The shots rang out in Texas nearly half a century ago, yet the memories live on about that day in November when a political era came to a violent end.
The often poignant reflections collected in Dean Owen’s book, “November 22, 1963,” make clear that it was the personality of John F. Kennedy that captured those who met him, albeit briefly, or who knew him politically.
Terri Hazeleur was a 15-year-old California student in 1960 when she decided she wanted to meet the president, who was visiting her town to dedicate a nearby dam. She organized a 35-mile hike by 39 students determined to get his attention. She recalls girls hiking with flashlights over a mountainside, supervised by her parents bearing food and water. She remembers how the flashlights died, but they pressed on.
“He asked how far we had walked. I told him thirty-five miles. He looked down at my bare feet and grinned and said, ‘Well, next time make it fifty.’”
“It was the short conversation that lasted a lifetime,” Terri observes. She notes the trauma of his death and wonders what he might have done had he lived.
“He would be finding ways for people to be proud of themselves,” she writes. “Like me. Some little nobody in some little town no one’s ever heard of can do something and be successful. It’s an encouraging thought.”
The book includes interviews and observations from former Kennedy staff members, civil rights leaders, political figures and journalists. It also taps into memories from “those with humorous, quirky, poignant and tragic encounters” with the president.
There is anger in the reminiscences of Nicholas Katzenbach, who died in 2012. He was in the Justice Department during the Kennedy administration and later became deputy attorney general. Recalling the overwhelming moral problem of civil rights faced by Kennedy, he noted that neither the president nor his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy knew very much about it.
“The problem was not whether you liked it, the problem was what could be done about it,” he commented. Katzenbach emphasized that Kennedy was aware that he had made a bad mistake in the Bay of Pigs crisis. Katzenbach also criticized what he called “the squabble” between Bobby Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson. He termed it “harmful” to the president, and added that JFK did not share his brother’s hostility to the Texan.
The book nostalgically includes memories of Mike Gefroh, a Little Leaguer who was 12 years old when he caught a ceremonial first pitch from Kennedy in Portland, Ore., in 1960. He recalls how Kennedy said he had “quite an arm.” Mr. Gefroh was a junior at Catholic High School in Portland when the president was killed. What he would always remember about Kennedy was how he made a new generation aware of politics.
Also included in the book are memories from those with fleeting, dark memories of Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s assassin. James Leavelle, the Dallas police detective who was handcuffed to Oswald at the jail where the latter was shot by Jack Ruby, reports talking after the assassination with Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent who was in the car behind the president and trying to comfort him. Mr. Leavelle bitterly recalls the decision to let the press film the transfer of Oswald to show he was not being mistreated, which resulted in his becoming an easy target for Ruby.
He notes, “If they’d just followed an old detective’s advice, we would have had him at the county jail, got him to court, got him tried, and got the death penalty on him. And who knows? The way things are, he could still be down there with appeals pending. But that didn’t happen.”
Perhaps the most evocative observation in the book belongs to Sid Davis, then of NBC News, who witnessed Johnson’s swearing-in on Air Force One as it bore Kennedy’s body back to Washington.