Remembering Kennedy: I saw JFK the day he died

I saw John F. Kennedy the day he was killed. It was an unforgettable day in the community of 8,000 where I grew up. Photo: Frank Odell, now of Granbury, Texas, and University of Texas, Arlington, Special Collection

WASHINGTON, November 22, 2013 — I saw John F. Kennedy the day he was killed. It was a never-to-be-forgotten day in the community of 8,000 where I grew up.

JFK spent his last night in Fort Worth, Texas. We were in the town of River Oaks, a middle-class suburb blessed with a small-town feel and the identity of its own schools, the Castleberry Independent School District. I was 13.

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All 12 grades — there was no kindergarten — walked to the highway where the presidential motorcade would pass through our town, headed to adjacent Carswell Air Force Base to board Air Force One and hop over to Dallas, a mere 30 miles away.

About 2,500 students lined the highway boulevard. We were excited. Nothing this big had ever happened in River Oaks. The President was coming! John F. Kennedy. The First Lady, Jackie. The Vice President and Mrs. Johnson. Governor and Mrs. Connally. Senator Yarborough. Congressman Wright.

Nobody knew that within a couple of hours, our euphoria would come crashing down. We would be 2,500 children in a state of shock, surrounded by a stunned nation. No special counselors were dispatched to us, but our teachers, parents and friends did their best. Neither we nor the country ever found any satisfactory answers. We simply learned that sickness has always been part of humanity.

But that morning was exciting. If you’ve seen how Hollywood pokes fun at the formality staged by small towns on special occasions, we lived that part and we loved it.

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The high school band was lined up in full uniform for the presidential pass-by. Twirlers were in full statuesque pose. Cheerleaders were beside them to ramp up enthusiasm. Grade-schoolers waved flags, banners and signs saying, “Welcome to Texas Jack and Jackie.”

A long block away the junior high school band was arrayed in similar formation. Our leading citizens stood in rank and file by the city hall with police and firemen. Kids, teachers, parents and merchants packed the edge of the road for that brief special glimpse.

My sister, Dorothy Istook Bear, recalls, “I was feeling especially proud because I had been selected to carry my [fifth-grade] classroom’s American flag. When we reached the boulevard, the ‘big kids’ from the junior high and high school were there, too. The band was playing, the drums boomed and the thrill of anticipation filled the air. Finally the motorcade appeared and we all waved and cheered. There was the beautiful Jackie in her pink outfit and pillbox hat and our handsome president, right there in front of us! I held my flag high, cheering and waving, trying to make eye contact with them both and my heart was pounding. We all knew it was a big moment in history.”

Belinda Sikes remembers, “I was there in the Irma Marsh [junior high] band. We played ‘Hail to the Chief’ for him and I remember him smiling, winking and waving to us as they drove by. I think we may have played ‘Hey, Look Me Over’ or ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses,’ too. I still have the reed that was in my saxophone when we played for him.”

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“I was in the drill team,” recalls Norma Carter Thomas. “We stood at attention as the CHS band played ‘Hail To The Chief’ when President Kennedy rode by. I think the drill team saluted the president.”

Cheryl Corcoran Hubenak was with the junior high band in front of the police station, “when he got out of his car and shook hands with one of the band members. I was in the second row right behind our drum major. I remember JFK shaking his hand. I was stunned how leathery and wrinkled his skin was.”

Everyone who was there 50 years ago seems to echo Debbie Woods Barlow, who says that “the memory of walking down to see the president is still a very vivid memory. Made me so ‘into’ the Camelot era although I am a Republican. Back then I knew nothing about politics, but just knowing a president was killed in our state was hard. I was under 5-foot at that time so I got to stand in the very front row. I might have been able to touch the car, except for all the security.”

Every American remembers seeing the President of the United States. But for us in River Oaks and students at Castleberry, it got dramatically more vivid almost the moment we got back to school. My friend Les Maxwell and I walked together and he remembers the transition much as I do.

“You and I were 9th graders at Irma Marsh Jr. High and the whole school walked the two miles to the intersection of River Oaks Blvd. and Long Street. As the presidential limo drew close, my eyes were glued on Jackie’s pink outfit so much so that I forgot to look at JFK. It was stunning to say the least, and I remember vividly the texture of the fabric. Don’t know what it’s called with all the fuzzy loops, but it looked like the back side of a terry cloth towel. I remembered those vivid images of Jackie later in the day covered in blood stains, still wearing that dress.

“As we got back to school, it was lunch time, and within minutes the rumors were flying about the president being shot. At first, we all thought it was a prank because after all, we had just seen him go by. When we got to our next class period, the news was confirmed by Mr. McClendon [principal Johnnie McClendon], as he spoke with a broken voice over the intercom.”

“That was such an unbelievable day,” Pete Gooch recalls. “It went from the incredible high of seeing the president to the crashing blow of hearing the news later. Everyone was in tears. I remember we went out and circled around the flag while it was lowered to half-mast. It seemed like the world was coming to an end.”

Says my sister, Nancy Istook Williams, “It was a day of great happiness and great sorrow. Seeing the president in the morning, then hearing that he was shot in Dallas. We were shell-shocked passing in the halls.”

“I was in Mrs. Warren’s fourth grade class,” Majel Cooper says. “Such an exciting day ending in tragedy. We put our heads down on our desks. I prayed for the President’s passage to Heaven. I was so stunned that I couldn’t cry. I cried many years later when I viewed the video showing JFK receiving a Stetson hat at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce breakfast at the Hotel Texas that November morning.”

My neighbor, Lonnie Hobbs, “After we went back to class, someone entered our classroom and whispered to Mrs. Dalton. She took off her glasses and let them hang around her neck. She was crying so we knew something was wrong. Then, Mr. Odom came on the P.A. and told us what happened. Then he put a transistor radio next to the P.A. and we listened to the radio broadcast of Walter Cronkite. It was quiet. No one was talking. Shortly after they announced that JFK was dead, they told us school was out. Louise, Dale, and I walked home. Not a word was spoken.”

“I was there,” says John Bryan. “When the radio news was turned on over the loudspeaker, there wasn’t a dry eye to be found in the school. America changed that day.”

Jeanine Harper says, “We barely made it back to class before the news was announced over the loud speaker. It’s still the week of Black Thanksgiving to our family! Cried like a baby for hours! Momma dropped to her knees and asked us all to pray.”

Some found the fear followed them home. Earl Van Cole remembers, “When I was walking home from school that afternoon, a thought struck my little 9-year-old head: What if the gunman was still close by? I looked behind every tree and bush on the way home.”

Hugh Galyean was in Castleberry High School, where the questions began immediately, “I remember being back in Mr. Fisher’s English class at CHS when the announcement came over the P.A. that the president had been killed and Mr. Fisher spontaneously turning to the blackboard and writing in huge letters. ‘WHY?’ It was a very sobering time.”

The highs and lows on November 22, 1963, made us especially attentive to the around-the-clock television coverage that made its debut that Friday afternoon. So I was glued to the television that weekend when the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was led in handcuffs through the basement of the Dallas police station. Although I watched it live, I could sense it coming and it seemed like slow motion as I watched Jack Ruby approach Oswald with a pistol and shoot him to death.

It was a long and disturbing weekend. All the adults around us told my generation that America changed that weekend, that we’ve never been the same since. It’s impossible for me to tell. I only know it was a special feeling when a president had respect of the nation and of the world.

I had listened to Kennedy’s inaugural address as a 10-year-old boy and been motivated by the ideal of, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It was so very different from today’s approach that government’s job is to be a provider. When Kennedy challenged us to put a man on the moon and bring him back safely, I put pictures of rockets and planets on the walls of my room. I became a big fan of the musical, “Camelot,” the namesake for the imagery that surrounded the Kennedy mythos.

I harbor no illusions about JFK’s imperfections. But through him I saw the power of ideals, whether fulfilled or not. America is starving for our traditional ideals. But woe to pretenders who offer only cynical illusions of those ideals and not the reality.

My sister, Dorothy, recalls what was was taken from her — and from us in River Oaks, and from America — on November 22, 1963:

“My teacher, Miss White, had us working on Thanksgiving decorations. I was sitting on the floor of the classroom, cutting out a paper turkey when Mr. Odom made an announcement over the school intercom telling us the president had died. Time stood still and things blurred. My innocent little mind couldn’t quite grasp what had occurred.

“How could someone we had just seen now be dead? I learned a new word, ‘assassination.’ I could barely pronounce the word, much less understand it. It scared me. How could someone do something like this? That moment stole a piece of innocence from me. There was a lot of talk about the assassination. The news constantly filled the TV airwaves. Then there was more shock and horror watching Lee Harvey Oswald killed before our eyes! It seemed death was everywhere and it was frightening.

“Later, watching the horse-drawn caisson carrying President Kennedy’s body from the White House to the Capitol was a solemn moment. I still remember the drum banging slowly as they made their way. It was a stirring moment when Mrs. Kennedy, the lovely Jackie, was cloaked in black dress and veil for her husband’s funeral, surrounded by her two small children. No one who watched that day will ever forget how the very young son, John John, raised his hand to give a final salute to his father. And with that, the Days of Camelot were over forever.”

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Ernest Istook

Ernest Istook spent 25 years in public office, including 14 years in Congress. He was rated one of the top 25 conservatives in the U.S. House of Representatives. Then was a Heritage Foundation fellow and a fellow at Harvard's Insitute of Politics, where he led a study group on Propaganda in American Politics Today. 

Now as a radio host and a commentator, Ernest aims to expose Washington's gimmicks--to help you avoid the pitfalls. He brings clarity out of the confusion. 

Native to Texas, Ernest transplanted to Oklahoma after graduating from Baylor University.

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