WASHINGTON – “I recall Nov. 22, 1963 as a day of trauma … shocking, frightening and bewildering. To some degree, those feelings remain.”
That’s how my sister Sheila recalls the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. She was 13 years old. I was 3.
Like my sisters closest to me in age, Una and Maggie, I have absolutely no memory of that day. But my older brothers and sisters do.
We grew up in a large Irish-Catholic family — I am the eighth out of nine children — and as anyone who was alive that day will tell you, the details of the assassination remain etched in everyone’s memories.
The television coverage of the events of what became known as “the Kennedy weekend” was a big part of what would become the nation’s collective memory. But for us there was a difference. Because one of the men delivering the stunning news to the nation on that day was our father.
Bill Ryan was a NBC network reporter and correspondent in 1963. On the day Kennedy was assassinated, the 37-year-old newsman was literally pulled from a hallway in the NBC studios and made part of the NBC anchor team of Frank McGee and Chet Huntley.
The still photos our family has show the three men sitting side-by-side in a small, wood-paneled studio. They would be working nearly non-stop for the next 72 hours.
Like schoolchildren across the nation, Sheila and my siblings were sent home from school. Some were told why they were being dismissed, others were not. Here’s what Sheila recalls:
“I was in a science class when the teacher read a note brought to him by someone from administration. He shook his head, told us the president was dead and we sat in silence for the duration of the class. As I remember, school was dismissed after that class.”
My brother Chris also remembers being dismissed from school.
“I remember I was in Ms. Tully’s class, and we were told to go home. I remember getting home and just trying to absorb what was going on,” he says.
Bill Ryan getting an update from the floor crew on the NBC studio set in New York City. (Ryan Family/NBC)
Moira, remembers beating the rest of her brothers and sisters home and telling Mom to turn on the TV.
“She got up, went into the living room, and turned on the TV and there was Dad on the TV, his face virtually filling the screen.”
Sheila recalls how the family, like so many, gathered around the television.
“That’s where we were, pretty much for the next four days.”
My brother Sean says his class was dismissed without explanation. “That made no sense to us,” he says.
On the walk home, a friend called out from a passing car and told them the president had been shot.
“We walked home thinking it had to be a mistake … maybe they shot someone who looked like Kennedy. When I got home and walked into the house and saw my sisters in tears and the television on — with my Dad of all people — I found out it was real,” Sean says.
My brother Marc had just started kindergarten that fall. He remembers being home that Friday.
“It wasn’t unusual to see Dad on TV. It was different to see him on TV during daylight hours … I cannot recall the house ever being as quiet. I did know who the president was, that he was Catholic and from a big family so there was a sort of affinity. As any 5-year-old, I was taking my cues off my older brothers and sisters.”
Ellen, who was in third grade, says the feeling of shock in the house was palpable.
“The TV was on and I remember my oldest sister crying, and everyone having a confused, disoriented feeling. It was a grim day.”
Watch footage of Bill Ryan and NBC News’ coverage, which begins at minute 13.
Children have unique takes on public events. And my sister Ellen, as a third grader, was no exception. Soon after the news of the shooting in Dallas broke, the suspect was described as being “at large.”
Ellen asked what that meant. When told it meant the shooter hadn’t been found, and having no idea how far Dallas, Texas, was from our New Jersey home, Ellen says she made one of her older brothers go into her room and check to see that the gunman wasn’t hiding in there.
Sheila, the oldest child, recalls watching our mom watch our Dad on TV.
“I can vividly remember her own grief and sadness. Very rarely, very rarely did we see her cry. I didn’t necessarily see her cry that weekend, but I could see this look on her face and remember her saying ‘This is awful, this is awful.'”
Sheila also was aware of how our mom, a mother of nine and just a few years older than Jacqueline Kennedy, grieved for the first lady — a young mother whose husband had been taken from her side so brutally.
Of Mom, Sheila says, “She was very much aware, I think of the physical horror — the physical horror — that Jackie Kennedy went through that day.”
Watching our Dad
Sheila, who was 13 at the time, has clear memories of watching Dad.
“I definitely remember, very vividly remember Dad’s presence. I didn’t even think of him in terms of ‘Wow, that’s my father’,” Sheila says. “I remember him being very calm, and soft-spoken and very quietly giving information.”
We have few photographs of that day, some are clearly still shots of a television monitor taken at NBC at the time.
“He had a very direct way of looking into the camera that I think was one of his gifts. He could sort of make you feel he was talking right to you.”
Chris recalls watching the three news anchors, Bill Ryan, Frank McGee and Chet Huntley.
“What amazed me was the calmness of my father and how he reported the news in a matter-of-fact form,” he says. “I couldn’t understand why they were so calm. Because something so tragic had happened.”
Watch footage of Bill Ryan and NBC News’ coverage, which begins at minute 27.
Moira’s memories of watching Dad throughout that weekend are clear.
“He was very calm, he was very accurate. He didn’t speculate on anything. He just told us what was going on as it was going on.”
The events that drove the news coverage just kept coming, shockwaves rolling over the country again and again. The president had been shot. The news came within hours that he was dead. Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in. And the suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald, was arrested and in custody.
Then on Sunday, the next shock wave hit: Oswald was shot to death on live TV by a man named Jack Ruby.
“I was over at David Peterson’s house,” my brother Chris says of his childhood friend. Together they tried to absorb the graphic scene. “David and I looked at each other, shocked. We screamed for his mother to explain to us what happened. It was an amazing four days, just sitting there watching my father tell us what went on.”
I had the great good luck to work alongside my father in the jobs he took in sort of semi-retirement. He died in February of 1997. His funeral was on Feb. 18, which is also the birthday of his oldest child, Sheila. I will never forget the look on my sister’s face after the service when my father’s casket was loaded into the hearse.
Like most sons and daughters whose parent has died, we all wish we had more time with our father, and gotten him to tell us more about his life and his experiences. That’s made more acute because my father covered so many historic events, from the Civil Rights movement to the early space exploration program.
“Dad didn’t really speak of the assassination and how he felt. It’s something he reported and I guess it was very deep within him and I guess he just didn’t want to bring it out,” Chris says.
Sean, the fourth of us nine children, says there was an overwhelming sense of grief and confusion during that time.
“He never discussed it with me at all, never shared any thoughts, except when Huntley and McGee died of cancer and he realized he was the last of the three. And that spooked him a little,” Sean says of our father, who also died of cancer.
Ellen says Dad did talk about it at some point. “He did recall leaving the studio for whatever break he had, he leaned against a wall and just kind of crumbled.”
Ellen says he was mad at himself for not showing more emotion during the broadcast. “And he was conflicted about that. But he also said in the same sentence, ‘But I knew I was doing my job. It was the job I had to do.'”
All of us had asked our Dad at varying times to please, please write a book. As a teenager, he signed up to serve in World War II. He worked in radio, made the jump to television and covered one of the most tumultuous decades in American History. The closest he came was to write up a brief biological sketch, which my brother Marc helped put together.
He wrote of the Kennedy assassination:
“On each anniversary, I find myself taken back to those days trying to recall the specific emotions I felt as the coverage progressed. I’ve never been able to, except that I kept reminding myself not to speculate about anything.”
The Ryan family consisted of :
Bill Ryan and his wife, my mother Catherine, and nine kids. We are, from oldest to youngest:
Sheila Chris Moira Sean Ellen Marc Una Me (Kate) Maggie
Editor’s Note: Off the 8’s is a WTOP Living feature, in which staff inside the Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center share stories from their lives when they’re off the clock.