Recalling JFK’s first visit to Fort Worth

Friday, the nation and the world will pause to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

In Fort Worth — the city where the president spent his last night, ate his last meal, made his last speech and heard his last prayer — the focus will be more on the president’s life than his death.

Kennedy and his wife captured the hearts of the people of Tarrant County during that 12-hour visit, which started on a cold, rainy Thursday night and ended with a sunlit sky as the president left for Dallas late that Friday morning.

But as I noted in Sunday’s column about the mystery of the Lincoln Continental Kennedy used in his 1963 motorcade here, that presidential trip was not Kennedy’s first stop in Fort Worth. He had come three years earlier for a visit that had been historic in its own right.

At the end of Sunday’s column I asked if anyone knew the make and model of the car Kennedy used in the Fort Worth motorcade in 1960. But before getting to that, let me remind you why then-Sen. Kennedy came to town that September.

He had won the Democratic nomination, picked Texan Lyndon Johnson as his running mate and immediately felt opposition from conservative preachers (particularly Baptists) because of his Catholic faith.

Because he needed Texas to win the presidency, Kennedy had to quickly introduce himself to Texans and, against the advice of Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, he agreed to speak to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association and address the “so-called religious issue” head-on.

Kennedy made the Houston speech — regarded by some as the best of his career — that Monday night, Sept. 12. The next day he came to North Texas, beginning with a speech to 15,000 people at Burnett Park and a motorcade through downtown.

With Kennedy were his sister Pat Lawford, Johnson, Gov. Price Daniel, Rayburn, Rep. Jim Wright and the state’s first female federal district judge, Sarah T. Hughes, who three years later would swear-in Johnson as president after Kennedy’s death.

Also there was Fort Worth widow Edna Willy, whose husband, Navy Lt. Wilford John Willy, had died with Kennedy’s brother in a plane explosion during a secret mission in World War II.

And the car Kennedy rode in?

A few people, like Dale Van Hoose, knew that it was a 1960 Ford Galaxie Sunliner convertible, but the definitive answer came from former Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr, who remembers candidate Kennedy “standing on the trunk of the car in the middle of the street when he spoke briefly in Arlington.”

Barr, who was an 18-year-old entering freshman at Arlington State College, said he was in the right place at the right time since his dad, Willard (who would later become mayor of Fort Worth) was on the planning committee for the campaign visit.

“The Kennedy car was one of 8-10 new Ford convertibles that Ford Motor Company provided for the parade,” Barr said in an email. “I had the opportunity to drive one of the cars in the parade from Meacham Airport in north Fort Worth, through downtown to Burnett Park, and then on through downtown Arlington and Grand Prairie and then through downtown Dallas to the Dallas Memorial Auditorium where Kennedy spoke.

“We then went to Love Field, where we left the cars. The car I drove was a beautiful red convertible.”

Three years later, Barr attended the Chamber of Commerce breakfast on Nov. 22, 1963, at Hotel Texas, where his mom and dad sat at the head table with the president while he and brother Allan sat with the crowd.

“Both of these events were very special days in Fort Worth,” he said.

They were indeed.