Where do you put the headstone of ‘the most famous assassin in the history of civilization’?
President John F. Kennedy spent 12 hours in Fort Worth. It would be the last night of his life.
More than a half-century after Kennedy was assassinated on Dallas’ Elm Street, the memory of both men is very much alive in Fort Worth, where an aging generation saw Kennedy’s spirited visit Nov. 21-22, 1963 and then whispered about their brawling school classmate who killed him.
“Fort Worth was as close to a home as he ever had,” said Stephen Fagin, curator of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the museum built around Oswald’s sniper’s perch.
“Benbrook is where we first see this pattern emerge of an emotionally disturbed little boy. And when he comes home years later [from the Soviet Union], Fort Worth is where we first see him being abusive to his wife.”
Oswald went to grade school here, and briefly, high school. He later worked at a welding company near downtown and lived with his Russian wife, Marina, and 6-month-old daughter, June, on Mercedes Avenue near today’s Montgomery Plaza. (The duplex was demolished in a 2000 tornado.)
A year after they moved to Dallas, the murdered Oswald came home late one night in a hearse to a funeral home in the busy Ridglea neighborhood, and lay there overnight awaiting a lonely graveside funeral in what is today Shannon Rose Hill Cemetery on East Lancaster Avenue.
“My dad came back with Oswald’s body, and told me to get to bed,” said Richard Miller, son of the family that owned Miller Funeral Home, no longer standing at 5805 Camp Bowie Blvd.
“He said, ‘You don’t realize it. But you’re part of history.’ ”
‘Your name is Kennedy?’
Oswald would be 78 now, and sometimes it seems like every Fort Worth native has a personal story about him or his overbearing and manipulative mother, Marguerite.
Here’s mine, and it’s true:
In 1966, when I was 11, my wallet was stolen at what is now Stripling Middle School in the Arlington Heights neighborhood.
A woman who lived nearby called our home saying it had been tossed in her yard. I bicycled to her home on Byers Avenue and thanked her.
“Your name is Kennedy?” she asked, peering sternly through the screen door, and I nodded.
She did not smile as she said, “Well — I’m Mrs. Oswald.”
‘Marguerite didn’t seem to care’
“It all really starts with Marguerite,” Fagin said.
When Lee started first grade at the now-gone Benbrook Common School, the family lived one block off Benbrook Highway at 101 San Saba Ave.
Marguerite, home with three boys, worried mostly about money.
In a Sixth Floor Museum history, neighbor and frequent baby sitter Mary Smith described Oswald as a destructive boy who put deodorant in her son’s eyes and yanked up all her rosebushes.
“But Marguerite didn’t seem to care — in her mind, he was brilliant and could do no wrong,” Fagin said.
He slept in his mother’s bed until age 10. “She mothered him and smothered him,” Fagin said.
Born Marguerite Claverie in New Orleans, she was 56 at the time of the assassination.
She told Warren Commission investigators she had worked as a nanny in more than 200 homes in or near Fort Worth, some in wealthy Rivercrest and others as far away as Arlington. (Reporters surrounded her little home on Thomas Place after the assassination. Later, she moved to Byers Avenue.)
Marguerite Oswald forever claimed her son’s innocence.
In 1981, she died of cancer at age 73. She is buried next to Lee Oswald in an unmarked grave.
Brawling with a future DA
America remembers Oswald as an assassin.
But for former Fort Worth elementary school students at five schools in Benbrook and south or west Fort Worth, he was a brawling classmate.
At the old Arlington Heights Elementary on Camp Bowie Boulevard, now Boulevard Heights, one of Oswald’s third-grade friends and classmates was future District Attorney Joe Shannon.
Oswald, often the ringleader, was roughed up in retaliation one day by other boys. Shannon and his friends got into the brawl, he wrote in an email.
“I punched one guy in the mouth and the blow inflicted more damage on me than on him,” Shannon wrote.
Shannon still has a scarred knuckle to show for it, and a third-grade class photo.
He and Oswald are in the same row.
Oswald is smiling.
Oswald at Heights: ‘This is a free country’
Oswald’s mother and her family moved almost constantly, from Benbrook to Eighth Avenue, Willing Street and Ewing Avenue.
He also attended first grade at Lily B. Clayton Elementary, second at George C. Clarke and fourth through sixth grades at what is now Luella Merrett, near the Benbrook Traffic Circle.
Teachers and classmates remember him as attending Stripling, though there is no official record.
In summer 1956, Marguerite moved the family to 4936 Collinwood Ave., since demolished and now the site of a land title law firm.
For three weeks in September 1956, Oswald was a junior at Arlington Heights High School.
He briefly tried out for the Yellow Jackets football junior varsity. The way late coach John Naylor, then an assistant, has told the story, Oswald was kicked off the team when he declined to run wind sprints and said, “I don’t have to. This is a free country.”
In the 1957 “Yellow Jacket” yearbook, Oswald is grinning in biology lab as classmate Janet Bolin “shoots” him with a finger-pistol.
The caption: “ ‘Bing! You’re hypnotized.’ ”
Oswald came back as a ‘changed man’
Oswald dropped out and joined the Marine Corps, but returned to Fort Worth five years later with Marina and June in summer 1962.
They lived with his brother, Robert, in the Ridglea West neighborhood before moving to the duplex on Mercedes Avenue, near his sheet-metal job on North Vacek Street.
“Marina described Lee as a changed man,” Fagin said.
“He was back in Fort Worth, which was as close to a home as he ever had. But he felt like his job was beneath him intellectually. He lost interest in her and grew more violent and aggressive.”
Not long after they returned, the Oswalds were visited by a Russian-speaking immigrant couple from Dallas, petroleum geologist George de Mohrenschildt and his wife, Jeanne.
Marina and June separated from Lee, and stayed with a friend in the 4700 block of Trail Lake Drive briefly. All three eventually moved to Irving and Dallas, with Lee visiting Marina and a second newborn daughter, Rachel, on weekends.
The mystery of the headstone
Marguerite Oswald stayed behind in west Fort Worth, moving from rental unit to rental unit downtown, in the Arlington Heights neighborhood and in the medical district.
On Nov. 22, 1963, she lived on Thomas Place behind Stripling. She shortly moved across the schoolyard to the 4000 block of Byers Avenue.
That’s where the headstone story begins.
After Oswald was killed and buried the next day — a Disciples of Christ pastor filled in for Marguerite’s Lutheran pastors at the tiny Rose Hill graveside ceremony, with local and national reporters drafted as pallbearers — the family bought a typical granite headstone with an etched cross.
“Maybe they wanted to hurt me,” Marguerite Oswald said: “They can’t hurt Lee now.”
Instead of reinstalling it, she replaced it with a simpler and heavier marker reading “Oswald.”
When she died in 1981, Byers Avenue neighbor Ida Coffman Card and her family bought the house. (Card owned a nearby beauty salon. She also did hair for my mother, Liona.)
In the crawl space under the house, the Cards found Oswald’s original headstone.
After a long legal squabble involving a cousin and an Illinois oddities museum, the Cards now have it back.
Only thing is, David Card, 77, of Dallas, owner of the Poor David’s Pub music club, is not sure what to do with his 135-pound artifact.
“It’s the original headstone of the most famous assassin in the history of civilization,” Card said last week, unpacking the marker from its padded case as a private showing for reporters and singer-novelist Kinky Friedman.
“I want a fitting venue for displaying it,” Card said. (He hopes a donor can help cover the six-figure legal cost of recovery.)
“I’ve danced with this tombstone so long,” he said, “I feel much closer to Oswald than I want to.”
A motorcade that grew after a change of plans at TCU
The story of JFK, Oswald and Fort Worth is about more than gravestones or addresses.
It’s about Fort Worth people — the hundreds here who went to one school or another with Lee in the Class of 1958, or who knew Marguerite, Marina or June.
It’s also about people who may have known about Oswald’s anger, or inadvertently enabled his plan.
The Nov. 22 motorcade route was expanded late. The original plan was for Kennedy to go to Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth for an honorary degree ceremony, but Texas Christian University trustees voted that down Nov. 1. (A trustee cited academic concerns, but the White House advance man said it was over Kennedy’s Roman Catholic faith.)
“If you think there was a conspiracy — and that’s ‘if’ — then it had to include Fort Worth, because Kennedy was in Fort Worth as well as Dallas that day,” University of Virginia professor and Kennedy historian Larry Sabato said Saturday after a Sixth Floor program.
In a Cold War era of espionage and intrigue, Fort Worth was home to major defense contractors, oil executives, top administration officials and intelligence agents, all sources of mystery and fodder for books.
“Fort Worth has a very deep connection to this story,” said Fagin, the museum curator.
“Kennedy arrives to this happy welcome, and three days later, Oswald is laid to rest, nearly alone [at the gravesite]. The story is framed by these experiences.”
The story of Oswald, and of that sobering weekend in 1963, begins and ends in Fort Worth.