KENNEBUNKPORT — Bill Lord sits in his basement watching a video clip of an ABC television broadcast from 50 years ago. It shows a young reporter interviewing the homicide detective who was handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald at the moment Jack Ruby stepped out from a crowd and fired a single shot at Oswald.
Just two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, with the nation’s mood a mixture of mourning, confusion and hysteria, the reporter in the Dallas studio appears as cool-headed as any veteran TV newsman in an era when news was expected to be delivered in a flat, direct manner.
Lord, his eyes fixed on the black-and-white clip, is awash in emotion as he anticipates every question and watches the clear-spoken reporter coax the detective into providing details of the fatal shooting that day in the basement of Dallas police headquarters, where the reporter himself was close by.
“I give that kid a B-plus,” Lord says of the reporter, adding that his steady on-camera demeanor hides feelings of fear and overwhelming sadness.
That kid was Lord, when he was 25.
Bill Lord, who grew up in Saco, had an uncertain future with ABC News before that November day in 1963. That summer, American Newstand, for which Lord was a correspondent for two years, had been pulled off the air.
His solid reporting in the days after the assassination was a turning point for his career at ABC, propelling him up the ranks and into key off-air jobs, including stints as executive producer of “Good Morning America News,” “Nightline” with Ted Koppel and “World News Tonight” with Peter Jennings.
But in the days after the president’s assassination, Lord wasn’t thinking about a promotion. Instead, while reporting amid chaos, he tried to avoid any career-killing blunders. He tried to report only what he knew for certain, while maintaining his composure during live appearances on national television.
“It was such a depressing experience for all of us,” Lord said. “It just kept getting worse. It was bad enough the president of the United States is killed. Then the assassin is killed. The emotion was so heavy for all of us.”
SPRINT TO THE SHOOTING SCENE
Lord was in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was assassinated, working as a field producer for Bob Clark, ABC’s White House correspondent, who was covering Kennedy’s campaign stops in Texas.
When Kennedy was shot as his motorcade passed the Texas School Book Depository, Lord was two blocks away in the tape room of WFAA, an ABC affiliate. The station was first to break the news of the shooting, interrupting a rerun of “Father Knows Best” with a bulletin.
After hearing on a police radio that shots had been fired, Lord ran to Dealey Plaza with a cameraman to interview witnesses. When he got there, he saw people pointing to the upper floors of the Texas School Book Depository.
“It was a horrifically emotional scene,” Lord said. “People were crying. People were stunned. People were angry. It was chaos.”
At the time, no one knew that the president had been hit, except for a few witnesses who had seen a bullet hit the president’s head.
Clark had been riding in a press car in the motorcade. After the shooting, that car followed the president’s convertible as it raced to Parkland Memorial Hospital.
“The president was lying in the back seat of the limousine, his head cradled in the first lady’s lap,” Clark reported in his first phone dispatch to the network. “At this stage there was no official word as to whether Mr. Kennedy was still alive. But he lay motionless on the back seat of the car for some two minutes while a stretcher was wheeled out from the hospital.”
In truth, Clark knew that the president was fatally wounded, Lord says. After arriving at the hospital, Clark and the other pool reporters ran to the president’s car and saw first lady Jacqueline Kennedy holding his head in her lap.
“Bob looked at the carnage in the back seat of the limousine and realized no one could survive that type of wound,” Lord said. “It was horrific.”
CLOSE BY WHEN OSWALD KILLED
It was an era when reporters were more deferential to government authorities, so Clark and the other reporters would not report that the president was dead until they were given the official word, Lord says.
Later that day, Clark flew back to Washington, D.C., where Kennedy’s body had been taken, to cover the political reaction to the assassination.
That left 25-year-old Lord behind in Dallas to cover the events surrounding Lee Harvey Oswald, who was arrested on the day the president was killed. Investigators determined later that Oswald fired three rifle shots at the president from the book depository.
On Nov. 24, two days after the assassination, Lord was at Dallas police headquarters as police brought Oswald to a waiting vehicle in a parking area in the basement, to take him to a more secure county jail.
As Oswald came into the room, Jack Ruby, a local nightclub owner, emerged from the crowd of reporters and fired a single shot from a .38-caliber revolver he had concealed.
Lord, who was on the phone with the WFAA studio, heard the shot, but his view of Oswald and Ruby was blocked by a crowd of police who descended on the scene. The producer told Lord that he would go on national television immediately to give an audio report.
“I am now asked to describe an event I cannot see,” he recalled 50 years later. “I am seeing my entire career flash in front of my eyes, that I am going to say something that is not true, that I am going to end my career making a fool of myself.”
On the tape, Lord’s caution is apparent: “There was a bang. … We believe it was a shot. And apparently, what has happened we do not know at the present time. … Is there someone down on the floor over there? Is there someone injured down on the floor?”
Fortunately for Lord, a cameraman who was with him saw what was going on and relayed the information to him. Lord soon began to provide more detail: “Apparently, Oswald was shot by a small elderly man, an elderly man with a small revolver. … Again I caution that this I did not see, but these are the reports. … There is someone down on the floor. A detective put his hand up on his forehead, ah, shaking it, oh no, this has happened.”
Listening to the recording, Lord said, “You can hear the fear in my voice, that I am going to say something that ultimately isn’t true. You don’t want to be in that position. It’s like calling a horse race while being in the clubhouse looking away from the track.”
His only error in that initial report was Ruby’s age. Ruby was 52 years old at the time, but he looked elderly to the cameraman, Lord says.
GOOD WORK, AND CAREER TAKES OFF
After the shooting, Lord chased the story nonstop for two more days. When it was all over, his supervisors were so impressed by his work that they gave him a choice of two great jobs: working as a correspondent in Paris or as a producer in Washington, D.C. He took the latter because he wanted to pursue a career as a producer and help shape the correspondents’ reports.
It turned out to be a good move. He became executive producer for several high-profile shows and won five Emmy awards in his career.
In 1992, he left ABC to work as a journalism professor in the College of Communications at Boston University. He retired in 2007. Today, he lives in Cape Porpoise with his wife, Debbi Lord, in a solar-powered home that the couple built after he left ABC.
John Martin, a former ABC correspondent who covered the Kennedy assassination in Dallas for a California newspaper, has known Lord since he was hired by ABC in 1976. Only last month did Martin learn that Lord also covered the assassination in Dallas.
Martin says the experience of reporting in Dallas was both terrifying and exhilarating.
“It was grueling,” he said. “It was so sad. People were sitting on curbs, weeping. Every walk of life was devastated by this. And here we were, working through it and trying to make sense of it and at the same time grieving ourselves.”
Watching the tapes of Lord’s broadcasts, Martin says, he was impressed by Lord’s ability to remain professional in the tumultuous scene in the police headquarters when Oswald was shot, and in his interview with the Dallas detective.
“He was a cool cat,” Martin said.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: