JFK: Mementoes kept 50 years mark awful day
DALLAS — The mementoes are everywhere, preserved for five decades by people who wish they could forget: Letters of grief and thanks, in a widow’s hand. An unwanted wedding band. A rose stained with blood.
Those who were closest to events on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated still talk about what they witnessed as if it happened yesterday. And they frequently mention a keepsake, some small but often heavy burden they’ve carried since Nov. 22, 1963 — perhaps a touchstone to happier memories or just an artifact proving history brushed their lives.
Some can’t even explain the items they keep from those awful, convulsing, world-changing 24 hours.
In the Dallas AP office, the phone rang and bureau chief Bob Johnson grabbed it. On the line was staff photographer James W. “Ike” Altgens, who had been recording the Dealey Plaza chaos.
“Bob, the president’s been shot,” he shouted from a pay phone.
“Ike, how do you know?” Johnson demanded.
“I was shooting pictures then and I saw it.”
Johnson typed furiously, folding in Altgens’ details:
“DALLAS — PRESIDENT KENNEDY WAS SHOT TODAY JUST AS HIS MOTORCADE LEFT DOWNTOWN DALLAS. MRS. KENNEDY JUMPED UP AND GRABBED HIM. SHE CRIED: ‘OH, NO!’ THE MOTORCADE SPED ON.”
The Lincoln, with agent Hill spread-eagled over the wounded president, raced to Parkland Hospital.
Because it was lunchtime, many on the Parkland staff were in the cafeteria when calls suddenly blared over the public address system, summoning specialists — “stat.”
Dr. Ronald Jones called the operator to learn why.
“Dr. Jones, the president’s been shot …,” she said. “They need physicians.” The cafeteria cleared.
Through the open door of the trauma room, Jones saw a stoic Jackie Kennedy, moving from a folding chair placed for her outside the room to standing quietly inside as doctors assessed her husband.
“His eyes were open, they were not moving,” Jones says.
As he located a vein to insert an IV, other physicians worked frantically.
Dr. Malcolm Perry, who’d been at lunch with Jones, was examining the wound in the president’s neck. Perry asked Dr. Robert McClelland to stand at the head of the gurney and hold the retractor.
“As soon as I got into that position,” McClelland recalled recently, “I was shocked … I said to Dr. Perry, ‘My God, have you seen the back of his head?’ I said, ‘It’s gone.’”
Dr. Kemp Clark, professor of neurosurgery, was standing by a heart monitor at one point, McClelland recalls. Kennedy’s heartbeat had flatlined.
“Dr. Clark said to Dr. Perry — and I remember the exact words — ‘He said, ‘Mac, you can stop now because he’s gone,’” McClelland says.
The trauma room door opened, admitting the Rev. Oscar Huber, who anointed the president’s head with oil and administered Roman Catholic last rites.
When the end came, eyes turned to Jackie Kennedy at her husband’s side. McClelland recalls a kiss. Dr. Kenneth Salyer, who had done external cardiac massage, says, “She sort of laid on his chest … in a sort of compassionate motion.”
Afterward, in the empty trauma room two young residents noticed the first lady’s roses, discarded and bloodstained. Each picked up one, and would preserve the flowers in Lucite. “You can’t really tell what it is,” says Dr. Michael Ellsasser, “but I still have it anyhow.”
McClelland was changing clothes later when he remembered once seeing in a museum a piece of clothing stained with Abraham Lincoln’s blood after he was shot. Struck by the sense of history in his own simple white shirt — soaked in blood from where he leaned over the gurney — he decided it should be preserved. He has it still.
The shooting of the president was now a homicide case, and investigators fanned out.
Buell Frazier, who had innocently driven Oswald to work, was rounded up for hours of fierce questioning.
Across town, after a rare lunch break at home, Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit hurried back to patrol. He soon spotted a man matching the description of the suspected assassin, pulled up alongside him and got out of his patrol car. In a flash, the man shot Tippit dead, then fled.
As radio news reported an officer’s shooting near the shoe store where John Brewer was manager, he noticed a man suspiciously engrossed in a window display instead of the police cars streaming past. When the man darted into a movie theater, Brewer followed and raised the alarm. “Cops were coming over the backs of the chairs…,” Brewer recalls. “In just a little while they had the cuffs on Oswald.”
Today, Tippit’s wife Marie speaks of the blessing of his brief return home for lunch that day and of their years together. She is a great-grandmother now, but as a young widow treasured a letter she received from another, Jacqueline Kennedy. “She said that she had lit a flame for Jack and she was going to consider that it would burn for my husband, too, that it would burn forever.”
She keeps her husband’s badge in a bank vault.
That afternoon, police arrived with a sharp knock on Ruth Paine’s door as she and Marina Oswald sat transfixed by the television news.
“We have Lee Oswald in custody, for shooting an officer,” Paine remembers them declaring. They began questioning the women.
“And then one of the policemen asked Marina (whose native language was Russian), ‘Did Oswald have a gun?’
“And I said, ‘No,’ but translated to Marina, who said, ‘Yes, he did.’”
Paine continues: “She led us to the garage and pointed to a blanket roll.” That, she said, was where Oswald kept his rifle.
The rifle was gone.
“That was my worst moment,” says Paine.
She keeps few mementoes of the time. What she does carry still, she says, is “a sense of grief and loss.”
And regret. “If only I had known that Lee Oswald had hidden a rifle in my garage.”
Around 2:30 p.m. at Dallas’ Love Field, Clint Hill watched as Lyndon Johnson, flanked by Jackie Kennedy, was sworn in as president aboard Air Force One. The plane, with Kennedy’s casket secured inside, quickly took off for Washington.
It landed at Andrews Air Force Base at 5:58 p.m.
The capital was still. Stunned Kennedy aides steered through silent streets to the White House to keep vigil. Richard Goodwin, a speechwriter and adviser, was one of them.
“Jackie Kennedy sent word that she wanted the East Room, where the president would lie in state, to look as it did when Lincoln’s body lay there,” Goodwin remembers.
He and others went to work. Someone was sent to the Library of Congress for a sketch and a newspaper description from Lincoln’s time; artists and upholsterers were called in, and black crepe was carefully hung. “In the midst of all these activities we would alternately break down in tears,” Goodwin says.