Tom Berg, senior editor
It was Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. I had finished my classes at Marquette University and was headed toward downtown Milwaukee and the Journal building. I thought it was payday and I was going to pick up my paycheck from my job, driving newspaper delivery trucks.
It turned out that I was a week early for the paycheck, but much bigger things were about to happen.
The news came over the radio of my car: “This bulletin just in… President John F. Kennedy has been shot in Dallas….” This was from a local rock music station that had no network affiliation. So I immediately pushed a pre-tune button for WISN, a CBS affiliate, and sure enough, it had joined the network.
Correspondents were describing what had happened. All anyone knew for sure was that JFK had been shot at 12:29 p.m. Central time, that his wounds seemed serious, and that he had been taken to a hospital.
I reached the Journal building, pulled into the loading-dock area and parked in an empty slot. State Circulation trucks were leaving, but I knew right away that they
were carrying main sections that were now terribly outdated. I walked quickly to the dock and shouted up to the boss: “John! Where are these trucks going?”
“Whatta you mean?” he answered, a little annoyed.
“Kennedy’s been shot!” I yelled back. “These mains are worthless.”
“You shouldn’t kid around about something like that,” he said, a little angry.
“Honest to God!” I said. “He’s been shot! It’s on the news.”
He looked at me for a second and realized I was serious. He turned, ran to a door leading to a stairway and disappeared. I didn’t see him for a couple of hours, and learned later that he had gone to a newsroom where he nearly went into shock, hearing the reports coming out of Dallas.
I knew that the trucks still being loaded should’ve been held and unloaded until new main sections with the news of the shooting – soon to be a fatal assassination – could be produced and printed. But I had no authority to order this, and no one with any say-so was in sight.
Out from a slot came a green International 200 cabover, one of our larger trucks with a long aluminum-sided box that would hold 11 rows of bundled newspapers. Its driver began turning toward the building’s exit. I waved him to a stop and shouted up, “Don, you shouldn’t be going! Kennedy’s been shot. Those mains are worthless!”
“Nobody told me anything,” he shrugged, and pulled away. Four or five others also did, following earlier trucks with papers for destinations in eastern Wisconsin. I felt helpless because I couldn’t stop them. And this was 25 or 30 years before cell phones could recall them.
“What a waste,” I thought, and mentally chastised John for not staying on the dock. He was a former full-time Journal driver, an ex-Marine, and a good man. I think he admired President Kennedy and was overcome by grief, but I – in my youthful brashness – thought he should’ve kept his cool.
I walked over to the drivers’ room and went in. Clerks there were just hearing the news and wondering what to do. After a while another supervisor, Charlie, turned to me and said, “It looks like we’ll have to set up replacement runs for the new mains. Can you take one?”
“Sure,” I said. I left but stayed on the premises as he and John, who had returned, assembled a new group of trucks, some company owned but others rented from Hertz, which wore black paint. Only now do I see how fitting that color was for trucks carrying news of that day’s event, as though they were hearses.
Charley assigned me to the “Meno Falls” run, a short one that went to Menomonee Falls and other outlying towns northwest of Milwaukee. I left about 3:30 in the afternoon, driving a “little White,” a short White 3000 cabover whose box held nine rows of bundles, but was far from fully loaded on this run.
Maybe 90 minutes later, at the last stop in North Lake, I was one bundle short – “Damn!” – and called in to report it. In the background I heard John talking to someone at an earlier stop on my route, who phoned to say that he had the extra bundle. He must’ve remarked that the driver had made a mistake.
“Our drivers don’t make mistakes!” John barked, before the clerk on my call informed him that yes, Berg had made an error. Listening to this, I sensed that John was still a little rattled, from the assassination but also from pressures of the afternoon. But I appreciated that he was standing up for his drivers, who were all college boys working their way through school, and when he came on the line I gently apologized for my screw-up.
“OK, go back and get that bundle and take it to North Lake,” he replied calmly.
I jumped back in the White and took shortcuts through the small towns to retrieve and deliver that bundle with its sad news. The day had started sunny if a bit chilly, but the sun had set and a cold rain had begun. The dreariness seemed appropriate.
Something strange, though: No one at the Journal circulation agencies said anything about the assassination, and neither did I. Maybe it’s because we were all young and didn’t yet grasp how momentous it was. Within a few days I certainly did.