As the nation reacted with bewilderment and shock as they were faced with the news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Mary Hinds, was called upon to write the story of the campus on that somber November day.
At the time, Hinds had just begun writing for the paper as a freshman. Hinds, now retired, worked for the Press-Telegram and in radio for years after she left the paper. However, her career as a serious news writer began here. The Daily Forty-Niner spoke with Hinds about her experience writing about such a historic moment, the campus shock of the day and whether or not she still keeps up with the 49er.
What was the newspaper like in 1963?
It pretty much was what it is today. They had the sections and reporters assigned to beats we had editors. It was run like a daily college newspaper. It was a pretty big operation it was sophisticated. I’m sure you’ve heard of Dixon Gayer [who died at 92 in 2010]. He had been a working newspaper writer so he ran it as if he were actually at a newspaper. You came in and out of the newsroom, you met with your editor, you came to meetings and you got credit for the class but the class never met.
What was it like covering such an important story?
I got the story because there wasn’t anybody else to do it. This is the way many people get things in life, you kind of stumble into it. We got the news in the morning because we are on the West Coast and most people are here in the morning— that’s when most classes are held— and I happened to be in the newsroom and there really wasn’t anyone else to write it. I was 18 years old, I had no business writing a story like that but that was it.
We were all in shock because it was very hard to believe. At that time in the early ‘50s and ‘60s, when you lived on the West Coast— I think it’s almost impossible for people my age to understand this—communication in the country was not what it is. It was not instantaneous. There was the nightly news, but that was a half-hour and that was it. You know we had the Los Angeles Times, but when you lived on the West Coast you felt divorced from the rest of the country. It felt like that stuff was there we did have seasons and everything is written for snow and falling leaves and all this stuff. You lived on your own little island when you lived on the West Coast. Still, he was our president, but it was still like it was happening to somebody else. And we were all in shock, and it wasn’t coming at us like it does now where you look on the television and you look on the internet. People were getting bits and pieces about it. The very first time I heard about it I was on my way to the newspaper office because I had to do something else, and some people in front of me were watching me going is he dead did he die and I thought oh that’s kind of weird. I thought they were maybe talking about somebody they knew personally. I went into the office and they told us what had happened and off we went to write the story.
Were you nervous?
Oh yeah! Six months before that I had been in high school. I was really nervous. Also, it was very focused because we had to get a paper out the next day with it. They said this had to be done and I knew that I had to track down people. When you’re under pressure you focus and as I moved on in life and talked to people that were in similar writing situations, I find that’s what you do. All this stuff is happening, but you have to block out the external input and put a story together. And with a story like this, it had to be perfect…I had to cut out all the energy and noise swirling around me.
How did the students on campus react?
Everybody was in shock. We have been the generation that had this golden childhood. Our parents had been through the war. They had been used to these dramatic, traumatic things happening. But we’d grown up in this lovely Southern California 1950s and early-60s world with sunshine and the beach and nothing bad had happened. [The] Vietnam [War] had kind of [started to happen]. Korea had happened but that was a little bit different. This is like the very first dramatic, traumatic incident in our lives that was universal. People were in shock. No one could believe it had happened. They shut the school down [that day] and sent everybody home.
Did students respond to your piece?
No, because my piece was a part of the bigger experience that people had…But that taught me as a journalist. I learned from that story to capture. What you’re writing is more than just information you’re providing a snapshot of history. I didn’t realize it at the time that when you are writing about historical events, your first obligation is to write the facts. Your second obligation is to produce a snapshot of what it was like then so that historians can use this.
I’m really proud of it because I keep thinking back on it and I was a college freshman. I had been in college for four months. I had no business writing this story, but I was the only one who could do it. Now, I’m really flattered Dixon Gayer and the editors had faith in my writing skills, I had been writing long enough that they knew what I could produce. The paper in those days, it was run like a real newsroom and you hung out in the newsroom if you weren’t in class and people were in there all day long and you worked on your stories in the newsroom. They knew who could write what…so when I look back on it, it was the first serious professional piece I had ever produced. Had never really done something that was a serious grown-up piece. That’s why I save it. I also save it for its historical context.
Do you still keep up with the 49er?
Oh yeah absolutely. I was married to a marine and we spent 30 years cruising the world. We came back and I bought a house one-mile from where I grew up in boring old Bixby Knolls and I dove back into Long Beach. I’ve been on the board for a bunch of nonprofits and I do volunteer work, and…if they find out you’re not only a writer but [work at] newspapers and radio, [they say] you can do the [public relations]. I kept up with the paper that way because I had to as part of my volunteer job. I’ve sent [the Daily Forty-Niner] a bunch of press releases over the years… and you guys run them!