‘Our country died with him a little bit that day’

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It was just a matter of hours.

But the time President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy spent in Fort Worth — landing at Carswell Air Force Base late on Nov. 21, 1963, and leaving before noon the next day — gave thousands of people who greeted them a lifetime of memories to cherish.

“I am happy to be here,” Kennedy said after arriving in Fort Worth. “I am happy to see all these people.”

During the last hours of his life, he mingled with local residents, shaking hands, signing autographs, smiling for photographs, talking to crowds.

People remember his surprisingly red hair, his tanned skin — and Jacqueline Kennedy’s sense of style and classic beauty.

When he spoke to the crowds, the “image of him was transformed from someone in news photos and TV to a real living person,” said Jay Anthis of Fort Worth. “Everyone in the crowd seemed to share the enthusiasm for seeing and hearing him.”

At one point, Kathy King Atnip got close enough to the president to shake his hand and have a brief conversation.

“It was magic,” she recalled. “President Kennedy created a lot of memories … for so many people.”

The pure joy many experienced just being near him was eclipsed in a matter of hours by confusion and sorrow when they learned that the young president was shot and killed in a presidential motorcade in the city to the east.

“I truly believe that our country died with him a little bit that day and that innocence and optimism he brought to the White House was lost forever,” said Michael Harris of Saginaw.

First glance

Pete Strelko was one of the first to see the president when he arrived at Carswell.

As part of the 824th Combat Defense Squadron, he and others were charged with guarding the president’s aircraft through the night. Once the plane taxied to a stop, they quickly surrounded it and stood at attention as the president left the plane.

“He saluted us and waved as he entered his limo,” recalled Strelko, of North Richland Hills.

He saw the president and first lady again, when they returned to the Air Force base the next day, again acknowledging the 824th Squadron.

Once the presidential convoy left the base, he and others ate a late breakfast and then went to bed, only to be awoken soon by Klaxon alarm horns. Those members of the Security Police were ordered back to their work stations, given the “terrible news” and were placed back on alert for around 20 days.

‘Amazing day in history’

Johnny Gilliland was on his way to TCU for class on Nov. 22, 1963, when he learned that the president would be speaking in Fort Worth. He went downtown instead.

But when he got close to the Hotel Texas and saw the large crowd gathered outside to see the president, he thought he would see if he could slip inside the hotel instead.

He could, and he did, and soon saw U.S. Rep. Jim Wright, Sen. Ralph Yarborough, Gov. John Connally, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and President John F. Kennedy.

“As they walked past me on the way to make this historic speech in the parking lot, each of these great men shook my hand and we shared small talk,” said Gilliland, then a 20-year-old college junior who now lives in North Richland Hills. “What excitement.”

“This was an amazing day in history and I was part of it,” he said, adding that he stayed in the hotel long enough to shake their hands a couple more times. “I was able to shake the hand of two men who would be president on the same day.”

Outside in the hotel parking lot, Nancy Cartwright was among those who got to see and hear the president.

She said he looked “wonderful” and very tan. And while she can’t recall the entire speech, she remembers the president joking about how his wife was still getting ready for the day.

“I’ll never, ever forget that day,” said Cartwright, then a secretary for Pan American Oil Company. “I was just a face in the crowd, but I will remember that day for the rest of my life.”

Measuring feet

Inside the hotel, Victor White had a rare opportunity to personally meet the country’s leaders — and measure their feet.

Owner of L. White Boot and Saddle Shop in the Stockyards, White went to the president and vice president’s private rooms to measure their feet for custom-made Western books.

First he sized up the feet of Lyndon B. and Lady Bird Johnson.

Before he left their room, Mrs. Johnson “leaned over and kissed [him] on the cheek and thanked him,” his daughter, Sharon Campbell of Fort Worth, recalled. “She thanked him saying, ‘I am excited about having some new fancy Western boots.’”

Then White, who has since passed away, went to Kennedy’s hotel room to get the shoe size of the president and first lady.

“My dad said they were both very gracious and also thanked him. My dad was a little nervous but very honored to be able to make Western boots for the president,” Sharon Campbell said. “My dad was always bragging and saying, ‘I got to kiss Lady Bird and smell the president’s feet.’”

Fort Worth Chamber breakfast

More than 2,000 guests gathered for a Fort Worth Chamber breakfast in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Texas, listening to the music of Jimmy Rovitto’s Combo while waiting for the president, first lady, vice president, Texas governor and other officials.

The Texas Boys Choir sang. The Eastern Hills High School Band played Hail to the Chief.

“TCU had been scheduled to play, but at the last minute their director called our director, Ronnie Martin, and asked if we could take their place,” said Mike McQuitty, then a 17-year-old senior who played drums in the Eastern Hills band. “We jumped at the chance.

“It was a day I’ll never forget.”

After the president arrived, introductions were made, and Jackie Kennedy made a late but much anticipated entrance.

Several people stood on their chairs just to see the first lady enter the room, said Shirley Bain, who attended the breakfast.

Kennedy gave a speech — saying he was “glad to be here in Jim Wright’s city,” a city he believed was the best represented in Congress — and was given a Shady Oak cowboy hat.

The crowd encouraged him to put it on, but he declined, saying he would try it on at the White House after his Texas trip.

Michael Harris, there with his second-grade class from Brous Private School, said he and classmates waved at the president every time he glanced their way.

“He seemed to acknowledge one of our waves and smiled and we all giggled,” said Harris, now 58.

The last prayer

The breakfast ended with a benediction offered by the Rev. Dr. Granville T. Walker, senior minister of the University Christian Church.

Walker was honored to give the prayer — and humbled at the end of the day to realize it was the last public prayer the president heard, said his daughters, Judy Walker Stempel and Sara Walker Wilson, both of Fort Worth.

He had planned to read scripture but was moved by the president’s remarks and instead wrote out a brief prayer as Kennedy finished speaking.

“May the Lord bless all the nations with a desire for peace; the Lord bless our own beloved nation with prosperity and rectitude,” he prayed, according to a copy of the prayer his daughters keep locked up in a safety deposit box.

Granville asked that “the Lord bless our president and all in places of responsibility with wisdom and health equal to their tasks.

“The Lord bless and keep you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord cause his face to shine upon you, and give you peace, now and forevermore.”

Lasting impressions

Before Kennedy left the chamber breakfast, Jack Wardlaw decided to try to get a photo with the president.

The then 23-year-old guitar player, part of the Jimmy Rovitto Combo, jumped down from the riser where the band had played to meet the president.

“I got down there, shook President Kennedy’s hand … and he said, ‘I enjoyed your music,’” said Wardlaw, the last living musician from the musical group. “It was a hell of an honor.”

It was an honor for Rovitto as well, said Jimmy Rovitto Jr., his son, who shared photos and documents from the day for an exhibit at the Fort Worth Library.

“He was so proud to be part of that,” Rovitto said.

After Kennedy left the room, another Fort Worth resident was waiting to meet him: Roger Williams, the 15-year-old son of well-known car dealer Jack Williams, who provided many of the vehicles for the presidential motorcade and had asked if his son and wife could meet the president.

At the end of the speech, Roger and his mother, Ruth, were escorted out of the room toward a door the president would walk through.

“Shortly came Mrs. Kennedy around the corner,” said Williams, now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. “She shook my mother’s hand and my hand. She was very quiet and smiled, then she stood next to me.”

Williams admits he always wanted to know what kind of shoes a president wore. So when President Kennedy walked through the door, with a cigar in his mouth, Williams’ eyes dropped to the floor.

He saw shiny black shoes with shoestrings and a cap toe. Looking up, he saw the president take one puff of the cigar before stubbing it out in a nearby sand urn.

“He shook my mom’s hand and my hand and didn’t let go of my hand,” Williams said. “He turned to mom and said, ‘You have a good-looking man here.’”

The motorcade

Soon after that, President Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy and other dignitaries loaded into the fleet of vehicles waiting to drive them through downtown, bound for Carswell, where they would board planes bound for Dallas.

Residents lined the route nearly the whole way, as so many people waited just for a glimpse of the president.

Mike Bergman, a senior at Castleberry High School in River Oaks, was one of many students who walked about two miles from the high school to River Oaks Boulevard — a tribute to the priority Kennedy placed on physical education — to see the motorcade.

“We were allowed to get within a very few steps of the open convertible as it passed,” Bergman recalled. “JFK spoke to our group as the football team all had on our team shirts, but I don’t remember what he said to us.”

Ed Brown remembers what the president said to him.

He was a seventh-grader at Castleberry Middle School who joined those lining River Oaks Boulevard to see the motorcade. “As he rode by, he spotted me in my football jersey, pointed at me, and asked, ‘Are you going to win tonight?’”

Brown said he couldn’t help but tell everyone he knew, “The president talked to me! The president talked to me!”

Dale Parrent had wanted to see the president downtown, but she didn’t have time to get her two small sons — ages 2 and 4 — to the hotel in time.

So she, her mom and her aunt drove with the boys until they found a place along the motorcade route.

“The five of us stood along the road where there was a curve, hoping the car would slow down enough that we could see the president,” said Parrent, then a 22-year-year Fort Worth woman. “After a short wait, we saw the motorcade coming toward us, and sure enough, they slowed down.

“President Kennedy was so handsome, hair looking so red in the sunlight, white teeth, suntanned,” she said. “And Mrs. Kennedy was so beautiful in her hot pink suit. For just a brief moment in time, I looked right in the eyes of JFK.”

Cherished autograph

Cameo Fowler Jones was among those gathered at Carswell to say goodbye to the president and first lady.

She had her camera and was taking photos. “The president smiled at me as I nearly fell over the barrier,” said Jones, then a student at Stripling Junior High. “When he came up to me, I asked him for an autograph and handed him a red ballpoint pen and a postcard.

“He signed the card and then gave another autograph to the woman next to me,” said Jones, who now lives in San Francisco but has family in Fort Worth. “I adored the youth and vigor of the Kennedys and was thrilled to be so close to them.”

To this day, she still has the pen, autograph and photos that she took — and the negatives.

‘Sea of kids’

David Vinson, then an 8-year-old fourth-grader at Ridglea West Elementary, remembers watching the president’s plane fly over his school.

He and other students lined up in “class drill type formation” on a concrete playground area not far from the south runway at Carswell. Within minutes, they saw two planes fly overhead and turn east toward Dallas.

“As these planes … flew over us, we all waved wildly and jumped up and down with excitement, and I believe Mr. Kennedy could have easily seen the ‘sea of kids’ in neat single-file rows on that sunny bare playground area waving goodbye to him,” said Vinson, now a manufacture planner at Lockheed Martin who lives in Weatherford.

The children watched “until he faded from our sight.”

‘Everything stopped’

Jan Porter was a third-grader far from the hustle and bustle that accompanied the presidential visit to Fort Worth.

She didn’t hear the speech, get a handshake or see the motorcade. But she will never forget what happened after the country learned that President Kennedy had died.

“I remember sitting by the window and seeing the flag being lowered, and the tears of all the teachers,” the former South Fort Worth Elementary School student recalled. “Funny, from a child’s perspective, there was nothing on TV for days following the assassination.

“The first thing I remember seeing, when the news coverage ended, was a Tom and Jerry cartoon,” she said. “Black and white TV with only three channels. That, and all the movie theaters in downtown Fort Worth were closed.

“Everything stopped,” she said. “It was an eerie time.”

Two funerals

Don Woodard, who had attended the chamber breakfast with the president, was on his way to Austin with his wife, Wanda, to see Kennedy at another stop when a woman stopped her car in front of him in the middle of a bridge, opened her door and yelled “They’ve killed the president in Dallas!”

Woodard was downtown later that day when he ran into Peter Gregory, who often gave Russian lessons in the downtown library. Gregory asked Woodard why so many people were listening to their transistor radios.

“My God, Peter,” Woodard, now 87, remembers saying. “Haven’t you heard? The president has been assassinated.”

Gregory went on to work with the Secret Service to translate an interrogation of Marina Oswald, Lee Harvey Oswald’s wife.

Woodard eventually decided to attend the president’s funeral, and when he arrived in Washington, D.C., the experience was nearly surreal.

“I stood in front of the White House as the casket on the caisson rolled by,” he said, adding that he kept thinking of the president’s speech in Fort Worth. “In my mind, I heard JFK say: ‘Come to see me Monday in the White House and I'll put [the Shady Oak hat] on for you.’

“When I returned to Fort Worth that night I stopped at the gates of Rose Hill Cemetery, where Lee Harvey Oswald had been buried the same day,” he said. “I suppose I was the only man in the world present at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington and at Rose Hill Cemetery in Fort Worth on that historic day.”

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

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