Recalling the past: Fort Worth’s Read draws on personal memories for book

Julian Read book on JFK

Dave Montgomery Austin Bureau

AUSTIN – Seated at the front of a press bus filled with chattering reporters on Nov. 22, 1963, Julian Read, then a top aide for Texas Gov. John Connally, had a clear view of the presidential limousine just eight cars ahead. As the motorcade rolled past the Texas School Book Depository in downtown Dallas, Read heard a pop. Then two more. He saw the limousine slow to a near-stop, then suddenly lurch forward and disappear under an underpass. Still indefatigable at 86, Read is widely regarded as one of Texas’ top public affairs strategists, a former Fort Worth sports writer who has represented scores of blue-ribbon corporate clients and helped forge the careers of political figures such as Connally and former House Speaker Jim Wright of Fort Worth. Now, as the world prepares to observe the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, Read, like others whose lives were entangled in those horrific events, is spending much of his time journeying back to that fateful autumn day in 1963.

In a newly released book, JFK’s Final Hours in Texas, Read offers his eyewitness perspective of the assassination in chapters with titles such as “The Day That Time Stood Still,” “The Last Breakfast in Fort Worth” and “The Unthinkable.” The narrative features 61 pages of photographs, including one of a young Read briefing the press at Parkland Hospital. Read recalls the chaos and disbelief in the immediate aftermath of the rifle shots that killed the president and critically wounded Connally, his boss and close friend. One of Read’s most gripping accounts is that of seeing Jacqueline Kennedy and Texas first lady Nellie Connally silent and alone in a darkened hallway at Parkland as they waited outside Trauma Rooms One and Two. As a first-hand observer of those events, Read has been besieged with requests for interviews and personal appearances and will be a special guest at the formal remembrance that Dallas officials will host to observe the anniversary at 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 22. Read also worked with the producer of an upcoming National Geographic documentary on the assassination to reunite a dozen participants of the chamber of commerce breakfast that Kennedy addressed at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth before going to Dallas. The documentary, JFK – The Final Hours, which features Read and a group of prominent Fort Worth residents, including former House Speaker Jim Wright seated around a breakfast table reminiscent of the 1963 event, is scheduled to air at 7 p.m. Nov. 8. The narrator is actor Bill Paxton of Fort Worth, who, an 8-year-old, was among the thousands of spectators gathered outside the hotel to see Kennedy.

As Read ventured back to those times during the one and a half years that he worked on his book, he sometimes revived memories that were difficult to revisit, he recalled in a recent interview with the Business Press. “From time to time there would be portions of it that would sort of bring back memories that were pretty hard to deal with,” he said. “It’s always just below the surface.” For much of the past half-century, Read has been widely recognized as one of the state’s premier corporate communications and public strategists. The 1943 Paschal High School graduate entered the business in the early 1950s after leaving his job as a sports writer for the now-defunct Fort Worth Press. One of his first clients was Wright, who, with Read’s help, defeated a favored incumbent to win his first congressional in 1954.

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Read founded Read-Poland Associates and operated the firm for five decades, attracting a parade of major accounts that included Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the 1968 HemisFair in San Antonio, the opening of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport in 1973 and the debut of Southwest Airlines. The firm merged with GCI Global in 2001 and later with Cohn & Wolfe, an international public relations group based in London. The 6-foot-5 Read, who shows no hint of slowing down, continues to provide senior counsel for Cohn & Wolfe from a skyscraper office in downtown Austin. He also operates a company called Julian Read Associates to advise senior-level executives. In 1963, Read was riding high as the Fort Worth media strategist who had helped orchestrate Connally’s victory in the 1962 governor’s race. Connally was living in Fort Worth as legal adviser for Fort Worth oilman Sid Richardson when he decided to enter the race and chose Read as his chief media adviser. Even though he never went on the state payroll and represented scores of other clients through Read-Poland, Read remained one of Connally’s closest confidantes until Connally’s death in 1993.

Connally had been in office for 10 months when Kennedy made the ill-fated trip to Texas on a five-city swing that was scheduled to end with a fundraiser in Austin, the next stop after Dallas. In both the book and his interview with the Business Press, Read disputed accounts that Kennedy made the trip primarily to help repair an inter-party rift between liberal and conservative Democrats. Instead, said Read, Kennedy had his eye on raising money from “rich Texans” and wanted to have five fundraisers. Connally strongly objected, and the plans were revised to include only the fundraiser in Austin and non-partisan events in the other cities. The president and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy arrived in Fort Worth the night of Nov. 21 after stops in Houston and San Antonio. The next morning Kennedy greeted more than 5,000 cheering supporters on the parking lot across from the Hotel Texas – now the Hilton Hotel Texas – just as sunshine began breaking through a grey mist. He also spoke before business and community leaders at a breakfast sponsored by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. Read said he originally planned to go straight to Austin to prepare Connally’s remarks but was caught up “in the euphoria of the moment” and decided to go to Dallas on the White House press charter. “It was exciting, everybody was happy,” Read recalled. After their arrival at Dallas Love Field, Read boarded one of two press buses in the presidential motorcade, taking a right-hand seat at the front just across from the driver. Earlier concerns about a potential hostile reception for the president began to dissipate as the motorcade reached downtown, Read recalled.

“We came right down Main Street, people were hanging out of the skyscrapers… hanging out the windows cheering, confetti flowing,” Read told the Business Press. “On the streets, people were standing five six deep. It was incredible. “Everybody had worried about Dallas, and the White House press most of all, they couldn’t believe the reception he was getting,” Read said. “So we had a kind of an easy banter on the bus.” Then the motorcade approached the school book depository and Dealey Plaza. Looking past the driver, Read could see the presidential limo down an incline at the front of the motorcade. “And all of a sudden, pop. And then pop, pop. And I couldn’t believe what I heard and I thought, well, maybe that’s a back fire because we had (police) motorcycles all around us. But then I saw the limo kind of almost stop for a moment, and then (it) just lurched away. “ Read described a scene of “panic” and “pandemonium” as police scrambled into alert and parents pressed their children to the ground to keep them out of danger. “We didn’t know exactly what had happened, but we knew something terrible had happened.” Read said he and White House press assistant Jiggs Fauver decided to dispatch the press bus straight to the Dallas Trade Mart, where 3,000 were awaiting Kennedy’s arrival. In that era decades before cell phones and Twitter, the crowd still “had no concept of what had happened,” Read said. He went to the podium and told Erik Jonsson, a Dallas civic leader and luncheon chairman, what he knew so far. “I said, ‘Mr. Jonsson, we think something terrible has happened. We don’t know for sure what, but we believe perhaps the president and Gov. Connally have been shot.’”

Read then rushed outside and asked a friend to take him to Parkland. He ran to the nearest entrance, an end door, and was surprised to see it unlocked and unattended, with no security in sight. Hospital personnel helped him find Texas first lady Nellie Connally, who was seated alone in a dark corridor outside Trauma Room Two, where “her husband of twenty-three years was fighting for his life,” Read recalled in his book. Across the hall a few feet away was Jackie Kennedy, outside Trauma Room One. Nellie Connally later told Read that neither of the two women spoke. “I will never forget that unreal scene of the two wives, absolutely alone in the dark corridor, silently awaiting the fate of their husbands,” Read said in his book. “I felt helpless and out of place in their company.” Read and White House Deputy Press Secretary Malcolm Kilduff arranged a temporary press room in a nurses training room equipped with a blackboard and small table. It was Kilduff who somberly announced at 1:33 p.m. that President Kennedy had died. Afterward, Read briefed the press on some of the details that Nellie Connally had provided him during their conversation in the hallway, including a sketch of the seating arrangement in the limo – the Kennedys in the back, just behind the Connallys. In a voice still shaking from the experience, the Texas first lady told Read that both couples had been overwhelmed by the massive crowds lining the streets. “Mr. President, you certainly can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you,” Nellie Connally told Kennedy as she turned toward the president just before the rifle fire. Those were believed to be the last words Kennedy heard. “I went back immediately to Mrs. Connally and I stayed with her,” Read said. Much of the national press began returning to Washington, but around midnight Read faced another wave of reporters when the foreign media, mostly from Europe, descended on Dallas. Read’s fundamental mission was to provide updates on the governor and assist Nelly Connally in her statements to the press. He was at Parkland round-the-clock for three days and two nights, fielding “dozens and dozens’’ of phone calls and interviews.

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Read began working on his book in the spring of 2012. One treasure trove of material came from former aide Marla Pratt Westfall, who, without Read’s knowledge, had assembled all the scribbled notes, travel manifests, news clippings and other assassination-related materials that came through Read’s makeshift headquarters in Parkland. She mailed the material to Read 35 years later. Read’s personal experiences formed the underpinnings of the book, fulfilling a declaration on the book’s dust-cover: An Eyewitness Remembers the Tragedy and Its Aftermath. But Read and his publisher also wanted to make the book larger than just his personal recollections, including details on Dallas’ struggle to overcome the ignominy of the assassination, the development of the world-renowned Sixth Floor Museum and the sweeping legislative advances that Lyndon Johnson was able to push through Congress in the aftermath of the assassination. Read, an avid history buff, conducted scores of interviews and made repeated visits to the Sixth Floor Museum, which has more than 1,100 hours of oral history interviews. The hard-back version of the book, released Oct. 1, was published by the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. An identical e-book, published by Rosetta Books of New York, also has been released on Kindle.

While conducting his research, Read was contacted by Robert Erickson, a producer for an independent film company that prepared the National Geographic Documentary – The Final Days. The producer wanted to “recreate the breakfast” at the Hotel Texas and gave Read “free rein to put it together.” Fort Worth participants with speaking roles include Corrnelia “Corky” Friedman, the wife of former Fort Worth Mayor Bayard Friedman and a member of the host committee; Roy McDermott, husband of Kay Buck McDermott, who was in charge of seating arrangements; and photographer Gene Gordon, who took pictures at the rally outside the hotel. Read moderates the breakfast re-enactment and the end, he leads a toast to the memory of President Kennedy.