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Saturday, Nov 16 2013 09:00 PM

JFK 50 YEARS LATER: Local man's reporter grandfather had up close view of history

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    By Courtesy Jamie Henderson

    Harry McCormick, a Dallas Morning News crime reporter who covered President John F. Kennedy's assassination 50 years ago for the newspaper. He later wrote about the experience to his family, including grandson Jamie Henderson of Bakersfield, now executive director of First 5 Kern and former superintendent of the Rosedale Union School District.

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    Jamie Henderson, executive director of First 5 Kern.

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By The Bakersfield Californian

As a 14-year-old freshman at Bakersfield High in November 1963, the memories of the Kennedy assassination still remain fixed and vivid; as do the recollections of the anguish of a nation around that event. Add to that the fact that my grandfather was a crime reporter for the Dallas Morning News further cements my memories of that dark day in November.

My grandfather, Harry McCormick, had been in the newspaper business since the 1920s. He had covered a variety of stories. Covering the crime beat afforded him a number of experiences, including setting up his own kidnapping so he could get an exclusive with one of Bonnie and Clyde's henchmen, Raymond Hamilton, a murderer and a felon on the loose in the 1930s. He utilized a young, new reporter to help him back up the kidnapping story -- that reporter went on to a stellar career in television journalism. His name was Walter Cronkite. However, nothing could compare to my grandfather's reporting and experience with the Kennedy assassination.

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The following are excerpts from a letter Dallas Morning News reporter Harry McCormick wrote to his family Dec. 8, 1963.


Our paper, like most of them, leans toward the Republican mob and since I am an unreconstructed Demo, I do not get into the political field, and for which I am glad.

Consequently, I had no early assignment on the Kennedy visit except to attend the luncheon at which he was to speak and cover whatever might develop outside his speech. One of our photographers came into the big hall and held a brief huddle with their managing editor (assistant) and he beckoned to me and told me there was a rumor Kennedy had been shot. That put it into my field and while none of us believed it, I checked it out with a flash, found out it was true, rushed back and got our men loaded into my car and dashed to the scene about a mile perhaps from where the shooting occurred or perhaps a little more.

...I scarcely got there when I saw a Jewish man with a movie camera in his hands and he was clearly crying. I asked him what happened and found that he had photographed the whole scene. I found out he had a business in an adjoining building from the sniper's roost and told him that Secret Service would want his film and to wait I would bring an agent to his office.

I found Forrest Sorrels, chief of the local SS (Secret Service) and we gathered up the man and his film and came to my office and the TV station to try to get the film developed. They could not do it. We took it to Eastman and ran it for viewing. It was 8-mm color, and it was just like being at the scene. I called the office, told them that the pictures were out (of) this world and that I thought I should stay with the man and try to get them. They agreed.

Then we took the original to another film house to have several copies made of the film. ... Showed the Kennedy car approaching the scene. You could see the president flinch at the first shot, Jackie put her arms around Kennedy, then the next shot came and you could actually see his head disintegrate. It made a sort of blur about his head. Then Jackie starts climbing out over the trunk of the convertible and you could see a SS man running up. The film ended just before the SS man reached the car.

I offered the man a thousand dollars for the film or $200 per frame out of the film for any we used. I also offered to give him $250 of my own and 75 percent of what I could sell the film for. He refused both offers and I called a friend of mine with Life and they bought them. They first bought only the still picture rights at first for which the man said "they paid in excess of $25,000." I think it was either $40,000 or $50,000 after they bought the film and movie rights.

I don't know what the total price for sure but the New York office of UPI told us that Life paid him $50,000 with $50,000 a year for nine years.

That made me a peanut peddler and it was noon Saturday before I got through with the film deal and could start working on the story. The SS man was with me all this time and from him I learned a lot that was developing, which I phoned the office and was given to a rewrite man so I got no credit lines. I thought I had wasted my time but it now appears that I may get some money from Life but that is still a question.

For the next few days I worked sort of undercover and obtained some good information, some of it on an off-the-record basis, and could not be printed on my byline but which we were able to use so some of the material you see in those papers is mine. I think I got one joint byline in all the melee and had some stuff on the editorial page.

The day Ruby shot Oswald I was secreted in the County Jail to get an exclusive with Oswald. There were so many news and camera men they were to let them in the County only ten at a time for five minutes each but I was to be there throughout the time. Of course he never got there.

As soon as we got word Oswald was shot I dashed to Parkland and you may have seen me there on TV, I was right behind my friend Dr. Tom Shires, wearing black hat, if you recall the hours of stuff they ran.

As you all know there are still unanswered questions which I do hope will be answered. Personally I think both Oswald and Ruby acted as independent fanatics and that there was no connection between them but I do believe Oswald was getting money from (some) source, what I do not know. It could be Russia, Cuba, State Department, CIA or even the FBI.

...I hope that the Earl Warren report will clarify the whole thing, end these wild rumors and falsehoods, and leave this tragedy truly depicted for history's sake if no other.

My grandfather had no assignment in regards to the Kennedy visit -- until the shots were fired. He immediately went to Dealey Plaza, where he encountered Abraham Zapruder. My grandfather noticed that he was weeping and clutching a movie camera. When my grandfather realized that Mr. Zapruder had filmed the assassination and wanted to contact the authorities, he immediately contacted Forrest Sorrels, a local Secret Service agent. They were eventually able to go to the Eastman Kodak lab in Dallas to develop the film, which my grandfather watched.

I remember my grandfather telling me it was one of the most shocking things he had ever seen. Abraham Zapruder's granddaughter, Alexandra Zapruder, is currently writing a book about her grandfather and she references my grandfather. She and I have exchanged emails, which is somewhat extraordinary given the historical chance encounter our grandfathers had 50 years ago.

The following couple of days after the assassination, my grandfather spent a lot of time in the hallways where Lee Harvey Oswald was being held. I remember watching the extensive television coverage and catching glimpses of him working the hallways with the contacts he had.

On the Sunday that Oswald was being transferred, my grandfather was going to get an exclusive with him, but Jack Ruby changed all that. My grandfather then went to Parkland Hospital where Oswald was in surgery. I remember seeing my grandfather on television standing near Dr. Tom Shires, a friend of my grandfather's and the surgeon who operated on Oswald.

In the summer of 1966, my mother and I visited my grandfather in Dallas. He and I visited Dealey Plaza, Parkland Hospital, the Texas Theater (where Oswald was captured), and even went to Oswald's residence. The highlight of that visit was when my grandfather took me to the office of Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry, who was a key figure and very involved in the activities of Nov. 22. It was an up-close and personal view of a piece of history.

My grandfather and I talked some about the assassination. He felt that both Oswald and Ruby acted alone and independently of one another. However, he did feel that Oswald may have been receiving compensation from someone for something -- not necessarily the assassination. My grandfather also felt that Oswald was an attention-seeking fanatic.

When Secret Service agent Clint Hill (who was on the Kennedy detail and was the agent that jumped on the back of the president's car and pushed Mrs. Kennedy back into her seat) was in Bakersfield for a book signing, I was able to briefly talk with him about my grandfather. He, too, felt that Oswald was an independent fanatic.

It is hard to believe that it has been 50 years since the Kennedy tragedy of Nov. 22. However, the memories of that event and my grandfather's involvement are as vivid as ever.

-- Jamie Henderson is executive director of First 5 Kern and former superintendent of the Rosedale Union School District.

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