He was able to walk up and touch the historic caisson planned by Jacqueline Kennedy to carry the body of her husband to his final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery.
Yet it was the unending sound of the funeral march from the White House, down Pennsylvania Avenue and the connecting streets lined with a million, authorities said, that remains with him to this day.
Keith McKnight was 21 when the Ohio State University journalism school sent him to Washington, D.C., on the final weekend of November 1963.
His assignment from the daily student-published school newspaper, the Lantern: Cover the funeral.
“I was floored that they would send me over there,” McKnight said. “I had no idea why they chose me rather than somebody else. I thought: ‘My God, they must think I know what I’m doing,’ which I didn’t.
“But it was a great learning experience, because going into something like that, you find out how much you didn’t know, and how much you should have done that you didn’t do.”
It was late in the morning of Nov. 25, almost three days to the hour after the shots were fired in Dallas.
In the mourners coming from the White House, McKnight remembers the sight of the towering figures of the day: French President Charles de Gaulle, the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, and the veiled face of Mrs. Kennedy in black, holding the hands of her two children in their powder blue clothes. It was John Kennedy Jr.’s third birthday.
McKnight would write, 40 years later in the Beacon Journal, about his memories of that moment when the president’s flag-draped coffin passed by him:
“It was followed by an impressive, saddled, riderless black horse by the name of Black Jack, displaying boots that had been reversed in the stirrups — the ancient symbol of a fallen hero.
“For as long as I may live, I cannot imagine forgetting the jarring cadence and volume of the muffled drums that proclaimed the movement of the mournful procession.
“It seemed to penetrate everything.”
And it still does, McKnight said, whenever he recalls that sad day.
“They kept rolling on and on and on. And I know that cadence like I know my heartbeat. Even now,” he said, his voice breaking momentarily, “I can hear it. It’s something that stays with you.”
The day before, a Sunday, when Kennedy’s coffin had been placed in state in the Rotunda of the Capitol, McKnight said he was able to walk up to the empty Lincoln caisson after it had been pulled up to the House side of the building.
“It was just sitting there,” he said. “I can’t recall all of the details of it, but I remember putting my hand on the wheel of the caisson thinking: ‘Wow, this is a part of history.’ And there was sort of nobody there. There was a whole bunch of people on the grounds, of course, but the attention was on the casket inside.”
McKnight said he took a photo of the caisson that day. He said he knows he has it somewhere among all the other memories inside his home in Wadsworth, and has looked for it often since then.
Keith McKnight, 71, graduated from Ohio State in the spring of 1964 and worked for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, the Willoughby News-Herald and the Dayton Journal Herald before joining the Beacon Journal in 1978. The former investigative reporter retired from the Beacon Journal as an assistant metro editor in 2008.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or firstname.lastname@example.org.