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In VND newsroom, Nov. 22, 1963, was a day of warning bells

| Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013, 11:09 p.m.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Rena Koteski, who was working as a reporter for the Valley Daily News at the time of the JFK assassination, displays an original copy of a newspaper at her home on Friday, November 14, 2013

Before computers invaded newspapers, newsrooms were dominated by noisy wire service machines typing out news from around the world.

The only break from the incessant, high speed clatter of keys hitting paper was an occasional loud “ding-ding” of a bell.

It was a signal to wire editors that a major news story or updates to a breaking news story were coming.

Sitting at her desk in the Valley Daily News newsroom on Fourth Avenue in Tarentum, Rena Lynn Koteski, then Rena Lynn Hursh, a 20-year-old staff writer, recalls that sound on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963.

“I don't know how many ‘ding, ding, dings' came over the machines,” she said. “It wasn't anything monumental at first. But as things got worse, they started going crazy.”

Of course, things were getting worse that day in Dallas, where President John F. Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connolly were shot as they drove through Dealy Plaza in a motorcade.

“Naturally, everybody was interested,” she said.

She said staff members gathered around the wire machines to read the running account of the unfolding story. It would end up being one of the most infamous assassinations in history and what many people believe was a turning point for the United States.

The shooting occurred at 12:30 p.m. in Dallas, but it was 1:30 p.m. in Tarentum. At that time, the “Valley Daily,” as the Valley News Dispatch's forerunner was called, was an evening paper.

“We used to put the paper to bed by about 10 a.m., and it used to be out by 12:30 p.m.,” said Koteski, a lifelong Plum resident.

But the events in Dallas resulted in the newspaper being changed, or “made over,” for two extra editions reporting the assassination of the president.

As a result, her front page story about a Fawn Township water problem — the first of her career — was bumped from the front page after the first edition.

She remembers some staff members weeping as the news that Kennedy had died at Parkland Hospital was reported. Yet she remembers that everyone maintained their professionalism to do what they were required to do.

In those days, newspapers were far more labor intensive and involved many more steps in production than they do now.

Wire copy that now is transmitted and placed on pages electronically had to be physically pieced together and edited by hand by copy editors in 1963, Koteski said. From there, the copy was sent to the composing room where typesetters set the stories into type that was loaded onto pages. Then it was prepared for the last steps to get onto the printing press.

She said the anxiety level, the stress and pressure in the composing room in particular was high that day.

“They were all really good guys and they all cared about heir jobs,” Koteski said. “They wanted to make sure we had a good product.

“I remember going out into the community, and the people being really distraught,” she said.

While Koteski felt bad about the assassination, she admits it did not affect her in the same way as it did so many other people. She said she grew up in a staunchly Republican household, and the youthful vitality and enthusiasm that JFK projected did not connect with her as it did with so many other people in her age group.

“I wasn't really enamored with Camelot,” Koteski said.

But she remembered during the funeral how the president's little son, John, pulled his hand away from his mother's, stepped forward and imitated the soldiers by saluting his father's casket.

“I fell in love with John-John,” she said with a smile.

Koteski thinks that being as young as she was, she did not realize the impact of the assassination on the country overall.

“I felt bad,” she said. “I think now, looking back, I was worried more about things internationally.”

But it came home to her in big way in the late 1990s when she attended a PTA convention in Dallas, years after her 10-year newspaper career ended. By then, she had become a mother and grandmother, and that changed her perspective.

“I saw the plaza and it affected me more now than it did then,” she said. “People who were there were still in tears.”

The sadness in her face evolved into tears as Koteski said, “When you think about those two little ones losing a dad, suffering and the whole world is watching.”

Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or

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