Budd Thalman remembers exactly where he was on Nov. 22, 1963, when he heard that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. He was at the Chesapeake Restaurant in Baltimore, attending a luncheon of the Baltimore Sports Reporters Association.
The sport that was on everyone’s mind that day was football, specifically the upcoming Army-Navy game, in which the most celebrated quarterback of his generation, Roger Staubach, was starting for the Midshipmen.
“College football then was bigger than pro football,” said Budd, who lives in Fredericksburg now. “There was no Super Bowl then. The biggest event of the football year usually was the Army-Navy game.”
Budd lived and breathed sports. When his younger brother was born, Budd begged his parents to let him pick the name.
Said Budd: “I named him Timothy Ned Thalman because I wanted him to be an athlete, and headline writers could put ‘TNT Explodes.’ ” (Though his brother was an excellent basketball player and is still a scratch golfer, Budd isn’t sure the headline was ever used. TNT went into the insurance business.)
In fall 1963, Budd was 28. After a stint in the Army and some time as a general assignment reporter in Annapolis for the Associated Press, he had nabbed his dream job: sports information director at the Naval Academy.
The country was crazy over Staubach. As sports PR chief, Budd just had to make sure information flowed smoothly. Every Monday he’d take the train to New York to talk up the QB at the luncheon of that city’s football writers association.
In October, Staubach appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Even more was to come: Life magazine decided to put the Navy quarterback on the cover of its Nov. 29 issue.
Staubach was seen as the leader in the Heisman Trophy race — the team was 8-1 over its first nine games — but being on Life would make him a lock. “We were really excited about it,” Budd said.
In November, Budd squired a Life photographer around the campus. A few days before the issue was to hit newsstands, Life sent Budd three unstapled copies. The covers were stamped “First run copy. Not completely made ready.”
Budd asked someone at the magazine: Is there anything that could keep Staubach off the cover?
“Only a catastrophe,” the man replied.
As Budd drove back to Annapolis from Baltimore on Nov. 22 he knew that just such a catastrophe had come to pass.
“Your first inclination is this couldn’t possibly have happened,” he said of the assassination. “This was so monstrous you couldn’t believe it.”
As the day unfolded there arose something that was new then but has since become familiar: nonstop news coverage. “You couldn’t get away from it, you were transfixed,” Budd said.
Life magazine yanked Staubach from the cover and prepared a special issue on JFK. Budd later gave one copy of the early-run magazine to Staubach and another to Charles Cochran Kirkpatrick, superintendent of the Naval Academy.
The Army-Navy game was delayed to Dec. 7. Navy won, and on New Year’s Day, Staubach led his team to the Cotton Bowl. Said Budd: “There was some resistance among some at the Naval Academy to going to Dallas to play Texas in the Cotton Bowl so soon after the assassination there.”
The people of Dallas were happy to see them.
“To them, maybe that indicated they were not being held in such disrepute by the country,” Budd said. “They really went out of their way to make us feel welcome.”
However, not so welcome that Texas didn’t defeat Navy, 28-6.
Staubach did win the Heisman. And in 1972, he appeared on the cover of Life — as a Dallas Cowboy.
Budd went on to do PR for the Buffalo Bills and Penn State, from which he retired in 2001. (He knew both O.J. Simpson and Jerry Sandusky and was, he said, floored by their later notoriety.)
Bud is 78. He still has his copy of the original Nov. 29, 1963, Life, one of the most collectible magazines around. It hangs on the wall of his home office, a reminder of what might have been.
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I know exactly where I was when JFK was killed. My birthday is Nov. 22, and I was turning 1 in the Japanese town of Fussa-machi. My father was a pilot stationed at nearby Yakota Air Base.
Dad remembers hearing about the assassination when he went to the Officers Club to cash a check. My mother thinks she was at a park when someone told her.
“We felt a little disoriented being so far away from home when such a momentous event had taken place,” she said. Mom said that even now she’ll see coverage from 50 years ago and marvel that she’s never seen it before.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.