Bud Kennedy

The untold Fort Worth JFK story: the canceled TCU honorary degree

The president and his wife, Jackie, depart the Hotel Texas for a motorcade through Fort Worth to Carswell Air Force Base, from which they would fly to Dallas Love Field.
The president and his wife, Jackie, depart the Hotel Texas for a motorcade through Fort Worth to Carswell Air Force Base, from which they would fly to Dallas Love Field. JFK Library

More than 50 years later, one story from John F. Kennedy’s Fort Worth visit remains mostly untold.

Back then, not one word about it appeared in the Star-Telegram.

But readers of The Dallas Morning News knew that TCU trustees rejected Kennedy for an honorary doctorate.

At Gov. John B. Connally’s behest, TCU Chancellor M.E. Sadler had planned a ceremony for 9:30 a.m. Nov. 22, 1963, before thousands in Amon Carter Stadium or Daniel-Meyer Coliseum.

When some trustees objected — because of the president’s Roman Catholic faith, according to a White House liaison — that left an hour to fill with a fateful Dallas lunchtime motorcade.

TCU’s spokesman of the day, Amos Melton, told the News that trustees met Nov. 1, 1963, and discussed giving Kennedy a Ph.D., but declined action.

Instead, they only invited Kennedy to speak.

The only TCU trustee of the day to ever comment publicly was Sam Woodson. He told a 1979 U.S. House select committee investigating the assassination that he supported Sadler’s offer, but the honorary degree hadn’t gone “through channels.”

According to the committee report, some unnamed trustees thought Connally was “trying to manipulate the board” and told Sadler to stick to “normal procedures because they protected the university from awarding degrees to recipients who had not been scrutinized.”

In his diary of that ill-fated trip, White House advance man Gerald J. “Jerry” Bruno said Connally gave him a different reason.

Bruno quoted Connally: “Well, he’s a Catholic, you know.”

Bruno rejected the idea of a different event at the then-Disciples of Christ university, and plans were drawn instead for the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce breakfast.

The House committee report jumps to a dark guess: that without the schedule change, Kennedy’s Dallas motorcade might not have been extended through downtown to Elm Street, or during Lee Harvey Oswald’s lunch hour.

From the report:

“It is ironic that if the honorary degree ceremony at TCU had been held, especially with a subsequent reception of some kind, logistical complications might have delayed the President’s arrival in Dallas and thereby interfered with the scheduled occurrence of the midday motorcade.

“The opportunity might have been lost for an assassin to take advantage of certain conditions that promoted Kennedy’s assassination.

“Such conditions included the physical absence of many employees from their places of employment (such as the TSBD [Texas School Book Depository]) during the midday lunch hour, and the presence of large crowds on the streets immediately after the shooting.”

In recent years, TCU officials have said only that they have no record of the offer besides the 1963 news reports.

Trustees’ meeting minutes are not open to the public.

When the university hosted a 2013 event, “Fort Worth Remembers JFK,” the canceled visit went unremembered.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram

  Comments