History came to life Thursday morning when Keller resident Lemma Tole visited Trinity Meadows Intermediate School to share her eyewitness account of the assassination of President Kennedy.
“I woke up at 4:30 this morning thinking about that day and what I was going to say to you,” Tole told a library full of fifth-graders and teachers which included her granddaughter, Claire Tole, and her daughter in-law Rachel Tole, a teacher. “One day you’ll be telling your children and grand children, ‘I met a woman, and she came to my school, and she told me the story of what happened that day.’”
Tole was a 16-year-old high school junior on Nov. 22, 1963, when she and two friends made their way to the Dealey Plaza area to see President John F. Kennedy and his wife, the glamorous Jackie Kennedy in their motorcade.
At Sunset High School in the North Oak Cliff area where Tole was a member of the Bisonettes Drill Team, administrators had told students that they were allowed to leave to see the motorcade if they had written permission from their parents.
Tole and her friends Jane and Sheila dropped off their permission slips and signed out in the school office before catching a city bus to go downtown.
On the bus they talked about where they wanted to stand to get the best chance for a good look at the president and first lady. Someone had left behind a newspaper with a map of the motorcade route. They settled on Houston Street across from Dealey Plaza near the end of the route. The limousine would have to slow down for two turns in the span of a block.
They got there and were some of the first people to stake out a spot several hours before the motorcade, set for around noon.
“We stood on that curve and nobody was going to get in front of us,” Tole said.
They stood on Houston across the street from Dealey Plaza. The old red courthouse building was to their left and the Texas School Book Depository was on their right.
As they waited, the crowd and excitement grew. Although they didn’t give up their spot, people behind them crowded in closer as the president’s motorcade approached.
“I was excited, my heart was beating fast and here they came with the motorcycles and the secret service men walking beside them, ” Tole said.
To round the corner, the limo did have to slow down.
“As he came around, he looked right at me, smiling,” she said.
Then he glanced at his wife, and Tole saw that Jackie Kennedy was gorgeous in her pink suit and pillbox hat.
After they passed, the friends turned to one another and were commenting about how great the two looked when it happened. Over the span of six seconds—Tole had her audience count them off with her—they heard “pow, pow, pow.”
She was wondering who would bring fireworks there when she saw the reaction of the people across from them along Dealey Plaza.
The crowd started pushing and Tole could see the limousine as Jackie Kennedy crawled up on the back of the seat of the convertible to help her husband. A secret service man jumped on the back of the limo to cover the first lady.
“We heard people say, ‘He’s been shot! He’s been shot!” she said.
Some people had hit the ground and suddenly there were police with rifles everywhere. The area was roped off and the people confined. Right away, a lot of attention was directed at the Texas School Book Depository, and police began to bring people out of the building.
The crowd began to get angry, with some shouting at those brought out, “Did you shoot the president?”
“I thought, ‘This is a little scary. This is like being at Ford’s Theater the night President Lincoln was shot. Am I really here?’” Tole said. “My excitement, joy, and happiness quickly changed to fear, concern, a little panic and certanly sadness.”
A police officer sitting in a patrol car in front of them let the three teens get in the car to sit for a while. It was there that they heard over the radio that the president had died at Parkland Hospital.
They got out of the car and the whole crowd had taken on a somber, quiet, tearful quality.
“Reality hit. We were hugging strangers, reaching out to one another and crying,” Tole said. “It had happened, and we had witnessed it.”
Tole and her friends then wanted to go home, but all public transit in the area had been shut down.
They found the police officer who had helped them, and he directed them to the old courthouse. There a row of phones had been set in the hallway for people to use, and she phoned her father who was at home because he worked the night shift.
Then they had to walk out of the area, across a viaduct and the Trinity River where they met up with her father. The three girls decided to return to school for the rest of the day.When she walked into fifth period biology class, Tole was bombarded with questions.
“That’s when I had to try to put words to it,” she said.
Tole urged her young listeners to ask their grandparents where they were when Kennedy was shot.
“More than likely they can tell you,” she said. “History comes to life when you realize that these things happened to real people in real time, at a moment in time.”
The fifth grade students paid close attention to their guest, and she left a big impression on many.
Luis Hernandez said he has always liked history, and Tole’s story reminded him that sometimes you don’t realize how much you love something until you lose it.
“I felt like I was there,” he said.
Tole’s granddaughter, Claire, said her grandmother made her feel connected to history.
“A lot of times you just read about it in books,” Claire said. “It’s one thing to read about it and another to hear it from someone who was there.”
Tole hadn’t talked much about that day until recently when she began to feel a burden to share what she experienced.
“The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized I need to tell it,” Tole said.