There’s no way to compare the 1960s city known as Cowtown with the fictional, timeless place called Camelot, which to many came to symbolize the hope and promise of John F. Kennedy’s 1,000-day administration.
But for a few brief shining moments — actually, for about 12 glorious hours — the young president’s visit to Fort Worth was symbolic of this city’s pioneer spirit, western heritage and its overall sense of community, even in a time when racial segregation was still a part of its fabric.
The people of Fort Worth and Tarrant County, including those who had not politically supported the Kennedy-Johnson ticket three years earlier, opened their arms and their hearts to the president and his much-admired wife.
Even before Air Force One set down at what was then Carswell Air Force Base the cold rainy night of Nov. 21, 1963, Kennedy was aware that Fort Worth had laid out the welcoming mat.
In those days, the then-amber lights outlining downtown buildings were turned on only for the holidays, beginning the day after Thanksgiving. But that year, they were turned on a week early.
Noticing the lighted skyline from the plane, Kennedy reportedly asked if the city was lit up like that all the time.
“No, we did it for you, Mr. President,” he was told.
He and the first lady were overwhelmed by the crowds that greeted them at Carswell and the thousands who lined the West Freeway leading to downtown to get a glimpse of the motorcade and yell sincere greetings.
More people were there outside the hotel late into the night. And the next morning, before the president awoke, a crowd of people had begun to gather (in the rain) on a parking lot across East Eighth Street from what is now the Hilton Fort Worth.
Kennedy was moved when he looked down from his eighth-floor suite and saw the thousands assembled to see him.
After his brief speech on a flatbed truck in front of the hotel’s marquee proclaiming “Welcome Mr. President,” Kennedy felt the rush of the diverse gathering as admirers eagerly stretched their arms toward him to be touched, physically and emotionally.
For a short while, with some of Texas’ most important political leaders standing with him on that makeshift stage, it appeared that the president had succeeded in healing the rift in the state’s Democratic Party, which had been part of the purpose of his trip to the Lone Star State.
Back inside the hotel, he and Jackie would notice that a group of Fort Worthians had filled their three-room suite with notable artworks from some of the world’s masters, prompting Jackie to say to the president, “They’ve just stripped their whole museum of all their treasurers to brighten this dingy hotel suite.”
The Kennedys called one of those responsible for the exhibition to thank her for such a noble gesture.
At the packed Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce breakfast, the Kennedys were received with a rousing welcome, as they were when leaving by motorcade on the way back to Carswell for the trip to Dallas.
A bright sun had replaced the cloudy skies, and no one could have imagined that the unthinkable would happen just a few miles away.
In the 50 years since the president’s assassination, the memory of his visit to Fort Worth is one of joy and warmth, for it was here, surrounded by adoring people, that he spent his last night, had his last meal, saw his last art exhibit and heard his last prayer.
No it was not Camelot, the “spot of happily-ever-aftering.”
But for those few hours, it was indeed a special place.