He did not mind having to drive from Lubbock or waiting in the blustery cold at 6 a.m. Friday in downtown Fort Worth.
T.G. Caraway, a history buff, wanted to be at the Fort Worth JFK Tribute, not Dealey Plaza in Dallas, to celebrate the life and legacy of President John F. Kennedy.
“This was his last hurrah. This was where he was before everything changed. This was the last good memory,” Caraway said of the little corner just outside the Hilton Fort Worth, then known as the Hotel Texas, where Kennedy gave his last speech to the general public 50 years ago.
An 8-foot bronze statue of Kennedy, placed near where he stood on a makeshift platform to greet the crowd that morning, was dedicated Nov. 8, 2012.
Anticipating a crowd at the tribute Friday, Terri Olney, 62, woke up at 3 a.m. to lead the pack. She was surprised to find only a few spectators walking around the granite wall containing iconic photographs and quotes from that morning.
At 6:15 a.m., she watched silently as Mayor Betsy Price, U.S. Rep. Roger Williams and former Secret Service agent Clint Hill laid a wreath at the memorial.
“To me, this is the important place,” Olney said. “This is where he spoke his last words to the general public, to the people who just showed up in the rain.”
On that cold morning 50 years ago, an estimated 4,000 people stood outside the Hotel Texas, many arriving as early as 5:30 a.m., hoping to catch a glimpse of the president and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. People filled the parking lots around the hotel at Eighth and Main streets. Thousands more lined motorcade routes.
“It was raining that morning, but that didn’t seem to bother the people, because by 6 o’clock people were lined up outside the hotel, outside my room,” Hill said, recalling that Kennedy’s remarks were an “off-the-cuff speech” to the massing crowds.
To roaring cheers, Kennedy joked that his wife was taking longer to get ready, saying she looks “better than we do when she does it.”
“There are no faint hearts in Fort Worth, and I appreciate your being here this morning,” Kennedy said.
Inside the hotel, 2,000 people were waiting for a Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce breakfast that featured a head table of several city and state dignitaries.
Kennedy arrived about 10 minutes late after taking time to change out of his rain-soaked suit coat. He received thunderous applause when he entered the grand ballroom.
On Friday, about 630 guests, including former House Speaker Jim Wright, gathered at the hotel for a breakfast to honor Kennedy.
The chamber presented a legacy award to Wright, 90, for his service to the country and the city, but Wright focused on Kennedy’s brief time in Fort Worth.
“He didn’t criticize his political opponents. He didn’t beg for votes or political contributions. … He spent the first one-third of his speech bragging on Fort Worth and thanking the people of our area, past and present, for the things they individually and collectively had done to help build the security, the freedom, the independence and military strength of the United States,” Wright said at the breakfast.
Fifty years ago, Kennedy said: “I’m glad to be here in Jim Wright’s city. He speaks for Fort Worth. He speaks for the country. He contributes to its growth, and I don’t know any city that’s better represented in the country than Fort Worth.”
The breakfast speech in Fort Worth was Kennedy’s last. The president and first lady headed for Dallas before noon.
Hill, assigned to Jacqueline Kennedy, was traveling behind the Kennedys in the Dallas motorcade when he heard an explosive sound. Though he did not recognize it as a rifle shot at first, Hill ran for the presidential limousine, jumping on the back as it sped off at 80 mph toward Parkland Memorial Hospital.
One shot hit Kennedy in the neck, another in the head.
“It took out an entire section of skull and with it came brain matter, blood, bone fragments, all over the car, all over me, all over Mrs. Kennedy,” Hill said. “She then got out on the trunk. I finally got ahold of her, put her in the back seat. And when I did that, the president’s body fell to the left, with his head in her lap.
“The right side of his face was up, and I could see his eyes were fixed.”
Assuming the worst, Hill gave a thumbs down to the other agents as he wedged himself in the back seat.
Don and Wanda Woodard listened in awe to Kennedy at the breakfast 50 years ago before hopping in their car to go to Austin, excited to see the president again at his next stop on the Texas tour.
But neither Kennedy nor the Woodards made it to Austin that day.
Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1 p.m. on Nov. 22, 1963.
“It was staggering — we had just left him,” Wanda Woodard said. “So we didn’t go to Austin. Don went to Washington for the funeral instead.”
Relieved it’s over
At Friday’s breakfast, Wanda Woodard said she’s relieved the anniversary is over.
“I’m ready for it to stop; it is painful,” she said.
Brenda Murphy, with the Fort Worth Convention Center, was a baby when Kennedy was assassinated, and she said being at the breakfast made the historic day real.
“I feel like I walked into history, being able to see it from the eyes of people who were close to him and knew him,” Murphy said.
Kennedy was on a two-day, five-city tour of Texas. The day before he arrived in Fort Worth, he was in San Antonio and Houston. His last stop was scheduled for Austin.
The president spoke for a little more than 12 minutes at the breakfast, mostly touching on Fort Worth’s role in the nation’s defense and the city’s contract to build the TFX, the Tactical Fighter Experimental plane.
Mayor Price said the speech still resonates today as Fort Worth strives to be a center for defense and other industries.
Price was at Stripling Junior High School in her seventh-grade physical education class when she learned about the assassination. She had spent the morning looking at Polaroids from friends who saw the president speak before he left for Dallas. Her parents wouldn’t let her miss school to see him.
“Most important today, it is important people stop and remember the changes that have come to America and the message they brought at that time. … Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy encouraged people to be involved in government, not just at the local level but the state and national level.
“I wish people would still be involved,” Price said.