CONCORD, N.C. — In more than 60 years of journalism, the hardest story Bob Raiford ever had to cover was the funeral procession for President John F. Kennedy.
“I think it was because I identified very much with Kennedy and what he was doing,” said Raiford, who was born and raised in Concord. “Kennedy represented the torch being passed to a different generation.”
Raiford, known today as a media personality with the John Boy & Billy Radio Network, was living in Washington in 1963 when Kennedy was assassinated. Raiford was working for WTOP Radio and WTOP TV, both CBS affiliates.
He remembers exactly where he was 50 years ago on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, when he heard about Kennedy being assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas.
Raiford had finished reading news for “Voice of America” and had gone home for a nap before heading back into work. He stopped by his dry cleaners when he saw the owner, Frank, with a solemn look on his face. After hearing the awful news, Raiford headed back to work, knowing his show “At Your Service” was going to be preempted with news coverage.
When Raiford got into the WTOP office he was asked to cover the funeral procession when Kennedy’s body was brought to Washington.
But even before he covered the procession, Raiford glimpsed a bit of the news first hand when he was headed out to get a bite to eat and saw a green ambulance go by.
“And the light was on in the back of it and the curtains were drawn, and I looked in there and there was Jackie Kennedy,” Raiford said.
By Sunday, Raiford stood at corner of Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue, covering the procession for the radio station. He still has some of the audio recorded from that day, which he remembers being bitterly cold.
“As the coffin approaches, drawn by those seven white horses, people raise their cameras to take pictures, others stand on tip toe to try and get a better view,” Raiford said in the recording from Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963. “Others who have already seen the coffin passing move ahead of the procession to get another view.”
Raiford reported on the coffin being taken from the White House to the Capitol Rotunda to lie in state for the funeral on Monday. That same Sunday, Raiford would also be sent to the streets of Washington to get people’s reactions to Lee Harvey Oswald being shot to death by Jack Ruby.
“Many of them had not heard about it,” Raiford said. “Others, I noticed … were gathered around portable radios and they had handheld radios and they were listening to it, so they knew. But for many of them my telling them about it was the first they heard and people were astonished.”
During Raiford’s broadcasts he wore a Brooks Brothers suit, similar to what JFK wore. Raiford still remembers the crowd that gathered Sunday to see the procession.
“There was a long line of people who were lined up to go up there to the Capitol viewing of the casket and pay tribute,” Raiford said. “It looked like it stretched all the way back to the White House.”
For Raiford, his coverage of the funeral procession came after a career started in journalism by sheer chance.
He was 17 years old and working at Webb Field baseball stadium, chasing after foul balls and cleaning up the stands. When the PA announcer called in drunk, Raiford was tapped to do the announcements. Officials with WEGO Radio who broadcasted at the stadium eventually had Raiford commentate on games.
That led him to working at WEGO before going to the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where he received a BA in journalism and Master’s in mass communications. He’d bounce around several radio stations before ending up in Washington for the Kennedy coverage.
“You are out there -- no script, no notes -- and you’ve just got to tell what’s going on before you,” Raiford said.
He remembers quoting Robert Frost, one of the JFK’s favorite writers, who read poems at Kennedy’s inauguration. Raiford quoted “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
When Raiford talks about that day, his voice still cracks and tears still sting his eyes.
He has a recording of the coverage for the day of Kennedy’s funeral, when a second procession took Kennedy from the Capitol to the funeral.
“Prior to the time the procession started it was so very, very quiet, even the wind is still,” Raiford said during the Monday, Nov. 25, 1963 broadcast. “I watched and asked some people earlier this morning, too, what they thought their reaction would be. They said they watched and had heard so much the past three days they don’t know how they’d react to the passing.”
On the recording, Raiford talks while the Navy band performs and mentions the various people who showed up for the procession, including five students from Duke University, one student who had hitchhiked from Vermont, and a man and his family from Michigan who had to wait six hours to pay their respects in the Capitol Rotunda.
During the broadcast, Raiford discussed how people in the crowd had described Kennedy.
“He was real. Genuine. A family man. One man said, ‘You know the personal thing I remember is his rocking chair,’” Raiford said in that 1963 broadcast.
Today, Raiford considers his time covering those events as some of his best work, and thankful for the opportunity at WTOP.
“That I was chosen over a number of people in that staff of this major station made me feel good,” Raiford said. “I was a part of it, part of history.”
Contact Michael Knox at 704-789-9133.