On the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, the city of Dallas was anticipating a visit from President John F. Kennedy, while science and aviation reporter Hugh Aynesworth was having a slow morning. With no assignment to work on, the 32-year-old journalist joined fellow Dallas residents just before noon to watch the presidential motorcade pass by under a sunny, cloudless sky, never suspecting that the enthusiastic, celebratory atmosphere would soon turn tragic.
Half an hour later, spectators around him cheered and waved little American flags as the presidential limousine rolled round the corner and into sight. But then he heard three shots pierce the air and watched as both Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally collapsed into their wives’ laps. After a stunned moment, his journalistic instinct kicked in, and he plunged instantly into a massive, confusing and conspiracy-filled story that he has continued to follow for almost 50 years.
Today, Mr. Aynesworth is a widely-acknowledged authority on the JFK assassination. His most recent book, “November 22, 1963: Witness To History,” is set to come out Sept. 4 and it provides an updated and thorough insider account of the assassination that plunged the American people into a state of confusion and panic half a century ago.
Mr. Aynesworth, who also witnessed the capture of JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, and his fatal shooting two days later, said it was “totally dumb luck” that he happened to witness such historical events firsthand, although he did make “a couple” of good decisions.
Right after JFK was shot, Mr. Aynesworth overheard and followed up on a police radio transmission about the killing of a police officer. As it turned out, soon after he killed the president, Oswald encountered Officer J.D. Tippit, fatally, shot him then continued with his escape.
“My judgment was, it must be connected some way, when the president is shot and then an officer is shot three or four miles away,” he said, with a signature Texas drawl. “I lucked out.”
At the time of JFK’s assassination, Mr. Aynesworth was already an experienced journalist working for The Dallas Morning News. He began his career in 1949 after he dropped out of Salem College after one semester. His work included stints at Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald, United Press International, ABC’s “20/20” and The Washington Times.
With nearly 65 years of news experience under his belt, Mr. Aynesworth, who resides in Dallas, has covered everything from sports to aeronautics to crime, meanwhile authoring seven books and nabbing a Pulitzer Prize finalist spot four times. “Witness to History” is an updated version of a previous JFK book he rushed to complete under a tight deadline. With only five months to finish it, he said he felt unsatisfied.
“That’s why I [wrote the new version], really, to clean it up, make it better, make it more relevant, and add something to it,” he said.
‘Witness to History’
“It was really one of the best jobs that I’ve ever done, because it was really tough. Nobody wanted to talk,” he said. “Everybody was still scared. We didn’t know whether this was going to be war, whether the Russians had sent him — we didn’t know anything.”
The shooting happened on a Friday, and Mr. Aynesworth said it was difficult to gather the full story that weekend, but five days later The Dallas Morning News ran a full-page story that explained, minute-by-minute, how Oswald slipped out of the school book depository building (from where he’d shot JFK with a rifle), boarded a bus a few blocks east, got off a few minutes later, hailed a taxi three blocks away, shot the police officer after getting out and later ducked into a movie theater, where he was apprehended.
The book also brings readers into Mr. Aynesworth’s intense hunt for crucial information. Right after Oswald was shot in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters by night club owner Jack Ruby, Mr. Aynesworth noticed that a local defense lawyer was with others in a meeting but left an office door open — and he slipped in. At one point he even hid under the desk to avoid being seen by one of the lawyer’s colleagues, who happened to pass by on his way to the restroom.
“I was scared to death, but I had to find out what they were doing and who they were hiring and what they were paying him and what kind of defense they were going to have,” he said with a laugh. “It was a rare thing, and I took a big chance there.”
Mr. Aynesworth also devotes a large chunk of his book to the numerous conspiracy theories that have sprung up since the JFK assassination.
“It wasn’t that much fun. It’s hard work, and it’s hard to prove a negative,” he said. “I’ve had five people confess to me that they shot the president or were part of it. One guy told me his dad did it. It got pretty old.”
Most of these theories have to do with an obsession over a good mystery, usually paired with the desire to earn money, he said.
“The whole key to this is, nobody wants to believe that a couple of nobodies like Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald could change the course of history,” he said. “But it happened.”
From typewriters to smartphones
Mr. Aynesworth has seen journalism change dramatically since the old days of typewriters, phone landlines and film photography. In his book, he describes, to the modern reader’s amusement, the rather primitive newsgathering techniques of the early 1960s: Journalists used pay phones, or nothing at all. If they had a story to file on deadline, they would call into the newsroom and dictate it or look around for an open Western Union office.
Even the news writing process of the time would be completely foreign to modern reporters. As Mr. Ayneswowrth recounts in his book:
“To write a story in those days, a reporter had to laminate two sheets of eight-by-eleven newsprint around a piece of carbon paper, roll this sandwich into an ancient Underwood, and start banging away. There was no delete button, of course. No spell check. No Google or other online database to query from your desk. When your piece was completed, you impaled the original on a big spindle at the city desk and deposited the copy in a tray for The Associated Press guy to pick up.”
But journalists today tweet breaking news, whip out smartphones to snap quick photographs and are expected to promote their stories on every platform possible, including radio and television.
Mr. Aynesworth said he’s not sure he can keep up with the age of social media and instant news, pointing out that although he does have a Facebook page, his publisher has somebody else running it for him.
“I need to understand it, because I got a little while to go yet,” he said, laughing. “I’m 82, but I’m a fairly good 82.”
He may eventually venture on to Twitter, following in the footsteps of his granddaughter, who, according to him, is “on it constantly.”
“She’s got all kinds of — what do they call it? When you have contacts and you tweet all the time, too? Friends?” he asked.
The term “Twitter followers” was foreign to him.
“Yeah, okay,” he said in amusement. “See how much I know?”
With the completion of his updated JFK book, Mr. Aynesworth is being kept busy with numerous radio and television interviews, book fairs and other appearances. Looking back on his lengthy journalism career, he said he’s been “very fortunate” but will look forward to slowing down and enjoying life.
“Sixty-five years — you get a little tired, you know?” he said, laughing. “Now I can sort of forget about everything that happened. If somebody says ‘JFK,’ I’ll say, ‘Who?’”