front of him. I sat on a chair on the other side of the coffee table.

My one clear memory of the interview is a pair of sunglasses. And how handsome he was. The dark, handsome man with a distinctive Boston accent held the sunglasses in his left hand and kept bouncing them lightly on the table top.

For years I thought bouncing those glasses meant he was nervous. So much for naiveté. I’ve since decided maybe he was bored by the same-old, same-old questions he was about to be asked.

Of being a Catholic, he gently reminded me that the president takes an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States … and he definitely would not be beholden to the pope.

Toward the end of the interview, I asked Kennedy about his plans for the future.

He had attended the Notre Dame-Purdue game in West Lafayette earlier that day and planned to be in southern Indiana the following day. After that, it was on to Nebraska.

After the interview, I watched as the senator shook hands with people gathered on the mezzanine and waiting in a long line to greet him. The women were obviously in awe.

With the interview story written and handed over to an editor, I went to the Scottish Rite auditorium where Kennedy was seated at the head table prior to addressing the assembled good Democrats. I walked up to the banquet table and handed the senator a blank page from my steno notebook.

“Please,” I asked, “may I have your autograph?” He graciously obliged.

Four years later, on a November afternoon, I was walking in The Journal Gazette parking lot on my way to work. Roberta Robeson, the Journal Gazette women’s editor, was behind me.

“Did you hear?” Robie shouted. “Kennedy’s been shot!”

Rushing into the newsroom, I saw a group of my colleagues huddled around a bank of teletype machines against the back wall.

“Clickety click, clickety click, clickety click, click, click …” The noise from the machines spewing out words from three wire services – AP, UPI, UP – was deafening. The words, printed on a seemingly never-ending roll of copy paper, told a horrible truth: John F. Kennedy had been hit by a sniper’s bullet in Dallas, Texas. The president was dead.

I cried.

It was so very long ago.

Dell Ford is a retired feature writer for The Journal Gazette.

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