Long-overdue JFK Tribute will be dedicated today in Fort Worth
Posted Wednesday, Nov. 07, 2012
By Sandra Baker
FORT WORTH — Almost 50 years have passed since President John F. Kennedy spoke to a large cheering crowd outside the Hotel Texas in downtown Fort Worth, yet former House Speaker Jim Wright still struggles to understand how within hours of that joyous visit events would so horribly change.
He describes Nov. 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, as the saddest day of his career.
“I was personally so stricken by it, I did not get on the airplane to go back to Washington,” Wright said in a recent interview with the Star-Telegram. “I felt there was something here to be done.”
This morning, Wright, 89, will offer a few remarks as Fort Worth business and civic leaders dedicate the JFK Tribute at Eighth and Main streets, outside what is now the Hilton hotel, where Kennedy made one of his last public appearances and spent his last night.
The tribute features an 8-foot bronze statue of Kennedy, placed near the spot where he stood on a makeshift platform to greet thousands who gathered that morning. The tribute also features a granite wall containing iconic photographs and quotes from Kennedy that morning, and some of Wright’s recollection of the day.
Wright, then a young congressman representing Fort Worth, was asked by Vice President Lyndon Johnson to help arrange visits in Texas for two days that November. Fort Worth was one of those stops. The day was to end with a dinner in Austin.
“I wanted plain citizens to have a chance to see and hear their president,” Wright once wrote. No sitting president had been in Fort Worth since 1936.
That morning, with Kennedy scheduled to speak at a Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce breakfast, Wright says, he prevailed upon Kennedy to greet the crowd swelling outside the hotel to see him.
“I think some of the Secret Service people did not like the idea of having that open-area appearance,” Wright said.
“The president didn’t mind. He did not object to it. He was delighted to do it, he said.”
The memorial has been planned for some time, but the project got a boost in 2009 when the City Council approved spending $250,000 to fund an assessment of General Worth Square.
In January 2011, Taylor and Shirlee Gandy, with the backing of Downtown Fort Worth Inc., started a $2 million public fundraising effort.
Construction began in February. Dozens of prominent residents, as well as foundations and trusts, contributed.
Among the largest donors are the Gandys, Downtown Fort Worth Inc., the city, the Jane and John Justin Foundation, the Martha Sue Parr Trust, Bob and Janice Simpson, the Tarrant County Commissioners Court, and the Ann L. and Carol Greene Rhodes Charitable Trust.Wright said the tribute is a long time coming.
“I guess that there are dates that will be remembered by those of us old enough to be impressionable. As long as we live, we will remember where we were and what we were doing when we learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. Everyone pretty well remembers where he or she was when President Roosevelt died in 1945. Everyone remembers with some clarity where he or she was when 9-11 occurred,” Wright said. “Most folks will remember where they were when they learned of John Kennedy’s death.”
Wright met Kennedy in the mid-1950s, around the start of Wright’s first term in Congress. He was doing a television broadcast to Fort Worth from Washington as a public service and asked Kennedy to be a guest to discuss his new book, Profiles in Courage. Kennedy agreed.
It was a coup for Wright that Kennedy would later come to Fort Worth.
“It meant a great, great deal because I had been active on the Kennedy-Johnson campaign,” Wright said.
Wright was among several dignitaries who came outside the Hotel Texas that morning and stood by Kennedy on the platform. He recalls how Kennedy, without hesitation, plunged into the crowd to shake hands.
“The crowd was so joyous. They loved him,” Wright said.
Many area residents remember the day in great detail.
Carol Clark Williams, 59, of Haltom City said her mother, Jere Clark, woke her and her sister, Carla, early that morning to head downtown [Fort Worth]. She remembers standing in the crowd, looking up and seeing the armed agents on rooftops.
“I thought, ‘Wow, all this to protect the president,'” Williams said.
Later, Kennedy stopped to greet her mother, then leaned down to Williams, 10, and her sister, 7, and asked what grade they were in. He shook their hands.
“That is one of the things that has been such a part of me,” Williams said.
Bob Allen, 63, owner of 1 Priority Environmental Services in Fort Worth, was 14 and a Kennedy fanatic. He skipped school and made it downtown on his motorcycle, stood in the crowd outside the hotel, but also worked his way in and shook Kennedy’s hand.
“I just threaded my way through the crowd,” Allen said. “I was a small kid. I’ll never forget that day. He was my hero.”
Likewise, Mary Catherine Monroe, 68, a U.S. history teacher in Arlington, was in the crowd with Texas Christian University classmates and her history professor.
“It was a defining moment for my generation,” Monroe said. “It changed my politics. The assassination changed everything.”
‘I thought it
was a backfire’
Inside the ballroom, Kennedy spoke about events in Fort Worth’s history and the important role the city played in the nation’s defense, referring to the military work at General Dynamics and Bell Helicopter, among other things.
“He didn’t ask for votes. He didn’t ask for money, campaign contributions, nothing like that,” Wright said.
“He boasted on Fort Worth. I was very happy he had been bragging on my hometown and he had said nice things about me. When the president of the United States comes to your home and says nice things about you … that doesn’t happen every day.”
Wright would accompany Kennedy and the others to Dallas to be part of Kennedy’s motorcade through downtown. Wright was in the sixth car in the procession behind Kennedy’s car.
“When we got to Dallas, there was a joyous reception for him in the streets,” Wright said.
But then panic set in, Wright said, when he heard shots and saw the horror on the faces in the crowd.
“I heard that first shot and thought, ‘Oh, for Pete’s sake.’ I thought it was a backfire. Then the second one came. I thought someone was trying to fire a 21-gun salute with a rifle. I didn’t realize what was happening.”
Wright said he often thinks about that day and says it’s not always easy to talk about.
“It was just a difficult experience to overcome,” he said.
“I don’t know that I did fully overcome it.”