I was a footnote of sorts to the awful events of that weekend in 1963 when John Kennedy was killed in Dallas. At the time, I was working as the night police reporter for my hometown paper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. When we learned that the president was coming to Texas, every man in the newsroom—and it was mostly men, in those days—lobbied for the chance to cover his trip. I begged my editor, but I was immediately turned down. The political reporters would be working that story. “You just go on down to the police station,” he told me. “That’s your job.”
So when those fateful shots were fired in Dallas, I was sound asleep, recovering from a late night at work. My brother, who was in high school at the time, broke the news. “You’d better get up,” he said. “The President has been shot.”
I got dressed as quickly as I could and rushed to the office. As I walked through the door, it came over the radio that the President was dead. I was in a fog. It was total bedlam. Every phone in the newsroom was ringing.
I answered one and a woman said, “Is there anyone who can give me a ride to Dallas?”
I couldn’t believe it. “Lady,” I replied, “We’re not running a taxi service here. And besides, the President has been shot!”
And she said, “Yes, I heard it on the radio. I think my son is the one they’ve arrested.”
It was Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother.
I jotted down her address and assured her that I would be there shortly. I was driving a two-seater sports car in those days, and I knew I couldn’t take her to Dallas in that. So I tracked down the paper’s auto editor, Bill Foster, who was always test-driving different cars. It turned out he had a Cadillac that week. We jumped in the car and rushed to Mrs. Oswald’s address on the west side of Fort Worth.
There she was, standing on the curb—a small woman with gray hair and large horn-rimmed glasses, carrying a little blue travel bag. I got in the back seat with her; Bill drove, and I interviewed her along the way.
Mrs. Oswald didn’t talk much about her son, or about the president’s death. She was hysterical, and, I later came to believe, deranged. Some of the things she said on that drive were so outrageous that I didn’t put them in my story. During the entire drive, she did not mention the death of the President once. Her only reference to the incident while we in the car was “do they think he did it?”
(MORE: No, Dallas Didn’t Kill Kennedy)
What happened next was the biggest scoop I almost got.
In those days, covering the police beat, we never told people who we were. I wore a snap brim hat, so I’d look like a cop. When we arrived at the station in Dallas with Mrs. Oswald, I walked up to the first policeman I saw and said, “I’m the one who brought Oswald’s mother over from Fort Worth. Where can we put her?” They found us a little room in the burglary squad office, and I went in there with her. After a while, Mrs. Oswald asked me if they would let her talk to her son. I went to the Chief of Homicide and relayed her request. “Yes,” he said. “We probably ought to do that.”
Just like that, we were herded into a holding room off the jail. I was standing there thinking, “My God, I’m going to be here when they bring him down. And even if I don’t get to interview him, I’ll get to hear what he says to his mother.”
And then an FBI agent in the room did what someone should have done hours before. He asked me who I was. “Are you a reporter?”
“Well, yes,” I said. He seemed in a mood to kill me and said something to that effect, so I quickly excused myself. I missed out on a big scoop. But my interview with Oswald’s mother was picked up by Time and Newsweek, and for the next few days, I covered the awful story that left our nation in shock, and altered America forever.
John Kennedy’s death became a kind of marker in American history. It changed everything. The culture changed, communications changed, the media changed. It altered our view of the presidency, and reminded us of the frailty of life; this young, vigorous man cut down in his prime. We had thought of our presidents as being somehow invincible. Suddenly, we were reminded that they were just as vulnerable as the rest of us.
Bob Schieffer is the host of “Face the Nation” and Chief Washington Correspondent for CBS News.