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JFK: Some things you never forget

Honoring the life and legacy of the nation’s 35th president
Written by Gene Fowler.

In downtown Dallas' historic West End district, the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealy Plaza chronicles the life and legacy of President John F. Kennedy. (Photo by Will van Overbeek)

I was sitting at the lunch counter of Coots’ Drugstore, at the corner of Marsh Lane and Walnut Hill Road in Dallas. We had been let out of school that Friday so that we could follow President John F. Kennedy as he and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy landed at Love Field and then rode in a motorcade through downtown. But the excitement turned to anguish and confusion as news came over the radio that the president had been shot and killed.

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In my city. Impossible, it seemed.

But all that day and Saturday we sat, numb with shock, as Walter Cronkite and others delivered the unthinkable news in black and white. Police had found spent cartridges on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, at the edge of  Dealey Plaza, where the president had been shot as his motorcade passed down Elm Street. Hidden on the sixth floor, they found a rifle. Hours later, police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald in the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff, accusing the 24-year-old depository employee of assassinating the president and then killing Officer J.D. Tippit when the patrolman had attempted to question him on the streets.

Then on Sunday morning, we watched on live television as Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby whipped out a .38 caliber Colt Cobra revolver and shot Oswald to death in the basement of police headquarters as officers were transferring Oswald to the county jail.

About 200,000 Dallasites packed the motorcade route to get a glimpse of the handsome young commander-in-chief and his glamorous wife. (Photo courtesy Waldo Sisco, The Dallas Morning News)This November, the city of Dallas will commemorate the passage of half a century since that tragic weekend. At 11:30 a.m. on the 22nd, a public memorial will begin with music, the tolling of church bells, and a moment of silence throughout the city. 
At Dealey Plaza National Historic Landmark, Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian David McCullough will read selections from President Kennedy’s speeches. The U.S. Naval Academy Men’s Glee Club will honor the 35th president, a Navy veteran, in song, and the commemoration will also feature a military flyover, prayers, and a benediction. Video screens will carry the event throughout downtown Dallas.

Of course, a visit to Dealey Plaza at any time provides an opportunity to reflect on the life and legacy of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and the many mysteries that still linger regarding his assassination. A visit to the Sixth Floor Museum, housed in the former Texas School Book Depository, brings the subject into greater focus.

“Let the word go forth … that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” proclaimed President Kennedy in his inaugural address on January 20, 1961. The “new” America identified by the youngest man ever elected to the nation’s highest office is represented in the museum’s first exhibits on the sixth floor. Here is a copy of Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, which laid the groundwork for the women’s movement of the 1960s, and Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which greatly influenced the environmental movement. “The Dick Van Dyke Show” TV sitcom and Chubby Checker’s recording and dance craze “The Twist” are included as other signposts of cultural change.

The next section summarizes President Kennedy’s legislative agenda, often dubbed “The New Frontier.” In his 1965 book A Thousand Days, Arthur M. Schlesinger wrote that Kennedy accomplished more legislatively in his roughly 1,000 days in office than any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Legislation introduced or influenced by the Kennedy White House provided for the conservation of natural resources, raised the minimum wage, and created such international programs as the Peace Corps and Alliance for Progress.

The effort to desegregate the nation’s schools advanced during the administration as African-American student James Meredith, motivated by JFK’s inaugural address, enrolled in the University of Mississippi. Exhibits also highlight major advances in the space program, a nuclear testing ban, and Cold War tensions that included such international incidents as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the United States and Russia nearly went to war over Soviet missiles installed in Cuba.

Museum-goers also learn about the sophistication and elegance of the Kennedy White House. Jackie Kennedy’s fashion sense influenced everyone from the women on “The Flintstones” TV cartoon to arbiters of high-end couture. In a 1961 press conference in France, the president introduced himself as “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.”

He repeated the quip on the fateful trip to the Lone Star State, replacing Paris with Texas. The three-day visit was planned in order to smooth over a rift between liberal and conservative wings of Texas’ Democratic party. At first, the trip went well: On November 21, the president helped dedicate a new aerospace medical center in San Antonio. Air Force One then flew to Houston, where the Kennedys attended a dinner in honor of Congressman Albert Thomas. Earlier that evening, Mrs. Kennedy had addressed the League of United Latin American Citizens in Spanish.

The party arrived at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth just after 11 p.m., and the Kennedys spent their last night together at Hotel Texas. The next morning, the couple attended a breakfast with some 2,500 Fort Worth residents, an event sponsored by the chamber of commerce. Then, traveling with Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Texas Governor John Connally and their wives, the president was scheduled to ride in a motorcade through downtown Dallas, attend a luncheon at the Dallas Trade Mart, and then proceed to Austin for the sole fundraiser of the trip. About 200,000 Dallasites packed the motorcade route to get a glimpse of the handsome young commander-in-chief and his glamorous wife. Seconds before their limousine passed the Texas School Book Depository, Nellie Connally, riding in the middle seat with her husband, turned and said, “Mr. President, you can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you.”

Most museum visitors know too well what happened next.

Still, much remains unknown. Despite the fact that the assassination of the president and the November 24 murder of Lee Harvey Oswald are among the most investigated and chronicled crimes in history, we still don’t know conclusively if Oswald acted alone—and if not, who sponsored or motivated his actions. Museum exhibits include the actual Sniper’s Nest, from which Oswald fired, and the FBI’s scale model of Dealey Plaza with the infamous grassy knoll, where many conspiracy theorists and others believe a second gunman was located. Some witnesses reported seeing a puff of smoke from the knoll. Oswald himself insisted after his arrest, “I’m just a patsy.”

“There are about a dozen major conspiracy theories,” says museum curator Gary Mack. “But no one has ever come close to proving any of them.” According to theories documented by museum exhibits, the assassination could have been carried out by the governments of Cuba and/or the former Soviet Union, pro-Castro factions, anti-Castro factions, organized crime, oil interests angered by administration policies, racist domestic factions, the U.S. military, the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service, the Dallas Police Department, assorted government leaders, and aliens from outer space.

Though Jack Ruby sometimes claimed that he shot Oswald to save Mrs. Kennedy and the nation the pain of a trial, he looms as an even greater enigma in American history. Convicted and sentenced to death for shooting Oswald, Ruby saw his first trial overturned. But before he could be retried, Ruby died of cancer at Parkland Hospital. Because my father was in show business and his name was in Ruby’s address book, the FBI visited him the week after November 24. But even though he knew the man, my father was just as mystified by his actions as were the authorities.

What is certain, however, is that Dallasites grieved deeply after the terrible events. They filled Dealey Plaza with floral tributes, many with handwritten notes expressing love for the Kennedy family and seeking forgiveness for the unfathomable evil that had somehow infected the mind and heart of one who had lived amongst them.

Twelve-year-old Kathey Atkinson of Dallas became a symbol for the nation’s grief when a photo of her holding her palms together in prayer outside the emergency room at Parkland Hospital, where the president was pronounced dead at 1 p.m., appeared on the front page of the Dallas Times Herald and newspapers throughout the country. Atkinson had shaken Kennedy’s hand when he arrived at Love Field earlier in the day, and the president had even helped her regain her balance when the surging crowd caused her to stumble. Mrs. Kennedy touched her cheek and called her “sweetie.”

Wishing to show the world that Dallas cared, Atkinson organized teen talent shows to raise funds for the Kennedy Library planned for Boston. Jacqueline Kennedy sent a handwritten thank-you note, and Atkinson attended the dedication of the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in 1979. There, she drew strength from the words of President Kennedy’s mother, Rose Kennedy, who had lost yet another son, Robert Kennedy, to an assassin in 1968 as he campaigned for president in Los Angeles.

“You don’t ever get over the loss,” counseled the matriarch of the Kennedy clan, “but you learn to rise above it.”

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