San Diegans were one degree of emotional separation from President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.
Earlier that year, on June 6, Kennedy had given the commencement address at what was then branded as San Diego State College.
On hand for the graduation exercises that day were three newsmen who later would be in Dallas on Nov. 22 – covering the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination.
San Diego Union reporters Peter Kaye, John Martin and Lew Scarr found themselves playing catch-up, to a shocking chain of events that left them no time to dwell on the enormity of it all.
"I was feeling desperate: How can I get a part of this story that will make any sense? What has happened here?” Martin recalled in an interview Friday, on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s slaying. “People were weeping on the sidewalk, sitting on the curbs. They were devastated. We all were devastated. But we had to keep our cool, in a way, to get some information to describe what had happened."
And that they did, all three journalists filing stories for the next day's edition of the The Union.
They were in the mosh of reporters shouting questions at a defiant, bruised-up Lee Harvey Oswald at Dallas police headquarters ...
Kaye wound up in view of a nationwide audience, in the foreground of live television coverage a day before Oswald was gunned down by Jack Ruby during a transfer from the city police lockup to the county jail.
On the way back from reporting on Oswald's funeral, Kaye took what would become an emotional drive past Dealey Plaza, the site of the assassination.
"And there were these people on the 'Grassy Knoll', a little impromptu ceremony with flowers,” Kaye told NBC 7 Friday. “And all of a sudden the whole damn thing just hit me, and my eyes welled up, and I just pulled off the road to sit there. I came to the end with a dull thud."
While they didn’t have occasion at the time to obsess over the history-in-the-making aspect of their assignment in Dallas, the Union’s team on the ground has long since reached some conclusions.
This, from Scarr, about Oswald and the 'Conspiracy Theories’: "If it were a conspiracy, why would you pick a guy like him to do it for you? You might pick somebody like Jack Ruby, who was a professional with his gun."
All three have tried to make sense of what they can, and find proper context for the so-called "Camelot" era – an image that may have glossed over the turmoil then simmering in American society.
"Kennedy barely won the election,” Martin noted. “There was a lot of hatred in the South, a lot of divisiveness. The war doubled down … so it kind of rolled into a roiling ball of anger across the country.
“It didn't just start with the assassination. (The assassination) certainly was a part of it."