The story of their lives

Countless lives were changed on that November afternoon that forever altered the course of world events. People everywhere  from politicians to citizens and journalists felt the impact.

It was just an ordinary day in the newsroom for Darwin Payne as he sat at his desk in the old Dallas Times Herald headquarters building, pecking away at a story on the elegant and dazzling first lady Jackie Kennedy's first visit to Texas.

Except it soon wouldn't be just an ordinary day in the newsroom, in Dallas or in the world. Just five blocks away, the President's limousine cruised down Houston Street, the youthful president and his stunning wife waving to overflowing crowds on the packed roads.

In the heated political atmosphere of Dallas in that era, Kennedy was ever mindful of voters and politicians on both sides of the aisle. Behind him, a huge motorcade of law enforcement and secret service agents blanketed the streets — their only job to protect the 35th President of the United States. Just a couple desks over from Payne, the city editor was listening to the parade on a police radio. 

"He's been hit," the editor yelled. "They're sending homicide units to Dealey Plaza."

Instinctively knowing his story on Jackie would never be used, Payne bolted up, abandoned his writing and sped to Dealey Plaza on Elm Street. 

Hugh Ayensworth, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, was already there.  “I could have looked up and seen him [Lee Harvey Oswald] had I looked up there,” Ayensorth said.  “One minute the President’s waving and everybody’s grinning, so exuberant, then all of a sudden, a shot, then another.  Then a third.  And you didn’t know what to do.  People were throwing their kids down in cover.” 

Payne arrived soon after. 

“By the time we got there, there was a scene of bedlam: police with rifles, a fire truck, all scurrying around the area,” he said. 

In the mayhem, Payne and Ayensworth began trying to sort out the facts.

“I remember then we didn’t know who was shooting, how many shooters there were, who were they after,” Ayensworth said.  “We didn’t know where to run.”

One man Payne talked to, Abraham Zapruder, claimed he had pictures of the moment the President was shot.

“I was watching him through my viewfinder on his camera and his head exploded like a firecracker,” Zapruder said.

Ayensworth also searched for answers in the crowds of people.    

“I kept interviewing people then,” Ayensworth said.  “In those days there were no cellphones or communications like we know today.  I always stay close to a police radio.”

This paid off for Ayensworth.  Less than an hour later, a police officer, J.D. Tippit, was shot in Oak Cliff.     

“In my mind, I just made a guess,” Ayensworth said.  “I said, ‘Somebody shoots at the President here, and that’s only three or four miles away, somebody shoots an officer, it’s got to be connected in some way.”

Payne, however, was skeptical. 

“I couldn't imagine that a police officer shot in Oak Cliff had anything to do with the President,” Payne said, “and that it was just unusual that it would happen on the same day.”

With the police hot on Oswald’s tail, Ayensworth stayed near a police radio in case there were any new developments. 

“There at least eight or nine eye witnesses that either saw him shoot him or saw him run away form the scene or saw him throw away bullets. I hear on the radio, ‘Suspect in the Texas Theater,’” Ayensworth said.  “Well I’m probably six or seven blocks from the theater and I hadn’t eaten breakfast, I’d drank a lot of coffee, I’d already run a lot, I’d already seen the President been shot, I’d already talked to all these people here, and now we’ve got a suspect that’s bound to be connected to one of the two murders, but I run like hell and get in there.”

The theater was nearly empty, and the police were already in the theater when Ayensworth arrived.  From just 15 feet away, Ayensworth saw officer Nick McDonald and several other officers walking down the aisle toward Oswald. 

“Then he (Oswald) pulled a gun out and tried to shoot McDonald,” Ayensworth said.  “In the old comic books, you used to have fights and you’d have an arm going out here and a leg going out there, things swirling around, people shouting, that was what it was when they jumped Oswald, because there were about five or six of them.”

Oswald's path from the School Book Depository to the Texas Theater has been well traced.

After shooting the President, Oswald escaped from the School Book Depository building and took a bus and then a taxi to his rooming house on Beckley Street in Oak Cliff.

Outside the rooming house was a sign advertising 17 rooms for rent. Oswald had stayed in a room right off the dining room since October while his family remained with Ruth Paine in Irving.

Payne retraced that route a few hours later and found himself in Oswald's room, talking with the owner of the rooming house, Gladys Johnson.

"He was a quiet kind of person," she said. "Never would have suspected him of what he did."

Oswald was scheduled to be moved from the city jail to the county jail Sunday morning.

That morning, nightclub owner Jack Ruby went downtown to the Western Union to wire $25 to a stripper to help pay her rent.

Ruby sent the money at 11:13 a.m. Eight minutes later, at 11:21 a.m., Ruby shot Oswald.

"If you go out on Main Street at that time, one block up there is the City Hall and the Police Department," Ayensworth said. "He parked his car on the other side. He obviously saw the crowd and walked toward it. If it was a conspiracy, he would've been there at ten o'clock."

But beyond all of the coincidences and events of the day, Ayensworth says he's ready to move on from his lifelong involvement with the assassination.

"If I had any idea how much time I would spend the next 45 years, I'd probably stay in the office," Ayensworth said. "The amount of time that I've had to spend and the personal attacks against me. I don't really enjoy that."