I was 12 years old when the news terrified me.
In fact, I believe it was the first time a news story actually taught me those life lessons we all learn at some point.
• The world can be a terrible, dangerous place.
• There are bad, bad people out there.
• You must always be careful.
I suddenly realized there are people who could and would kill you.
It’s not that murder was something new to me. But this was different.
Perhaps it was the setting. A place where you go to hike and picnic. A place you should feel safe.
News reports used words like “ruthless” and “vicious.”
I had no real sense of where Starved Rock State Park was.
I lived in North Aurora, but somehow it felt close. Too close.
Now all parks and outdoor playgrounds seemed vulnerable. I did not feel safe.
That was 1960. I had no idea then I would spend much of my newspaper career in La Salle County.
Since then I’ve written about the beauty of Starved Rock.
I’ve hiked to St. Louis Canyon where the bodies of three women were found.
I’ve edited stories about convicted murderer Chester Weger.
The fear I felt so many years ago has faded. But not those lessons.
In fact, they became more embedded and sadly accepted over time.
And each time the reminders were served up on a platter of breaking news.
I was a teenager when I heard President Kennedy had been shot … and killed.
Up to then assassinations were factoids in textbooks I tended to ignore.
Then in 1963 it was happening in front of me.
I recall the day I came home from school and watched Jack Ruby gun down Lee Harvey Oswald as he was being escorted in cuffs.
The JFK and Oswald and Ruby reports were shocking, but they did not scare me as much as the Starved Rock murders.
This was true of most of the quaking headlines still to come.
Until 1968 and 1970. Then that old fear came back.
First Martin Luther King was fatally shot. Then Robert Kennedy was gunned down.
I was a young journalism student. King and then RFK … so close together. The world of news began to feel so much bigger than me.
The headlines were shocking, but sadly in keeping with the chaotic, turbulent times.
But it was not the King or Kennedy assassinations that scared me.
It was Chicago. Close to home.
The 1968 Democratic National Convention was overshadowed by Chicago police attacking demonstrators outside and even some newsmen inside the convention hall.
A friend, student journalist, was there and told me how he felt like a target. And that scared me. As a newsman.
The crazy world of news was teaching me another lesson. That people who are supposed to protect you can also hurt you.
This lesson clutched and hardened me again … in 1970.
I can still see the photo. It flashes every time I heard the words Kent State.
A young woman, a teenager, in anguish, screaming to the sky, kneeling over a young man shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard.
It was called a “massacre.” Four students died. Some were protesting the bombing of Cambodia. Some were just watching.
I remember the first time I saw this photo. You really can’t stop looking at it.
I was thinking, “No. That can’t really be.”
And then I quickly realized it could happen on any campus ... on my campus.
In fact, it’s that photo that put me on this train of thought today.
It showed up in The Atlantic magazine (January/February) under the headline: “What was the most influential photograph in history?”
Pete Souza, White House photographer for Presidents Reagan and Obama, chose the Kent State image.
The picture won a Pulitzer Prize for John Filo, a photojournalism student at Kent State and shooter for a satellite paper for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Funny how really, really bad things in life can turn into Pulitzer Prizes for those who put them on that news platter for all to see.
I don’t say that as a bad thing. I’m a newsman. I am proud of my profession.
It was important to see that photo. I salute those who have the courage to show and tell what really happens. That’s why it deserved the Pulitzer.
Yes, it can frighten us. But the things we don't see frighten me more.
Souza said: “(The photo) was the first picture that riveted my attention as a teenager, when it appeared in my hometown newspaper.”
Yes, riveting, I thought. And then I began to think back … and wonder.
When … exactly when did I realize the world was so screwed up?
And then I remembered.
I think it was when I was 12 years old.
LONNY CAIN, of Ottawa, is the former managing editor of The Times, now retired. Please email thoughts, comments or ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail care of The Times, 110 W. Jefferson St., Ottawa, IL 61350.