Almost everyone knows President John F. Kennedy spent his last night on earth in Fort Worth, and a statue in General Worth Park, dedicated in 2012, commemorates that visit.
Another, very different, memorial to Kennedy stands in Dallas, designed by architect Philip Johnson in the form of a white-walled concrete enclosure containing a hewn granite block bearing the name “John Fitzgerald Kennedy” on each side. Its dedication in 1970 prompted little enthusiasm. Johnson is remembered for far greater masterpieces, including the Amon Carter Museum and Fort Worth Water Gardens.
Hardly anyone, however, remembers that the very first local memorial to Kennedy’s 1963 visit to this area was dedicated in Fort Worth in 1969. It was the 3,066-seat John F. Kennedy Theater in the Tarrant County Convention Center.
That modest recognition was actually the second attempt by a group of determined Fort Worth women to create a Kennedy memorial. Calling themselves the John F. Kennedy Committee, they had initially connected through letters to the editor of the Star-Telegram they had written in the days after the assassination, all expressing the same wish for some sort of memorial in Fort Worth.
Their idea did not attract much public support in the beginning. Their first proposal was to create a public park on the site of the surface parking lot across Eighth Street from the Hotel Texas. It was there that the president had given an impromptu speech on the rainy morning of Nov. 22, 1963. (That speech was thought lost for many years until an audio recording turned up.) That idea went nowhere, and the property eventually became part of General Worth Square. The dead general, namesake of Fort Worth who died in 1849, was not nearly so controversial as the dead president.
The Committee women did not give up. They gathered a petition of 10,000 signatures that they presented to county commissioners in 1968 to name the new Tarrant County Convention Center for Kennedy. That idea had even less traction than the idea of a public park.
As a grudging compromise, commissioners finally agreed to name the theater on the south end of the Convention Center in honor of the president. The approval was clearly grudging because the vote was 3-2, and the name would not go on signage or anywhere on the building itself. It would only go on a small plaque in the foyer of the theater.
Even the wording on the plaque was carefully vetted. The explanatory wording approved by commissioners, shied away from politics, quoting Kennedy on the importance of the arts in “the life of the nation.” The quotation’s author was identified simply as “John F. Kennedy.” Below that came information that “John F. Kennedy made his last public address on Nov. 22, 1963, near this site” and some other bland words about his “contribution to this nation and to the performing arts.”
The uninformed reader would have walked away with no idea that this person had been president of the United States.
The John F. Kennedy Theater was dedicated on May 30, 1969, in a quiet ceremony more than five years after the historic visit. It was reported on page 8 of the Star-Telegram, and the writer even got the date of the visit wrong, referring to “September 22 [sic], 1963.”
Thirty-one years later, when the Convention Center was expanded and remodeled, the Kennedy Theater fell to the wrecking ball, to be replaced by additional, nameless exhibition space. The lobby plaque that had once informed visitors of the reason behind the theater’s name also disappeared in the construction. Visitors to the Fort Worth Convention Center today have no idea it once honored our 35th president.
Author-historian Richard Selcer is a Fort Worth native and proud graduate of Paschal High and TCU.