President Kennedy, his wife, Jacqueline and then-Texas Gov. John Connley ride in an open car during their Dallas motorcade on Nov. 22, 1963.
Editor’s Note: On this fateful day 60 years ago, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas. For one shining moment, Kennedy’s death united the nation. Those who were alive on Nov. 22, 1963 will likely never forget the shock or how it changed their lives and the country. But three-quarters of those living today have no direct knowledge of the president’s death. Writer Matt Kindelmann, who hails from that generation, takes us back to Dallas to reflect on one of the 20th century’s greatest national tragedies.
Though I was born over a decade after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, it nevertheless cast a long shadow over my life.
My own memory of JFK goes back to age 9. I thought the JFK memorial plaque at the New York Avenue Junior High School across from my house was where the slain President was buried.
Many times when I flew my kite or played touch football in the school yard, I stopped at the granite slab, closed my eyes, and offered my condolences. I only learned of JFK’s real burial place in Arlington National Cemetery when my grandfather broke the news.
My paternal grandparents kept the Life magazine issue that detailed the murder, and one of my other early memories was looking over and over at the printed frames of the Zapruder film.
Abraham Zapruder was in Dealey Plaza on the day of the President’s visit. He was filming a home movie as the President’s motorcade passed by and captured the assassination as it happened. His film has been a critical piece of evidence ever since.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to the assassination. One view, supported by the infamous Warren Commission — the official report on the assassination — states that a lone gunman fired the fatal shots. The man forever linked with that dreadful day in Dallas is Lee Harvey Oswald.
But over the years, other evidence, sketchy eyewitness accounts and a fair smattering of conspiracy theories claim Oswald did not act alone. Rather, the assassination was alleged to be an elaborate plot hatched by the Mob, the CIA, Fidel Castro, or perhaps all three.
I certainly have my opinion. But I did not write this article to support my stance. Instead, I wrote these words to retrace President Kennedy’s last moments.
I began my day at the Fort Worth Hilton where Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy spent the last night of his presidency. I stood near the hotel’s entrance; on that spot, in a light morning drizzle, the President gave his final speech.
The Texas School Book Depository 6th floor where Lee Harvey Oswald waited for the president’s motorcade. (Photo: Matt Kindelmann)
There’s a life-size statue of him there now, complete with quotations from his impromptu speech. They are carved into the stone wall behind it, and it’s hard not feel the gravitas of the spot. “There are no faint hearts in Fort Worth,” the President said as he took the podium. Three hours later, he was dead.
The Hilton was called the Texas Hotel in 1963 and it looks almost the same as it did then, except now the lobby has framed photographs from JFK’s stay.
I was filled with foreboding as I poked my head into the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom where he ate his last breakfast and said a few words. He paid tribute to his wife: “Two years ago, I introduced myself in Paris by saying that I was the man who had accompanied Mrs. Kennedy to Paris. I am getting somewhat the same sensation as I travel around Texas.”
The Texas School Book Depository on Dealey Plaza looks the same as it did in 1963 when President Kennedy was shot from the sixth floor of the building. (Photo: Matt Kindelmann)
Air Force One flew into Carswell Air Force Base outside Dallas on Nov. 21. at 11:07 pm, and the president went straight to the hotel.
As my train crawled over a triple overpass and into Union Station, I looked to my left and saw the infamous Texas School Book Depository.
I walked along North Houston Street, the same route Kennedy’s motorcade took, and quickened my pace as I turned left onto Elm Street.
I abruptly remembered that this was where a good man was cut down in his prime and the excitement of seeing a piece of history was replaced with decorum as I slowed my walk to the infamous grassy knoll, where some witnesses say a second gunman lurked.
As someone who has visited many famous places around the world, I have never been to a place that looked more like what I pictured. The Life magazine photos I studied as a boy in my grandparents’ living room came to life for me that morning.
With the exception of the modern cars and the two X’s painted yards apart on Elm Street which marked where bullets struck the President, I was in 1963.
The vermilion brick book depository glared down at me as I stood on the same spot where Zapruder, a local dress maker, aimed his Bell & Howell Zoomatic camera and filmed arguably the most notorious and important footage ever caught on celluloid. I captured the same angle that Zapruder shot on my cell phone.
Though the former book depository has been etched into the dark side of the American psyche, it now houses a museum on the Sixth Floor where Oswald stood. Its main attraction is the sniper’s nest, which was recreated from crime scene photos. boxes of books are piled up and spent ammo shells litter the floor.
The grassy knoll where a second gunman allegedly lurked during the assassination. (Photo: Matt Kindelman)
I looked down from the window and easily saw those two painted Xs through the leafy elm trees. Among the displays was a replica of the Italian-made Mannlicher-Carcano rifle allegedly used in the assassination. Also there were Oswald’s wedding ring, and the hat worn by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby when he fatally shot Oswald in the gut with a snubbed-nose revolver two days after JFK’s death.
Televisions looped videos of JFK’s speeches and the walls were covered in campaign posters and pictures of the late photogenic president. I left feeling that the museum celebrated his life as much as it chronicled the day of his death.
Before I followed Oswald’s trail, I took the light rail’s red line up to Mockingbird Lane and ate lunch at Campisi’s. The restaurant capitalized on the rumor that owner Carlos Campisi had mob ties. Jack Ruby was a regular at the eaterie and even ate a steak dinner there the night before JFK was killed, according to The Los Angeles Times.
Though the Texas sun was blinding, the interior of the restaurant was as dark as black velvet, and I was forced to use the red candle votive on my table to read the menu.
As I waited for my chicken parmigiana to arrive, I wondered which booth Ruby sat in, and if the walls had heard any secrets.
Like Oswald after leaving the book depository following the assassination, I took a bus to the boarding house he rented for $8 a week in the fall of 1963 under the alias O. H. Lee.
The small and unassuming house was one of a few that he lived in in the Dallas/Fort Worth area in the early ‘60s. Yards from the Trinity River and on a busy road, it was where he stopped to get his pistol and a jacket before he continued southward through the city on foot.
Today, the granddaughter of the woman who rented to Oswald has restored his bedroom and living room to the way it looked in 1963 and hosts paid tours of the home.
About 15 minutes after Kennedy was shot, Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit was ordered to drive around the Oak Cliff area and look for a suspect that fit Oswald’s description.
The view from the sixth floor of the School Book Depository, where the fatal shots were fired. (Photo: Matt Kindelmann)
He drove slowly down East 10th Street and pulled up to Oswald. Words were exchanged; when Tippet got out of the car, Oswald fired three bullets into his chest and one in his temple. Tippet was killed on the spot.
Today, a plaque recalls the terrible moment, and I sat on a bench across from where Tippit was killed. The street was empty and only the hum of cars from nearby Jefferson Blvd could be heard.
Oswald walked down West Jefferson Blvd and then slipped into the Texas Theater without paying during a showing of War is Hell.
The manager of a neighboring shoe store witnessed the suspicious Oswald and realized from what he heard on the radio that fit the description of the man who shot Officer Tippit.
The restaurant where Jack Ruby hung out was an alleged mob front back in 1963. (Photo: Matt Kindelmann)
Within minutes, squad cars sealed the theater’s exits and police armed with shotguns raced inside. The house lights were turned up revealing a dozen scattered moviegoers. As officers closed in on him, Oswald slowly stood up, raised both hands, and then yelled, “Well, it is all over now.”
The Texas Theater still shows movies today, but it was almost demolished in 1996 and converted into a furniture warehouse. The beat up building was vacant for three years, falling prey to vandals and the elements, before it was refurbished.
It was closed when I visited, but I stood next to the empty ticket booth and thought about the surging and screaming crowd that once called for the smirking Oswald’s blood.
As I looked at the Quinceanera dress shops and Mexican food joints across the street, I thought about Oswald being pushed into an unmarked car and brought to the Police Station. No, Oswald, it was not over yet, I thought.
Oswald is fatally shot by Jack Ruby, leading to years of speculation as to motive.
My last stop of my tour was also Oswald’s last: the Dallas Municipal Building, the former City Hall, where he was arrested, jailed, and ultimately killed.
Today, the University of North Texas Law School calls the building home, but two days after JFK was killed, it was where Ruby, who was thought to have mob ties, shot Oswald while he was being led out by police in the basement garage.
I thought about the three deaths and the subsequent chaos of sixty years ago as I stood on the steps of the former City Hall. Images flickered through my head like Zapruder’s film: The shiny black Lincoln limo, Jackie’s blood stained pink dress, Oswald’s smirk.
I looked back at the Beaux-arts style structure of Texas gray granite and Indiana limestone and it reminded me of that slab in the grass of the New York Ave Junior High. Just like I did when I was 9, I thought about the fallen President, closed my eyes, and offered my condolences.