The Day Kennedy Died In Dallas | KERA News

The Day Kennedy Died In Dallas

Oct 15, 2013

As the world acknowledges the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas, commentator Rawlins Gilliland shares his memory of a thrilling day that turned tragic.

The first thing I remember thinking, hearing on my car radio that President Kennedy had been pronounced dead at Parkland Hospital, was:  "I’ll be glad when this is thirty years ago." Now it’s almost fifty years since I was the eager college freshman celebrating presidential star power in his hometown Dallas.  When history took a brutal turn.

Having studied the motorcade route published in the newspaper, I waited at Loma Alto on Lemmon Avenue. And there, in the sunny crisp mid-morning, finally they came. Jacqueline Kennedy’s lustrous dark auburn hair gently fluttered beneath her pink signature hat. I could see the president’s head, which looked enormous, over her shoulder as her eyes met mine. I was suddenly a smitten boy captivated by a young woman almost twice my age.

I quickly raced through back roads to Main Street, where the Kennedy Memorial now stands, to be on the President’s side when the Lincoln convertible approached. Mere feet away, I nodded my head, my right hand to my forehead in feigned salute, while President Kennedy in-turn dipped his broadly smiling face to acknowledge my gesture.  Star struck, I watched the car turn right on Houston.  Toward the Texas Schoolbook Depository.

Returning to my car crossing Elm Street, there was sudden alarmed commotion two blocks away and I fled, driving in aimless disbelief, crying for the first time in my life about something unrelated to me.  I went to bed that night a very different man than when I had earlier awakened. My adult life began on November 22, 1963.

To that fifteen year-old high school sophomore, the 1960 election of a young handsome president with a gorgeous wife and charming children felt transformative; and so too, this President’s death on our childhood memory streets.  My lonely heartache compounded hearing the town I call home unfairly branded as ‘the city of hate’ by the northeast press when myriad Dallasites mourned invisibly as collateral damage. I lost interest in school and instantly hated guns.

I also realized I was forever part of history largely because I showed up. Incredibly, not long thereafter, I witnessed a murder in North Dallas and, as the prosecution’s only evidence, came to know the key assassination investigative Dallas players; District Attorney Henry Wade, homicide Captain Will Fritz, Police chief Jesse Curry. My life felt relevant for the most unlikely reasons.

Five decades later, I had a brief encounter with someone who thought it clever to be glib regarding that day’s events. I bristled before thinking: in 1963, 50 years ago would have been 1913... and I would have likely mocked someone thin-skinned over anything that ancient.  I curbed my instinct to be offended.

Instead I told the young man lampooning the inevitable half-century retrospective onslaught; “Yes,” I said, "historic context evolves and no one’s memories can remain raw.  But," I advised him, "it wasn't funny." Adding, “As they used to say, I guess you had to be there...”

Rawlins Gilliland is a writer from Dallas.