Kelly: Omaha TV anchor packed for Dallas to cover JFK story with a baby on the way - Omaha.com
Published Saturday, November 23, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:36 am
FROM THE NOTEBOOK
Kelly: Omaha TV anchor packed for Dallas to cover JFK story with a baby on the way

When the bulletin of President John F. Kennedy's assassination was announced on radio, new Omaha television anchor Steve Bell was at home with his wife, Joyce, who was about to give birth to their first child.

Because phone lines were jammed, an assignment editor ran several blocks from WOW-TV, rang the Bells' bell and said, “Pack for Dallas!”

Steve, who later enjoyed a long career in network news, replied: “I can't do that. My wife is going to have a baby.”

But Joyce urged him to go, and Steve quickly caught a Braniff flight to Dallas that Friday with cameraman Bob Mockler.

By that evening, they stood at Dallas police headquarters. In a scene that wouldn't happen today, Lee Harvey Oswald was brought past reporters in a “perp walk” as the suspected perpetrator of the crime.

They shouted questions at him.

The Omahans stayed for the weekend and intended to report on Oswald's transfer from the city jail to the county jail Sunday, but it was delayed — and they had to catch their flight back home. So Bell filmed a report from Dallas saying that Oswald had been transferred, and he and Mockler (who still lives in Omaha) barely caught their plane.

That film never was shown on air because, as the pilot announced 15 minutes into their flight, Oswald had been killed by Jack Ruby.

Bell, 77, told me that story Friday from Muncie, Ind., where he is retired from a post-network career as a professor of telecommunications for 15 years at Ball State.

“I feel very blessed,” he said, “that I had two fulfilling careers. I always intended to be a teacher, but I was diverted for 35 years.”

A native of Oskaloosa, Iowa, he reported for ABC News from Vietnam and stood near Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in 1968 as Kennedy made his victory speech in the California Democratic presidential primary — moments before RFK was assassinated.

Bell later was news anchor for “Good Morning America.”

In 1974, the network had recalled him from Hong Kong to become White House correspondent.

His NBC competitor there was future anchorman Tom Brokaw, who had worked at KMTV in Omaha at the time of the Kennedy assassination.

Oh, yes: Steve made it back from Dallas in 1963 in the nick of time. Four hours after returning, he drove Joyce to the hospital and baby Allison was born early on Nov. 26. They will celebrate her 50th birthday with her in Muncie.

Another Omaha connection to the assassination was former White House photographer Cecil Stoughton, who took the historic picture of President Lyndon Johnson being sworn in aboard Air Force One.

Like Steve Bell, a native of Oskaloosa, Iowa, Stoughton lived and attended school at Boys Town from age 10 to 12, which was 1930-32.

During World War II, he was assigned to a motion picture unit. And while in Hawaii in 1947, he shot photos of Boys Town founder Father Edward Flanagan, who recognized him and called him by name.

Stoughton was a captain in the Army Signal Corps when assigned to the White House during the Kennedy Administration, taking many behind-the-scenes family photos. He stayed for part of Johnson's presidency.

Boys Town historian Tom Lynch said Friday that Stoughton, who died in 2008, visited Boys Town over the years. Some of his photos are part of the permanent collection at the town's Hall of History.

“He was a very nice man and loved Boys Town,” Lynch said. “He often said that Father Flanagan was a father figure and had a great influence on his life.”

Omaha defense lawyer James Martin Davis served in the Secret Service after the assassination of President Kennedy and got to know agents who had been part of the Dallas detail.

Did they take the president's death personally? Of course.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

“The primary purpose of the Secret Service is to protect the president,” Davis said somberly, “and they lost their man.”

Had agents been stationed on the running boards of the presidential limousine, he said, they at least would have obscured the shooter's view. But JFK wanted people along the motorcade route to be able to see him and the first lady.

Davis, an Army combat veteran of Vietnam, received his 1970 commission into the Secret Service from Clint Hill, the agent who climbed onto the presidential limousine after the president was hit.

The limousine in which Kennedy was shot was refurbished and repainted black instead of the previous midnight blue.

It was returned to presidential service for 13 more years.

During his three years in the Secret Service, Davis occasionally guarded President Richard Nixon and stood on a back platform of the limo. Today the vehicle sits in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.

Davis, a former federal prosecutor, said he is inclined to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone.

Sally Kreis of Papillion has personal memories of getting to know the Kennedys in her Omaha youth.

Her parents, Dr. Maurice and Jane Stoner, were active in Democratic Party politics, and politicians often came to their home. Her mother became chairwoman of Nebraskans for Kennedy.

Sally, who attended the 1960 inauguration at age 11 and graduated from Cathedral High in 1966, still has telegrams from John F. Kennedy and other family members to her mother, as well as lots of photos.

“That time and place,” she said, “seemed almost magical.”

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly

mike.kelly@owh.com    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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