A former Star-Telegram reporter remembers the day JFK came to town

Posted Friday, Nov. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Fort Worth gave the president gifts that day – a hat, boots.

And a warm, enthusiastic embrace.

He left a priceless one for Fort Worth – a reassuring smile.

Fifty years on, it is with us yet.

Even more so.

Surely even more so.

The makings of a jubilant, joyous time were there.

There in abundance.

There at Carswell Air Force Base, where many waited – men, women, children.

Waited for Camelot.

Waited for Lancelot and his Guinevere.

Waited for Lancer and Lace – the Secret Service code names for the president and the first lady.

Waited in the night, in the pleasant autumn mid-50s weather for Air Force One to come into sight, land, let John Kennedy and Jackie disembark.

Let the jubilant 728 minutes, give or take, that were to come in Fort Worth begin.

Then the joyous times continued as the president asked Jim Wright to take him over to the waiting crowd and introduce him to the Democratic congressman’s “friends” of Fort Worth.

The president, the first lady smiled at the people, reached for them. Connected with them.

Collectively, the people reciprocated.

That greeting continued, gathered momentum as the presidential entourage made its way along the streets, with added numbers cheering, waving, smiling as it passed.

That enthusiastic welcome was there, too, when the presidential party arrived at the Hotel Texas, where still more men, women, children awaited with their jubilant greetings.

Including a couple of hundred who were in the hotel lobby, transformed in those moments into something of a happy echo chamber.

Even downtown Fort Worth was dressed for the special occasion.

Almost three dozen buildings were adorned and outlined with lights — lights readied for the approaching Christmas holidays but turned on early for this special occasion.

After all, Camelot doesn’t come to town every day.

Giant Santas danced in the air above Main Street, held in place by long green ropes.

The president and first lady soon were in Suite 850, ready for some rest.

Ready for some rest after a long day’s journey into that night – a flight from Washington, stops in San Antonio and Houston.

A needed journey. One some referred to as the president’s “peace tour,” a play on words from his innovative, readily accepted Peace Corps.

A necessary journey, one required to, among other things, mend political fences – barbed wire fences, some might say. And, surely as much as that, lasso campaign cash.

Texas was an excellent place to begin that campaign in search of re-election in 1964.

Texas had voted for Kennedy over Richard Nixon in 1960, giving him the state’s 24 electoral votes —though Tarrant County had not. Texas would be needed again.

Indeed, the entire country had only given this young president of some 1,000 days — elected at 43 and now 46 — a super-thin margin of only 113,000 votes in a turnout of some 68 million.

And, since taking office, Kennedy had politically bruised some people. And they, him.

Camelot had been buffeted, if not tarnished.

So the president was here, not so much to reclaim Camelot’s shine — which not all, certainly, had assigned to him in the first place — but to tell his governmental tale, speak of his accomplishments, restate his goals of making this nation, this world a better, stronger place. Even projecting our going to the moon, for some a far-fetched idea — a moon shot — at the time.

Almost predictably, Kennedy — in his remarks of 204 seconds there on that makeshift truck trailer speaker’s platform on the parking lot across the street from the hotel and then in his 12-minute speech at the breakfast in the hotel ballroom — spoke admiringly of Fort Worth’s and Texas’ long-standing role in national defense.

Much as he had done in a Burk Burnet Park campaign stop in September 1960.

Where’s Jackie?

Jackie was a special attraction on that Nov. 22, 1963, morning — that morning when the rains came to threaten, possibly disappoint, then just in time moved on as if ordered by some higher authority, leaving the place refreshed.

Hopeful.

Smiling.

Where’s Jackie? The crowd on the parking lot wanted to know. She did not appear there. Takes her a little longer to get ready, the president explained with a grin, eliciting laughter.

Where’s Jackie? The movers, the shakers, the union workers, the blacks, the Hispanics — and their wives, especially the wives — later wanted to know there in the ballroom.

Where’s Jackie? It is a refrain that — in the memory of it all — is with us to this day.

Those there on the parking lot, in the ballroom, fretted, murmured.

Fretted, murmured they would not get to see Jackie, that she would not appear after all.

But after some delay, Jackie did come.

And then the president spoke in the ballroom — with expanded praise for the city’s, the state’s longstanding role in national defense — for his dozen minutes.

Then Lancer and Lace were gone.

Gone, much as they had come, with men, women, children lining the streets and saying goodbye much as they had said hello — or, was it “howdy,” this being Cowtown? — there at Carswell.

Then Air Force One — seemingly even shinier, prouder, more forceful than when it had arrived — zoomed down the runway and took its commanding place in the sky.

Taking Camelot away.

Two more stops to go.

The president was to rest a little while that night at the LBJ Ranch, there to assess the results of the Texas “peace tour.”

My Fort Worth assignment completed, I went to my courthouse newspaper beat, stopped by the sheriff’s dispatcher’s office to see if there had been any news while I was away.

With pained expression, the dispatcher asked:

“Have you heard what happened in Dallas?”

Fort Worth ties

The joy of the morning was ripped, yanked, stolen away.

Sadness engulfed. Took charge. Ruled.

I rushed toward Dallas, a seemingly suffocating heaviness increasingly claiming, gripping me with each passing mile.

At the Dallas police station, I would get a glimpse in the jammed hallways, in the midst of the chaos, of a man with what appeared to be a black eye, a cut on the face, a man who — the fast-moving rumor mill had it — had killed the president.

A man with a Fort Worth connection.

I went to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where the shattering events were over, where through happenstance I saw a neighbor who worked there and showed me about the emergency room, which shortly before had been so desperately active and just now was so eerily, hauntingly, exhaustedly quiet.

In the evening, I was back at the police station, where, in a congested room, the man said to have the Fort Worth connection — and now said to have killed a president, killed a police officer — was on seemingly mob-induced display.

Detectives made comments, answered questions.

The suspect did the same.

A man in a fedora appeared at my left.

He asked me and other newsmen nearby if we needed refreshments.

Sandwiches? Cokes?

He seemed angry at the suspect. Shouted expletives in his direction.

I wondered about his presence there; wondered if he were a police station hang-around, much like the city hall and courthouse hang-arounds I was accustomed to in Fort Worth.

I did not see — and did not expect to see — that man on my left again that day.

But I did see him again, on television the following Sunday morning.

Shooting and killing the man with a Fort Worth connection.

Sleepless in Dallas

In the dark, early-morning hours of the Saturday after the Friday assassination of the president, I could not sleep, although I had a hotel room, so I walked some of the downtown Dallas streets.

Eventually, I spent a while at the grassy knoll.

A few people mingled there in the quietude.

Some said they couldn’t sleep either.

I wondered if anyone was able to sleep in the White House.

Or in the residence of the vice president — now the president and who would not move into the White House until later.

I wondered, too, about the now-shattered birthdays of John-John and Caroline — birthdays in which they might have ridden the pony, Tex, Lyndon Johnson had given them — to come in just a matter of days.

And all their birthdays in years to come.

A half-century of birthdays on, I reflect on those hours here and those hours

there and realize that some of me — and surely some of you — is still there.

There in each place.

There in the place of great joy.

There in the place of great sadness.

And always will be.

Roger Summers is a retired Star-Telegram staff member who covered JFK events in Fort Worth and Dallas on what he calls That Day. He writes regularly at venturegalleries.com.

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