JFK’s assassin forever tied to Dallas but left mark on Fort Worth, too

Posted Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Tucked away in a quiet corner of the tree-lined Shannon Rose Hill Cemetery is a simple grave marker with one word on it:

OSWALD.

The red slab of stone marks the final resting place of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who killed President John F. Kennedy in Dallas nearly 50 years ago, and serves as an enduring reminder of the area’s ties to one of the darkest chapters in the nation’s history.

On a recent day, a bouquet of plastic flowers rested atop the well-worn, nearly grass-free grave site, which has become something of a tourist attraction, featured in countless scavenger hunts and even listed as a check-in site on the social networking site Foursquare.

Oswald and his family didn’t draw that much attention as they moved around the country — living in cities from New Orleans to New York to Dallas.

But Fort Worth seemed to be a magnet, drawing the family back time and time again.

This is where Oswald attended several schools, including Lily B. Clayton, George C. Clarke and Arlington Heights elementary schools, as well as Arlington Heights High School.

This is where his mother, Marguerite, was living when she found out her son shot the 35th president.

And this is where she died, and was buried next to her son, 32 years ago.

Memories run deep locally for those who crossed paths with the Oswald family, whether working with the mother or growing up with the son.

Flowers and messages left at the Oswald grave site are regularly cleared away. Others soon appear.

The recent arrangement of bluebonnets, yellow daisies and pink gladiolas left at Lee Harvey Oswald’s grave initially bore no note — giving no hint whether it was from a family member, a childhood friend or a stranger.

Days later, a note was added to the arrangement. It cited a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “To be great is to be misunderstood.”

It’s a small sign that people are remembering Oswald as the anniversary of the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination approaches.

Childhood days

Phil Vinson recalls Oswald from second grade at Lily B. Clayton Elementary School.

Oswald was a little bigger, taller and more muscular than the other second-grade boys, making him much in demand during recess.

That’s when boys gathered in small groups and ran around trying to scare other groups of kids.

“Everyone kind of looked up to him,” said Vinson, 73. “He was admired to some extent. … [Some] thought he was kind of cool, kind of rough and tough, a muscular and well-developed kid for the second grade.

“One boy … said he asked Oswald one time, ‘How did you get so big and strong?’ He said Oswald said, ‘Because I eats me spinach,’” said Vinson, who grew up to be a Star-Telegram reporter, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington and a freelance writer.

Vinson said he didn’t see or think about Oswald for years — until he was among the group of Star-Telegram reporters in Dallas covering the assassination. He wrote a small first-person story that ran in the paper with his class photo.

Those who knew Oswald described him as “a fairly quiet, kind of a loner type person,” said Elizabeth Martin, whose mother and aunt grew up around him.

“My mother [Margaret Ann Boyle] and my aunt [Dovie Lynn Boyle] would have parties, and the Oswalds would attend the parties. By all accounts, they were fairly normal boys,” Martin said. “They said many times over the years after the assassination that the boys’ mother was very domineering and unkind and hard to approach.

“My aunt, who was actually in the same class as Lee in school, said he was a likable boy but kind of sad.”

Crossing paths

Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon was at the same school as Oswald for two grades — third and 11th.

“He was a nice guy in third grade,” Shannon said of their days at Arlington Heights Elementary School. “He was a smiley, friendly guy with curly hair. We would play together at recess.”

But Oswald’s family moved around a lot, and the two didn’t find themselves at the same school again until they were juniors at Arlington Heights High School.

“He was someone you would see in the hall and say hi to,” Shannon said.

But Oswald soon dropped out, and Shannon wouldn’t really think about him again for a few years. Shannon and some friends were headed to Dallas to watch a football game at the Cotton Bowl in 1959.

As they drove through Dealey Plaza, a news bulletin was broadcast on the radio about a 20-year-old Marine from Fort Worth who had defected to Russia. It was Oswald.

“I said, ‘My Lord, I went to school with that guy,’” Shannon remembered.

The same thought ran through his mind when he heard about the assassination.

Years after that, when Shannon was working in the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, he received letters from Oswald’s mother about twice a year.

“The letters were saying that her son was just accused, not proven guilty,” Shannon said. “It seems she sent them to several people.

“Then the letters just quit coming.”

Baby nurse

Debby Rice found her life briefly intertwined with the Oswald family’s in August 1963.

She had given birth to her son, Mark Adam Rice, on Aug. 1, 1963.

She temporarily moved into her parents’ home on Autumn Drive to have as much help as possible. And not familiar with child rearing, she and her husband hired a baby nurse — Marguerite Oswald, who had been recommended by family members — to help them through the first few weeks.

“Nobody could stand her,” Rice said. “The maids hated her — everyone hated her. She was very rude.”

Stories about her brief stay with the family became nearly legendary.

Marguerite Oswald wouldn’t eat with the family, or staff members, and she wouldn’t eat leftovers, so she wanted to eat before the family did — alone. And while she claimed not to be a big eater, she would consume large amounts of food, Rice said.

She talked about her sons, particularly the one who she said worked for the CIA.

“She said he didn’t like the government and referred to secret things he was doing,” Rice recalled. “She would say that but never talk about what he was doing. She just talked about ‘secret’ things, over and over.”

Less than two weeks after Marguerite Oswald was hired, she was fired because the family feared she was giving the baby paregoric — a liquid medicine that included powdered opium — so he wouldn’t cry at night.

“We fired her because everyone thought she was drugging the baby,” Rice said. “Then everything was fine. Life with her was over, and we didn’t have to worry about anything.”

But a few months later, the family learned that Lee Harvey Oswald — the son Marguerite Oswald spoke of doing secret things — had shot Kennedy.

The FBI contacted the family about a month after the president’s death to find out whether Marguerite Oswald had shared any information.

“None of us knew anything,” Rice said. “We had nothing to do with this.

“I was certainly embarrassed we had her for a nurse.”

‘Biggest story I almost got’

CBS’ Bob Schieffer, a former Star-Telegram reporter, has long told the story that forever linked him to the Oswald family.

At the time, he was the night police reporter and was not involved with covering the president’s visit to Fort Worth. But when he learned that the president had been shot in Dallas, he hurried to the newsroom and found phones ringing off the hook. The room was empty because most reporters had been sent to Dallas.

Trying to help, he answered a phone and a woman asked whether someone could give her a ride to Dallas. “Lady, we don’t run a taxi here,” Schieffer recalls telling her.

The woman told him that she believed her son had been arrested in the shooting of the president. Schieffer got her address, and he and another reporter soon picked up Marguerite Oswald.

He interviewed her on the ride over and said she talked about how people would feel sorry for her daughter-in-law and send her money but nobody would care about her and she would starve. “The woman was truly deranged,” he has said.

He took her to the Dallas Police Department, stayed with her and thought he was going to be in the room when she and her son finally spoke. About that time, an FBI agent asked who he was, and Schieffer admitted that he was a reporter. The man ordered him to leave the room and said, “If I ever see you again, I’ll kill you.”

Schieffer quickly left and still believes that was the “biggest story I almost got.”

The funeral

Oswald was buried the same day as Kennedy, on Nov. 25, 1963, more than 1,300 miles apart.

As a nation mourned the loss of the president, a sparse crowd turned out for Oswald’s funeral at the Shannon Rose Hill Cemetery in Fort Worth.

There were police officers, federal agents, journalists and five family members. No other mourners.

“It was just spooky,” veteran Fort Worth newsman Mike Cochran has recalled.

So few people were there that officials turned to the reporters covering the burial and asked them to carry the pine casket to the grave.

While Cochran said no initially, he changed his mind when United Press International reporter Preston McGraw agreed, because he didn’t want to give another news service an upper hand in covering the story. Other reporters agreed to help as well, because if they didn’t, there would be no funeral — and no story to write.

So they carried the casket to the grave site.

The family arrived. And while it had been hard to find a religious official to preside over the funeral, a nondenominational minister agreed to perform the ceremony.

The Rev. Louis Saunders, who died in 1998, recited Psalm 23 and a section of John 14 and offered a few words to the family.

“Mrs. Oswald tells me that her son, Lee Harvey, was a good boy and that she loved him,” he said at the funeral, reports show. “And today, Lord, we commit his spirit to your divine care.”

Saunders once said: “There was a dim awareness in me of the tremendous contrast between the beautiful and carefully worked-out service for President Kennedy and the very humble and stark service we were having [for Oswald]. The service itself probably took about 10 minutes. The family left very quickly after it was over.”

Judy Patterson and her sister watched from the sidelines of the cemetery. At the time, there was no fence on that side of the cemetery, so they slipped in, curious to see what the funeral might be like.

“We just stood there,” said Patterson, 67, who now lives in Granbury. “I felt bad for the family because the funeral was so small and because of what he had done.

“We saw them put the casket in the hole, and they put the dirt on there,” she said. “We were just fixated on what was going on.”

As the family left the funeral, Patterson and her sister, Jackie, moved closer.

“We walked right up to the grave,” she said, noting that a photographer snapped a photo at that moment and it ended up in Life magazine. “It’s amazing that we were part of that part of history.”

Anna Tinsley, 817-390-7610 Twitter: @annatinsley

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