Thursday, November 21, 2013


An email to me this week from the current President of the Harvard Crimson, asking for my recollections of November 22, 1963, brought back a torrent of memories.*

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy is this Friday, November 22; it happens to be the day before The Game, the Harvard-Yale classic. November 22, 1963 was also a Friday, and also the day before The Game, which that year was scheduled to be played at the Yale Bowl in New Haven. At the time I was associate managing editor of The Crimson and deeply involved in day to day coverage of events at the university and in the broader world.

With all the books that have been published about JFK--a staggering 40,000, says the New York Times--many of which have debunked or at least tarnished the notion of his brief Presidency as something unique and exceptional, it is difficult to recreate the sense of exhilaration that accompanied his election in November 1960. My classmates and I entered Harvard that fall in the midst of the campaign, many of us were for Kennedy and by the time the votes were counted on election night we felt that something transformative had occurred. All we knew was the promise; the lessons and judgment of history were far in the future, unknowable, scarcely conceivable.

The Crimson editors decided to put out an Extra that day 50 years ago. Bruce Paisner, managing editor, was in charge of Crimson coverage of the assassination. Always cool and focused under pressure, he did an amazing job. In those days we still set type on an old-fashioned hot-metal linotype machine and did the printing on an ancient flat-bed press in the basement of the Crimson on Quincy St. Nevertheless, we had the Extra off press by the end of the afternoon, delivering by hand all over campus, including to Harvard Hall and University Hall. I personally brought a copy to the office of the Dean of Faculty, Franklin Ford, and can still remember the emotion on the face of this self-contained and soft-spoken scholar, his eyes reddened from weeping.

I recall that Bruce and I and others were in the newsroom in early afternoon when the first calls about shots in Dallas came in, from students on campus who'd heard the news on the radio and wanted us to confirm. Within a half hour we were at work on the Extra. We rented a TV and set it up in the newsroom. This was decades before the Internet, so we were depending on the TV networks and our clanky AP teletype machine, our one link to the world of (almost) real-time news. Bruce quickly handed out the assignments; mine was to man the desk, edit copy and make sure everything was as concise and accurate as the immense time pressure and the many gaps in information allowed.

Beyond the obvious Harvard connection of a U.S. President who was an alumnus and an Overseer of the University, and who had brought many Cambridge luminaries (McGeorge Bundy, John Kenneth Galbraith, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and others) to the White House and to Washington, there was the immediate matter of The Game, scheduled for the next day. I believe some of the Harvard House-Yale College football games were already in progress that Friday when the news was confirmed; some may have been cancelled in midgame. Within hours The Game itself was cancelled.

Without the task at hand, of reporting, editing and putting out the Extra, many of us would have dissolved into tears but we kept it together because this was by far the most important story we would ever handle on the Crimson, and one of the most important the Crimson has covered in its long history. No one alive that day will ever forget it, and especially not those of us on the Crimson who had the special responsibility of recording history.—Efrem Sigel, November 21, 2013

*By the time this appears, some of these recollections may be in the current issue of the Crimson.

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