My Top 10 “Where Were You When?” moments

Posted on May 17, 2010 in Blog, Columns, Life in general, Speaking | 5 comments

Bob Welch’s Top 10
“Where Were You When?” Memories
(See May 18, 2010 Register-Guard column)

My criterion: How deeply did this event singe itself into my memory, for better or worse.*

1. 911 terrorist attack, 2001
My wife and I were in Normandy, France, doing research for a book I was writing on the first nurse to die after the invasion began (“American Nightingale”). While eating in our hotel’s restaurant, an Irishman leaned over and said, “You’re Americans, aren’t you?” We said we were. “Did you hear what happened in your country today?” And proceeded to tell us about the terrorist attack.

2. Thurston shooting, 1998
As features editor, I was the first person from the newsroom in the building on that May morning and the downstairs receptionist had a student from the Thurston yearbook staff on the line. Could I take the call? I did. The young man said he was locked in the yearbook room and someone on campus had a gun. I remember thinking: Oh, this won’t turn out to be any big deal. I was wrong.

3. Steve Prefontaine’s death, 1975
I was a junior at the University of Oregon. It was a sunny Friday morning. I’d watched Steve Prefontaine win another 5,000-meter race at Hayward Field the previous night. The end of the term was near. As the poet Browning wrote: “All was well with the world.” And then, in front of the UO’s School of Journalism building, Allen Hall, my good friend Mike Yorkey said, “Did you hear the news? Pre died early this morning in a car accident.” One of those day-the-music-died moments for me.

4. Girl killed at OSU noise parade, 1963
At age 9, I was at the annual homecoming parade on Corvallis’ Monroe Street, which lines the southern edge of campus. The parade stopped. We heard talk that someone had been run over. I spent the night with the kid next door, Michael Catlin. I remember hearing on the 11 o’clock news that a 15-year-old girl had fallen off a float and been crushed by a tire. It was my first encounter with death.

5. John F. Kennedy assassination, 1963
Just over a month later, I was in Mr. Brown’s fourth-grade class at Garfield Elementary School in Corvallis when the principal, Mrs. Marr, broke the news to us. Because the other fourth-grade teacher’s name was Mrs. Kennedy, some students misinterpreted the news and thought she had been killed. I don’t recall mass panic or weeping.

6. The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” 1964
I had just turned 10 and watched with my family on our black-and-white TV at 1331 N. 10th Street in Covallis. My father, then 40, recorded them on one of those giant reel-to-reel tape recorders. I think I played “I Want to Hold Your Hand” every morning before going to school for the rest of the year.

7. First Man on the Moon, 1969
I was at a friend’s house on 29th Street, and believed the event momentous enough that I wrote on a piece of paper: “As I’m watching this, a man is walking on the moon. July 20, 1969.”

8. Death of four Corvallis students en route home from state basketball tournament, 1969
Along with some Cheldelin Junior High pals, I had ridden my bicycle to the A&W on Western Avenue one Saturday when we heard the news from some Highland View friends. Three Corvallis High students and a Highland View Junior High student were killed when the Corvair they were in hit an overpass abutment south of Salem on Interstate-5.

9. Death of OSU basketball player Mike Keck, 1971
The week before I would turn 17, I was waiting outside to referee a game at Harding Elementary School. It was a Saturday morning. Someone broke the news that the Beavers’ star player, guard Mike Keck of Klamath Falls, had been killed in a car crash in California shortly after midnight.

10. Death of Robert F. Kennedy, 1968
At 14, I wasn’t exactly politically savvy — what else is new? — but a few weeks before Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles, he had passed through Corvallis. My mother had taken me to Les & Bob’s Sporting Goods to get me a set of barbells and we had walked across the street and heard Kennedy talking in front of the courthouse. So, it was more meaningful when I heard from my mother that he’d been killed. I remember standing on our front lawn on Norwood Street — we’d moved since the Beatles invasion — and thinking this wasn’t really happening.

* Excludes personal events, even if they did make news, such as in June 1998 when my mother was aboard a boat off the Galapagos Islands that capsized. Four people drowned. She survived.


  1. Dear Bob,
    This is a comment on your newspaper column of May 18, 2010, “Our recall of big events is unique.” You ask “Quick, where were you when you heard of the Three Mile Island explosion in Pennsylvania (1979)?” I can tell you exactly where I was: sitting in my kitchen, reading your above-mentioned column. It’s easy to rememeber because this was the first time I had ever heard of ‘the Three Mile Island Explosion’. I worked in the nuclear industry for a few years and never once in that time did I read or hear anything in the news that was factually correct about incidents at nuclear facilities. It has always made me wonder how much of what I read in the paper/hear on the news is correct. News stories always managed to garble some of the story. My favorite was the magical transformation whereby a 20 inch reduction in a tank level became a 20% reduction in reactor power. And the reporter was working from the power company’s press release. I have no idea why reporters get these things wrong/upside down/backwards/inside out. I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories. My current working hypothesis that most reporters don’t have experience in the industrial/technical world and don’t grasp the significance of details. I’d like to hear your explanation for the phenomenon. I enjoy reading your column.
    Nick Howland

  2. Nick: My bad. You’re absolutely right. Will run correction Wednesday pointing out that rather than an explosion, it was an accident involving a partial core meltdown of a pressurized water reactor. As a journalist, I aim for accuracy. Unfortunately, when you’re juggling hundreds of facts on deadline, we’re not always perfect. Thanks for taking time to write.

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  5. Bob Welch,

    Not sure why I woke up thinking of 1969. I was a junior at Corvallis HS. I believe there were five in the car that day. Four died. The driver was spared. I believe I knew everyone that was in the vehicle – a Chevrolet, Corvair Monza. For some reason I can only remember three who died – Gary, Becky and Becky’s sister. Mike was driving. Who was the fourth person?

    I remember seeing Gary’s dad months later and I believe it was in Reno, Nevada that I ran into him. He probably didn’t recognized me. One could easily see the grief that he was living through on an hourly basis. Gary was a very good young man and was my friend. I’ve thought of his dad many times since then. At just 17, I really had had no contact with death in my life. I remember feeling very strange running into his father. I didn’t know what to say – so, I said nothing.

    I hope all of the families made it through that awful time. I really don’t know if they did or not. And if any of them are still alive I’d like them to know that there children, brothers or sisters are not forgotten. There lives mattered.

    The loss of child at any age is probably the worst thing a person can go through.

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