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50 Years After the Assassination: A Personal Remembrance
By Steven R. Butler, Ph.D.
On Friday, November 22, 1963 I was a fourteen-year-old high school student in a Dallas suburb. That morning, nearly everyone at school was excitedly talking about President Kennedy's upcoming visit. It wasn't every day that a President came to "Big D," which despite its popular moniker was then a much smaller city than it is today. Some students, including me, were concerned for Kennedy's safety. Only a month earlier, in downtown Dallas, Adlai Stevenson, the United States' U. N. Ambassador, had been struck on the head with a picket sign by an angry right-wing protester. Before that, Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife had been spit upon and cursed by Dallasites who were unhappy with the Democratic administration's policies.
That morning an ill-advised black-bordered full-page ad, paid for by the "American Fact-Finding Committee," appeared in the Dallas Morning News, adding to the apprehension. Remarkably, it accused the man who had seen us safely through the Cuban Missile Crisis only a year earlier of being soft on Communism. All these things prompted speculation. "What if he got shot or something?" I said worriedly while conversing with my classmates as we waited for the bell to ring, signaling the end of second period. Those words would soon come back to haunt me.
Whenever I see documentary films about the Kennedy assassination and hear people my age tell how they went to Love Field or downtown Dallas, where they got a chance to see the President and his wife drive by or shake his hand, I cannot help but feel envious and deeply regret that at the age of fourteen, I was too young and fearful of authority to skip school. If I had been a Senior I might have done it. I have also often wished that my father, who worked in downtown Dallas only two or three blocks from the motorcade route, had taken me to work with him that day so that we could see the President together. But he didn't. He didn't even take the opportunity to go by himself. He told me later that he had thought about walking over to Dealey Plaza to stand on the railroad bridge that overlooks the area, just out of curiosity, but an anti-Kennedy co-worker talked him out of it. If he had done what he originally planned, he would have been an eye-witness to the tragedy.
After showering at the end of P.E. class, I got dressed and then went to sit on the bleachers in the gym with some other boys. As before, we talked while waiting for the bell to ring. We were suddenly interrupted by our principal announcing over the school's public address system that President Kennedy had just been shot in downtown Dallas, and then he put the office radio up to the microphone so that the whole school could hear the news reports.
When the bell finally rang, the P.A. system was turned off and we all went to our next class. The usual hallway boisterousness had been replaced by hushed but excited whispering, except for two or three thoughtless youths who ran, almost skipping, through the crowd, shouting insensitive remarks like, "Hooray, I'm glad he got shot!"
After the bell rang, signaling the start of the next period, our principal allowed us to listen to news broadcasts through the P.A. system again. At first, all we knew for certain was that the President and Governor Connally had been shot. I don't think I was the only one who hoped that they had only been wounded. Then, at about 1:30 p.m., the dreadful news came: The President had been pronounced dead after being rushed to Parkland Hospital. I was shocked to see my teacher, who always seemed to be in control, put her head down on her desk and sob unashamedly. Some of the girls began crying too. I was stunned and also feeling a little bit guilty, naively wondering if my earlier remark had somehow made it come true. Not surprisingly, our principal dismissed classes early that day, knowing full well that no one, neither students nor teachers, was going to be very focused on schoolwork.
But that was not the end of it. On Sunday morning, while he was being transferred from the Dallas City Jail on Harwood Street to the County Jail near Dealey Plaza, accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was also shot and mortally wounded, in full view of witnesses and during a nationally-televised news report, by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby. On Monday, which the new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, declared a national day of mourning, I stayed home and watched President Kennedy's funeral on television, live as it happened. It was a sad scene and I was particularly moved when the slain President's son, little "John-John" as he was then called, dutifully stood and saluted his father's casket as it rolled past on a horse-drawn caisson to Arlington National Cemetery.
Since then, like a lot of native Dallasites, I have been haunted by this tragedy that will forever be an unfortunate part of our city's history, not least of all because I genuinely admired President Kennedy and still do, despite any personal shortcomings he may have had. He was not only young and charming and seemingly vigorous (keeping his chronic health problems well-hidden) but also an inspirational leader. "Ask not what your country can do for you," he had said at his inauguration, "ask what you can do for your country," and Americans did. True, he was a little hesitant when it came to tackling racial issues but eventually he put his money where his mouth was, proposing the landmark Civil Rights bill that President Johnson shepherded through Congress a little more than six months after Kennedy's demise. In my book, that one act alone makes President Kennedy worthy of our esteem because as a consequence, we are a much better nation today than we were in 1963, when "Jim Crow" was still the law of the land in sixteen states and de facto segregation and injustice was the norm elsewhere.
As a historian with an intense interest in both local and national history, I have visited the site of the assassination many times and just as often, either on my own or with out-of-town visitors, have looked up at that infamous sixth floor window and almost every time felt an incredible sadness. Thanks to my activities in the field of local history I have also seen the spot where accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby in the basement of the former city hall, a place that is not open to the general public, and have met the man, former deputy Jim Leavelle, who was handcuffed to him when it happened. I've even seen Oswald's jail cell, the Oak Cliff boarding house in which he lived at the time of the assassination, the Texas Theater, where he was captured, and his gravesite in Fort Worth's Rose Hill Cemetery. I have likewise visited the Oak Cliff gravesite of Dallas Police Officer J. D. Tippitt, the man who Oswald also reportedly shot on that fateful day and twice, most recently in 2012, I have taken the opportunity, while visiting our nation's capital, to stand in thoughtful contemplation beside President Kennedy's final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery.
Over the years, my admiration for and interest in President Kennedy has led me to acquire a number of books, magazines, and DVDs detailing his life and presidency. Along the way, I have also accumulated a boxful of Kennedy memorabilia, including campaign badges, bumper stickers, and a November 22, 1963 issue of the Dallas Morning News, complete with that hateful full-page ad and a map of the motorcade route. One of the more cherished items in my collection is an LP record album called "The First Family," featuring comedian Vaughn Meader. It is particularly meaningful to me because I bought the album, which makes light-hearted fun of President Kennedy and his family, when he was still alive. After his death, I felt that it would be disrespectful to listen to it anymore and so I put it away and did not play it again for more than twenty-five years.
Not surprisingly to anyone who knows me, I have also researched and written about the Kennedy assassination, my account of which can be found in volume two of the American History textbook currently being used by Richland College students. One of the lesser-known facts it contains is that JFK's 1963 visit was the fifth time he had come to Dallas and that in 1960, when he campaigned here with running mate Lyndon B. Johnson, they drove through Dealey Plaza in the opposite direction (on Main Street) and if then-Senator Kennedy had glanced to his left, which he might have done, he would have seen the spot where his life was destined to come to an abrupt and bloody halt some three years later.
One might think that with all my interest in the subject that I am also a conspiracy theorist. Well, I'm not. Unlike many Americans, I do not believe that there was any sort of conspiracy or plot to assassinate President Kennedy on the part of anyone other than Lee Harvey Oswald, the former U.S. Marine sharpshooter with Communist sympathies who had both the opportunity and the ability to do what the Warren Commission concluded he did. People seem to forget that he was the only employee of the Texas School Book Depository to leave the building after the assassination and that a rifle he owned, with his palm prints on it, was found on the sixth floor near an open window. Although he never confessed, I think that based on the evidence, Oswald's pro-Castro sympathies provide a motive. Only months before the assassination, he had gone to New Orleans, where he started a one-man branch of the "Fair Play for Cuba Committee." That same fall he traveled to Mexico City, where he tried unsuccessfully to get a visa to visit what President Kennedy, in 1962, had called "that imprisoned island." Since the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis made President Kennedy's position regarding Castro's Cuba crystal clear, it was this, I think, that led Oswald to act on the opportunity that chance presented to him.
There's also the fact that fifty years have passed without any credible evidence coming to light to prove otherwise. I therefore agree with Gerald Posner that the time has long passed for the public to put a big stamp of "Case Closed" on the Kennedy assassination.
As the fiftieth anniversary of this awful event draws near, I still feel uncomfortable about having made such a seemingly prophetic remark on the morning of the day President Kennedy died although I am old enough now to realize that it was merely coincidental. I also still miss the positive, optimistic feeling that JFK gave our country during the thousand days of his presidency and it is this, rather than his tragic loss, which I hope my fellow Americans will focus on when the assassination is commemorated both here in Dallas and elsewhere around the nation.
Black and White Kennedy Assassination photos above are from a commercial clip art CD. The photo of President Kennedy at a White House Press Conference is from the Kennedy Library Web Site and is believed to be in the public domain.
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