Marice Richter Special to the Business Press
President John F. Kennedy started his day on Nov. 22, 1963, on an upbeat note. He greeted crowds waiting in the rain outside the Hotel Texas in downtown Fort Worth and gave a heartfelt, impromptu speech to his cheering supporters.
In brief remarks, Kennedy reflected on his vision for the future of the country, and the importance of a strong defense and Fort Worth’s vital role in aviation production and other topics. He also apologized for his glamorous wife Jackie’s absence, remarking that she took a little longer to get ready than he or Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. “He made a little joke that nobody really cared what he or LBJ were wearing,” said Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc. After shaking the hands of supporters in the crowd, he headed inside the hotel for a chamber of commerce breakfast, where local business and civic leaders paid $2.50 for a ticket to see the president and first lady.
Hours later, Kennedy was shot and killed as his motorcade rolled through the streets of downtown Dallas. As the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination this week, the narrative for Dallas is vastly different than for Fort Worth. But Fort Worth has a role that carries important historical significance: This was the place where the 35th president delivered his last public speech. So, this week Fort Worth honors the legacy of JFK and his visit here on the last day of his life. Among the events planned is a Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce breakfast at 7:30 a.m. Friday, Nov. 22, at the Fort Worth Hilton Hotel, formerly the Hotel Texas. Reminiscent of the experience of Kennedy’s final public speech, the event will honor former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright, who accompanied JFK that morning, and will feature Secret Service Agent Clint Hill as guest speaker. Hill was assigned to Jacqueline Kennedy and was in the motorcade when the president was assassinated. “Fort Worth shared a rare and intimate moment in time with President Kennedy,” chamber president and CEO Bill Thornton said in a statement. “The event is especially meaningful for the chamber because of our historic role in the president’s appearance, the warm welcome he and the first lady received at the chamber breakfast, and the crowds he likewise embraced in our streets.” Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price will end the event by placing a memorial wreath at the JFK Tribute in General Worth Square, where crowds are expected to gather to mark the anniversary. Kennedy’s visits to Fort Worth and Dallas were remarkably similar, according to eyewitnesses and those familiar with the historical details.
“There were thousands of people lining the motorcade routes in both cities, excited to see the president and Jackie,” Taft said. “There were bands and ticker-tape and a great outpouring of support.” But the climate leading up to president’s arrival was very different. In Dallas, a small but influential group of arch-conservatives had “hijacked the microphone” according to Bill Minutaglio, co-author of the new book Dallas 1963. A month before the assassination, United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson was heckled as he delivered a speech in downtown Dallas and was hit on the head with a protest sign as he left the auditorium. The ill will was long-standing – while campaigning for the Kennedy-Johnson ticket three years earlier, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson had been shoved by anti-Kennedy protesters. Meanwhile, a Dallas billionaire bought radio time to disseminate his anti-Kennedy message and W.A. Criswell, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, used his pulpit to predict a Catholic insurrection fueled by the election of the nation’s first Roman Catholic president. Anti-Kennedy “Wanted” fliers with Kennedy’s picture portrayed as a criminal mug shot circulated on the streets and a full-page ad appeared in the The Dallas Morning News beneath the headline “Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas.” The ad blasted the president’s decision-making on several important domestic and foreign issues. “Nothing like that happened in Fort Worth,” said Roy Eaton, who covered the president’s visit for radio station KXOL in Fort Worth. “There were no protests or anything like that. Fort Worth was much more laid back than Dallas and still is.” When he learned that JFK had been shot, Eaton said, he rushed up the hallway to the newsroom saying “those SOBs have shot the president.” “I was thinking of course of the right-wing radicals who had purchased ads in the Dallas newspapers saying the president wasn’t welcome and spat on U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stephenson and shoved Lady Bird Johnson,” he stated. “How wrong I was.” Still, Kennedy had his detractors in Fort Worth.
“He was an East Coast liberal and a Catholic,” Eaton said. “I remember my father saying that Kennedy was the worst thing that could happen to the country,” said Quentin McGown, a local historian and lawyer. “A lot of people in Fort Worth thought the same thing, yet there were so many out there that day cheering for him.” The president made the trip to Texas, which included visits to Houston and San Antonio, to try to reunite a Democratic Party divided into conservative and liberal factions, Eaton said. Fort Worth businessman Don Woodard, who attended many significant Kennedy functions as chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Bill Blakely of Texas, said at least one prominent Baptist preacher in Fort Worth was widely known to admonish Kennedy with anti-Catholic rhetoric similar to Criswell’s. During their overnight stay in Fort Worth, the Kennedys stayed in an eighth-floor suite at Hotel Texas rather than the luxurious Will Rogers suite on the top floor, Woodard recalled. “The Secret Service was worried that someone might take a shot at him from one of the buildings close by,” said Woodard, who was a delegate to the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles that nominated Kennedy for president – and who attended both Kennedy’s inauguration and his funeral in Washington, D.C. At the Fort Worth chamber breakfast on that fateful morning in 1963, Woodard said, chamber President Raymond Buck presented JFK with a Shady Oaks Country Club hat, which he declined to put on despite pleas from the audience. “He said he would put it on if we came to see him in the White House on Monday,” Woodard said. Standing across from the White House as Kennedy’s flag-draped coffin passed by the following Monday, Woodard said he couldn’t help thinking of Kennedy’s promise to put the hat on at the White House on Monday.
Woodard said he knew the Secret Service was uncomfortable allowing Kennedy to ride in a white convertible through the streets of Fort Worth to Carswell Air Force Base. “Kennedy insisted,” Woodard said. “What happened in Dallas could have happened here in that open car.” Mike Cochran, a reporter for the Associated Press in Fort Worth, said he breathed a sigh of relief after watching Air Force One take off from Carswell that day. “We put out a bulletin ‘wheels up’,” he said. “We got him out-of-town safely.” But Cochran had barely returned to the office when he was sent to Parkland Hospital in Dallas to report on the condition of Texas Gov. John Connally, who was shot while riding in the car with Kennedy. For years, Dallas struggled to overcome the stigma of the assassination while Fort Worth’s significance as the site of Kennedy’s last speeches was largely forgotten.
To remedy that, Fort Worth community leaders initiated a move about 15 years ago to commemorate JFK’s legacy and the final hours of his life in Fort Worth. The late Lawrence Ludtke of Houston was commissioned to design a sculpture of JFK that would anchor a tribute at the site where the slain president made his final public address. Plans for the tribute faltered after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001 but organizers regained their footing and with the help Shirlee and Taylor Gandy raised $2 million to complete the project. The tribute, with an 8-foot bronze sculpture of Kennedy as its centerpiece, was dedicated a year ago. In the past year, the tribute has been widely seen by schoolchildren and local community groups as well as downtown visitors. It has even caught the attention of some foreign journalists, Taft said. “We don’t promote it as an attraction but people are interested and really appreciate the sculpture and the story we tell through the tribute,” Taft said. The tribute captures a moment of Fort Worth history that resonates for those who remember and fascinates those who don’t, including many who hadn’t even been born on the day Kennedy died. “I’ll never forget that day or that breakfast,” said McGown, who was 8 years old at the time. “Everyone was happy to be there and see the president, even if he didn’t put on the hat.”