First Person / An editor remembers

How a science writer came to cover JFK’s funeral

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I knew the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association was at hand when George Schless walked into the Scripps-Howard newsroom in Washington that November day.

He had worked with me on the staff of the student newspaper at Penn State College. After graduation, he entered the public-relations field in New York City, where he landed the public-health group as one of his prime accounts.

Each year before its meeting he would visit with me to review the program. I would check off the scheduled reports that sounded most newsworthy, and he would then seek to obtain advance copies from the authors so he could hand them to me on arrival at the meeting.

We had thumbed through half of the program when I noticed it was almost one o’clock (EST). I suggested we break for lunch at a nearby restaurant. We were awaiting our sandwiches when a waitress burst into the dining room, sobbing hysterically and crying out:

“They shot him! They shot him! They shot the president in Dallas!”

We bolted out of the restaurant - my friend to head for the airport with a promise to return a fortnight later, and I to get back to the office. There I would learn the worst: President John F. Kennedy was dead, victim of an assassin’s bullet. It was November 22, 1963. Another date destined to live in infamy.

Though I did not cover politics during my eight-year stay in Washington as science writer for The Pittsburgh Press and 20 other Scripps-Howard newspapers, I did get involved in monitoring the health both of presidents and presidential wannabes.

As a result, I got to know Dr. George Calver, the congressional physician to whom Lyndon B. Johnson continued to report for periodic checkups even after leaving the U. S. Senate for the Vice Presidency. So I set out to track down the good doctor for an update on LBJ’s condition, now that he had become the President I surprised myself when I struck luck.

Dr. Calver disclosed that Lyndon Johnson had been carrying a unique card in his wallet ever since suffering a heart attack eight years earlier. It was a sample tracing from his electrocardiogram, which was updated every three months even though all of LBJ’s tests following his 1955 “coronary” showed only ‘normal tracings” indicating a full recovery.

The fourth day of national mourning was set for a Mass of requiem at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington and burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

Scripps-Howard colleague Dick Preston was assigned to cover the Mass and I was ticketed to cover the burial. But the day before this was to take place, Chuck Egger, the managing editor of the Scripps-Howard news bureau, switched signals. “I goofed,” he explained. “It makes more sense to have Catholic Troan cover the Mass and Protestant Preston cover the burial service.”

I immediately called St. Matthew’s and persuaded a priest to sit down and lead me through the scheduled Mass, step by step. From the opening affirmation of belief in the immortality of the soul, to the confession of man’s sinfulness and poignant plea for God’s forgiveness, to the symbolic ascent of Calvary, to the cry for mercy (only place in the Roman Catholic Mass where Greek is used), to a plea against unmitigated grief, to the majestic “Day of Wrath” (a Christian meditation on the ultimate Day of Judgment), to the gospel of St John (“I am the resurrection and the life... “), to the offertory, to the communion, to the absolution at the bier, to the concluding plea as the casket moves up the aisle for the trip to Arlington National Cemetery:

“Oh, God ... we humbly pray Thee on behalf of the soul of Thy servant John, whom Thou has commanded to go forth from this world. Do not hand him over to the power of the Enemy ... but command that this soul be taken up to the Holy Angels and brought home to Paradise ....”

Because all of this was structured to occur in accord with the prescribed ritual, I was able to write a fully descriptive story of the funeral Mass the night before — with a note to all editors on the Scripps-Howard circuit to reserve space for brief excerpts from Cardinal Richard Cushing’s eulogy the next morning.

However, the late switch in assignments created a large problem — at least around the waistline.

The White House had decreed that every reporter attending the Mass had to wear formal mourning clothes. Dick Preston had already been measured by the White House tailors but it was too late for me to be fitted. So I would have to wear his outfit.

Trouser length was not a problem; we were about the same height. But his waist was a good three inches larger so I felt my belly swimming in the britches. Yet my real difficulty was trying to keep pace with ABC’s long- striding Elie Abel as we made our way from the White House to the cathedral. Fortunately, my suspenders proved sturdy enough to keep the trousers from sliding to my knees.

John Troan retired as editor of The Pittsburgh Press in 1983.

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