Only a few news events are substantial enough to be landmarks in our lives. They’re the “Where were you when you heard……?” moments. If you are of a certain age, it is undoubtedly one of those moments for you.
We pause for a moment today to mention a reporter who is unfortunately overlooked in the history of the John Kennedy assassination. His name was Don Gardiner.
The announcements that shots had been fired at the motorcade in Dallas usually show us Walter Cronkite on CBS television. But Cronkite wasn’t the one who broke the news first.
Don Gardiner, a news anchor for ABC Radio, announced the shooting before Cronkite did.
I was working at KFRU in Columbia then while in graduate school. In those days the station had a little red bulletin light right in front of the board operator. When the light came on, the announcer was to click the pot (the knob on the control board that controlled the volume) into an audition position to hear if a bulletin was coming. It was halfway through the noon news/sports/farm block of programming when Don Gardiner’s voice delivered the shattering news.
I had just returned from KOMU-TV where, as part of my journalism course, I had directed the noon newscast in which we reported Kennedy was in Texas to assure Texans that he was not going to dump Lyndon Johnson as his vice-president in 1964. I immediately headed to the KFRU newsroom where I was the assistant news director (Eric Engberg, later a longtime CBS correspondent, was the news director). By the time I got there, the world was learning that Kennedy had died. We immediately started gathering local reaction to do our own angle on the story as soon as ABC broke away for local programming.
But ABC never did break away. ABC and all of the television networks stayed wall to wall in their coverage until the early morning hours after the funeral. Our local story never got on the air.
Years later, as I worked my way through the leadership of the Radio-Television News Directors Association I met some of the people who covered the assassination in Dallas, New York, and Washington, including Eddie Barker who was the news director of a Dallas TV station who broke the news that Kennedy was dead—and Dan Rather, who relayed the information on to Cronkite, and others whose stories did make the air.
But I never got to meet Don Gardiner, who died in 1977. I wish I had. He had a long and fascinating career that went back to what has become known as the Golden Days of Radio. But it was his voice that the nation that day that John Kennedy had been shot and that told me later that the President of the United States, was dead.
ABC put out a four-sided LP of its coverage of those events and compiled a log of its broadcasts. Both are on shelves in my library, history that all but a few observed and heard from a distance. Don Gardiner was one of those who brought that event to us.