Photograph forever preserves the joy of greeting JFK in Fort Worth

Posted Friday, Nov. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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About the photo Gene Gordon’s photo, taken from the flatbed trailer where the media stood as President John F. Kennedy milled through the crowd after his speech, might have been different if not for a federal agent. The photographer, who would ultimately work for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, had hauled an 8-foot ladder to the area, positioned it behind the area where the president would speak and repeatedly checked the angle as other speakers addressed the crowd. Once the president started talking, Gordon said, he climbed up the ladder to take photos of the crowd as Kennedy spoke. But he had only taken one photo – which didn’t turn out to be very good at all -- when a federal agent jerked on his pant leg. “He told me to get off the ladder,” Gordon recalled. “I said: ‘What’s the problem? I’m not going to shoot the president.’” Gordon said he made about 230 exposures during Kennedy’s visit the night before and that day. — Anna M. Tinsley

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It was a split second, a moment frozen in time.

Captured forever were the smiles of men and women – and the looks of pure awe – of those standing just inches from President John F. Kennedy early that November morning in Fort Worth.

Unseen was the cold rain and drizzle that fell earlier that morning.

Unseen was the devastation that would come within hours, as these Texans – and the world – learned that Kennedy had been shot and killed while riding in a Dallas motorcade just 30 miles away.

At this moment, captured in a black and white photo early Nov. 22, 1963, there was just joy.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see President Kennedy,” said Daniel Sanford, a retired nurse who lives in Fort Worth, who was among those standing in the crowd.

Shortly before the photo was taken, the country’s 35th president walked out of Hotel Texas, greeted the crowd and gave what became his last open speech to the general public.

He spoke of his vision for the country, his respect for the country’s military and how Fort Worth had contributed, not to mention his determination to explore space. He even apologized for his wife’s absence, saying she tended to take a little longer to get ready than he did – but she looked all the better for it.

After he finished, he stepped off the makeshift stage and walked along barricades, smiling and shaking as many hands as possible.

Some people were stunned to be so close to the president; others stretched out their hands, hoping to touch the man they believed could make a difference in the world.

“I was impressed with the enthusiasm on their faces,” said Gene Gordon, 84, who took the picture 50 years ago when he was a photographer for the Fort Worth Press. “It really captured the moment.”

In the decades since the president’s visit to Fort Worth, the image of these smiling faces was published and republished countless times, becoming a symbol of the hope, faith and spirit of the thousands of Texans who gathered downtown to hear the president.

Here’s a look at what some of those identified in the photo remember about that morning.

Carol Clark

10, a Forest Hill Elementary sixth-grader

1) The 10-year-old said she didn’t know she was going to see the president.

Early that morning, her mother, Mary, woke Clark and her 7-year-old sister up and told them to get dressed.

“It was dark. I thought it was odd,” she said. “But she had learned not to tell us things because we asked too many questions.”

They all headed downtown and got a good spot right in front of the barricade that would eventually be the only thing between Kennedy and the crowd.

“I was kind of excited. But I had no thoughts we would actually get to see him,” she said. “I was very impressed by all the men on top of buildings with big shotguns. I had never seen that before.”

And then suddenly, President Kennedy stood before her, her sister and her mother.

“We got to shake his hand, and the hands of the governor and the vice president,” Clark said. “He stopped when he got to us and bent down and asked how old we were.

“The Secret Service was trying to hurry him along,” she said. “I shook his hand. Oh my goodness, it’s something that’s hard to describe. Never in a million years did I think that would happen.”

Then she said she and the crowd listened to him speak, but the only thing that stands out for her – as it did for many – was that the president said his wife was running late because she was busy fixing her hair.

“My mother took us because she said she wanted us to be a part of history,” Clark said.

After the speech, her mother took Carol and her sister to school, where they eventually heard that the president had been killed.

“Everyone was so distraught, trying to figure out what was going on,” she said.

Carol Clark Williams lives in Haltom City and serves on the Keep Haltom City Beautiful board. Her mother is Mary Clark (No.3 in the photo) and her sister, Carla Clark Eakman of Fort Worth, was all but obscured in the photo. Part of Eakman’s head is visible in the photo, right in front of the president.

Carla Clark

7, a Forest Hill Elementary second-grader

2) Carla remembers listening to Kennedy speak and then seeing him walk to the crowd. She was stunned when he ended up standing right in front of her.

“He was so tanned and handsome,” she said. “He was asking questions. I don’t think I could even speak because I was so awestruck. He was so handsome.

“I got to touch him,” she said. “I vowed never to wash that hand.”

She and her sister went back to school and regaled classmates, teachers, the principal and more with stories from meeting the president — until an announcement came over the loudspeaker that he had been shot and killed.

“My sister and I walked home crying all the way,” she said. “I will never forget that feeling of loss.”

Carla Clark Eakman, 57, lives in Fort Worth.

Mary Clark

29, a Forest Hill homemaker

3) She went to school to get permission to take her two daughters to see the president while he was in town Nov. 22, 1963.

They got there early enough to get a good spot in front of the barricade and could hardly believe it when Kennedy stopped right in front of them.

“He shook my hand and bent down to ask my daughters what their names were and their ages,” she recalled. “I immediately loved him because he was interested in my children.

“It was a special, special time,” she said. “I loved it.”

But she was stunned later in the day to hear that he had been shot and killed.

“I could not believe it,” she said. “I had seen him that morning and then he was killed. I was so sad.”

Mary “Jere” Hardie, now 79, lives in Fort Worth.

Ellie Minshew

20, Southwestern Bell stenographer

4) She wasn’t sure she would get a chance to see the president, but her bosses said some people from the office could go listen to the president.

So she tied a plastic cap over her hair, to protect it from the damp weather outside, and headed over to the parking lot outside the Hotel Texas. After about 20 minutes, suddenly she saw the president.

“I’ll never forget him coming out,” she said. “The reddish hair, the charisma.

“I could have shaken hands with [Vice President Lyndon B.] Johnson, but I thought who wants to shake hands with them?”

Several people asked where Jacqueline Kennedy was, prompting President Kennedy to respond that “it takes her a little longer to get ready than me.”

She said he had charisma, just as Elvis Presley did.

“He was kind of like a pied piper – he could lead,” she said. “No telling what would have happened if he had lived.

“Seeing him was just magical.”

Ellie Minshew Casey, 70, is retired and lives in Mansfield.

Bill Jenkins

a Richland High School student

5) A 17-year-old student at Richland High School at the time, Jenkins said, “Seeing the president that day was a very big deal for me.”

He and his father and brother were among the thousands in the crowd. To this day, he’s glad they were there.

Seeing the president made such a big impact on him that he almost went to Dallas to see the presidential motorcade there.

Instead, he went back to school, where he soon learned that Kennedy had been shot and killed.

“It was such a turning point,” he said. “I believe that his assassination that day marked the beginning of the end of a certain innocence in America, especially among my generation,” he said.

Jenkins, 67, lives in Dallas and is launching a social-business Internet platform.

Doris Henderson

34, a keypunch operator for the city of Fort Worth

6) She and several co-workers at City Hall headed to the hotel parking lot early that morning to listen to the president’s speech.

They weren’t close enough to shake his hand, but that was OK with her because she thought it was simply “very spectacular that we got to see him.”

After the president left the area, Askew grabbed some lunch. When she returned to City Hall, she rode up in the elevator with someone who said, “Oh, did you hear the president got shot in Dallas?”

“I said, ‘No. That must be just a story,’” she said.

She soon found out, as did many who were listening to radios throughout City Hall, that it wasn’t just a story.

“It became quite serious as soon as we found out it was true,” she said. “For days, schools and businesses were closed. It was a very depressed time.”

Doris Henderson Askew, 84, is retired after more than a decade in the Fort Worth school district’s accounting department.

Melinda Kay

20, secretary to the assistant director at the Fort Worth Public Library

7) She was working at the library, which then was at Ninth and Throckmorton, when she and a handful of co-workers headed out to hear the president speak.

They got there early and soon saw the president walk outside the Hotel Texas and speak to the crowd.

“We always heard people were trying to caution him about walking out into the crowds,” she said. “That morning, after he finished speaking, he just walked down into the crowd and was shaking everyone’s hands.

“Oh my goodness, I couldn’t believe he was right here among us,” she said. “There were men on the tops of buildings that had rifles of some sort and he was well-protected, but it was still kind of a shock to see him walk down into the crowd.”

Kay didn’t get a chance to shake his hand, but she was shocked to see him so close.

“It was the first and only time I have seen a president in person,” she said.

Later, after she and others got back to work, Kay was focused on running a printer when a friend came back and told her the president had been shot in Dallas.

There was one television in the library and they joined the other workers and patrons gathered around it in time to learn the president had died.

“It was a really shocking and sad time,” she said.

Kay, 70, is widowed and lives in Fort Worth

Daniel Sanford

15, Technical High sophomore

8) Sanford, then a self-described nerd, was torn — he wanted to go with his friends to see the president Kennedy but was reluctant to play hooky.

In the end, his parents gave him permission “because this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see President Kennedy.”

Standing in the crowd outside the Hotel Texas, he said, he worked his way to the front of the barricades and yelled to get the president’s attention. “I remember yelling out to him, ‘Mr. President, it’s an honor to meet you.’”

“He grabbed my hand and shook it,” he said. “I held his hand for a split second. He smiled.”

After the speech, when the president and his party left the hotel, Sanford watched the presidential motorcade make its way down Main Street to the courthouse, where the Polytechnic band played.

“I remember him standing up” in the convertible, Sanford said. “It seems like they were playing Hail to the Chief.”

A day that began in such a wonderful way ended in tragedy, and Sanford said he couldn’t believe that anyone would assassinate the president.

“I feel like I lost my innocence on that day,” he said. “On that day, I understood what the word evil really meant.”

Sanford, 65, became a human resources director in Dallas. He changed careers at age 41 and went back to school to become a registered nurse. He retired three years ago and still lives in Fort Worth.

Johnny Bowen

a Diamond-Hill Jarvis high school student

9) He was a 15-year-old student at Diamond Hill-Jarvis who cut class with several classmates that morning to see the president in Fort Worth.

“It was a no-brainer to cut classes to see JFK that day,” he said. “I don’t remember anything about the speech. It is mainly the excitement of the crowd gathered that morning that I recall.”

After the speech was over, Bowen and his friends walked to Leonards Department Store to watch the motorcade go by.

“My friend Ricky had a large-format camera and he pretended it was a tape recorder and ‘interviewed’ several people in the crowd to get their thoughts,” Bowen said. “We were having a good time. I didn’t know at the time that I had seen two presidents on the same day.”

They got back to school for lunch and soon heard an announcement over the intercom that the president had been killed.

“The memories of that day and the days that followed are still vivid,” he said. “I remember feeling sad and depressed that such a thing could happen.

“The other names like [Lee Harvey] Oswald, officer Tippit and Jack Ruby are part of those memories,” he said. “I felt at the time, and continue to believe, that the true story of JFK’s assassination was not told.”

Bowen, 65, moved to Arkansas in 1973 and has lived near West Fort for 34 years. He retired several years ago as a consulting engineer and now is an artist.

Walter Magnus

18, North Texas State freshman

10) Magnus said he and a few college friends decided to drive in for the speech, and then head back to class.

He doesn’t remember too much about the day, other than getting to stand fairly close to the president.

“I think I was impressed just hearing the president,” Magnus said. “I’m glad I went. It’s an unusual experience that one doesn’t get to do every day.”

Magnus, 68, is a Burleson investment counselor.

Donald Dow

38, Dow Art Galleries employee

11) Dow has told the Star-Telegram that he woke at 5 a.m. that day to get to work very early and then decided to walk over to the hotel parking lot.

“I kind of had to be rude,” he said years ago. “I pushed my way up through the crowd to get to him and he looked somewhat different than he did in the papers or on television. He was more ruddy-complected than I had imagined. He had a good deal more hair. And he was a good-sized man.”

Dow, who died in 2009, shared his story with his son, Greg, who at the time was an 8-year-old second-grader at Westcliff Elementary.

“As he and Kennedy shook hands, he overheard a Secret Service agent tell the president, ‘We gotta go, Mr. President. We gotta go.’ The agent then tugged on Kennedy’s jacket,” Greg Dow recalled.

“My dad never forgot the experience of seeing the president that morning,” Greg Dow said. “The excitement in the crowd in the parking lot of the Hotel Texas that morning was electric.”

Donald Dow’s family owns Dow Art Galleries.

Note: Anna Tinsley’s father, Jack Tinsley, was a reporter at the Star-Telegram at the time of the assassination.

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

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