Thanks to handwritten letters to dozens of potential donors from philanthropist Ruth Collins Altshuler, next month’s event commemorating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas is on track to reach its $3 million fundraising goal, Altshuler says. A Dallas native and longtime civic leader, Altshuler is chairman of the President John F. Kennedy Commemorative Foundation, which has been charged with putting together the Nov. 22 ceremony on Dealey Plaza that will mark the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death.
To learn more about the event, including the attitudes and challenges she’s encountered along the way, we sat down with Altshuler late last week in the downtown offices of Laurey Peat, whose PR firm, Laurey Peat + Associates, is overseeing the commemoration project. Peat was also present when we began the following (lengthy) Q&A with Altshuler by asking her how things are going for “The 50th: Honoring the Memory of President John F. Kennedy,” some six weeks out.
Ruth Altshuler: I think fine, considering. I think the hardest part of this is, we don’t have any precedent. As much community work as I’ve done for 60 years, they’ll say, ‘We tried this last year and it worked, or didn’t work, and you ought to do this …’ But this is all just new, you know. … It’s just absolutely, we’re making it up as we go along. Like, we weren’t thinking about security and insurance when Laurey took the job.
Laurey Peat: I’ve had to indemnify the city, the county, the committee, and I’ve worked with four different lawyers. Dealey Plaza is a really challenging property to work with. It’s also an emotionally driven issue, so you have a lot of interested parties beyond the public. There’s just a lot of passion connected with it. …
RA: When you bring CBS and people like that, Laurey, how do they react to Dealey Plaza?
LP: It’s one part of the city that hasn’t changed very much, which is the good news and the bad news. It’s been restored, and those are all county buildings in there. So to them it looks just like it was in 1963. So the challenge is really bringing everybody to the current state of what Dallas is like now. The Dallas media is good with that. The mayor [Mike Rawlings] uses 90 percent as his number. Ninety percent of the people who are here now either weren’t born or were not living here then. …
GH: Have you been involved much in the Dealey Plaza aspect, Ruth?
RA: No. She’s walked it in 103-degree weather and in the rain, and I’ve just said, ‘Ta-ta.’
GH: What is your role as chairman of the foundation?
RA: Well, the mayor called me about a year and a half ago to do this. I just thought, ‘What are we doing?’ And then he said, ‘Well, do it for Dallas.’ And that’s what got me, because I love Dallas, I was born here, I’ve lived here all my life, and I’m so tired of ‘city of hate’ and all that junk. If there was just anything that any one person could do, to clean that off the record. So I took it, and I’m glad I did. I immediately got Laurey, and then he and I appointed a committee. Half of those names are his suggestions, and half are mine. It kind of fell into place like that. And we really haven’t used the committee very much.
GH: What was the committee’s purpose? To show broad community support?
RA: Yes. Just to have a well-known committee. And we didn’t know when we got them which ones we’d need …
GH: Are they a fundraising committee as well?
RA: I told the mayor, ‘I’m not going to raise a dollar for this; you must know this going in.’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Well, we wouldn’t have a dollar if I hadn’t done it! I’ve done it all. And Bobby Lyle’s entered into it at this late stage. But, I’ve just raised all the money with a letter—people I know. Anyway, it’s coming in, and it’s all fine.
GH: You wrote one letter?
RA: I wrote a personal letter on [foundation letterhead]. I wrote it two pages, all handwritten. Nobody’s had a handwritten letter since Lincoln died! Each one, I knew them in a different way, and so I had a different ‘ask.’ A lot just didn’t even answer. Because, I get letters like that all the time, and if I’m not gonna give, I don’t answer. You can’t, you know. But a lot have just responded in an amazing way, so I’m very grateful.
GH: How many letters did you send out?
RA: Maybe 40, and I’ve gotten 20 back. I don’t even know. Fifty and 25, something like that. Maybe even more than half. With some people, I asked for $50,000. I put a number in each letter. All of them could afford a lot, or I wouldn’t have sent the letter. But I’d say, ‘Would you give $50,000?’ And they’d give $50,000. Occasionally they wouldn’t give as much as I asked for. But, we couldn’t have raised this money if I hadn’t minimized almost giving $50,000. There’s some $25,000, and lots of $100,000. But you can’t raise $3 million, which was our goal, with $10,000 here and $5,000 there.
GH: Did you have people saying, ‘Why don’t we just forget doing this?’
RA: It was more indifference. People weren’t for it, and they weren’t against it. They’re seeing that it’s happening, so they said, ‘I’ll support you, Ruth.’ I had about two people who are very right-wing who just said, ‘Why are you doing that?’ But the vast majority don’t care.
GH: Have you met your $3 million goal?
RA: We’re at the finish. We’re in the home stretch.
GH: Why do you need that much money?
RA: You tell that, Laurey, because you’ve worked on the budget more than I have.
LP: We’re paying for the city services, you know, the public safety piece of this, which is everything from vetting all the folks who have to come, paying everything from the police officers, all the security vans, all the ticketing, all the security cameras. … We’re also building a very needed but complicated staging, with lots of infrastructure. It’s on the Houston Street side. Show Call Productions is producing … all the lighting, all the staging. It’s going to be an event that will be seen on national and international TV, so the production side of that is not $100,000.
GH: What is the city paying for, then?
LP: They’re providing services, and they’re giving a lot of the services—the planning of all this, none of that time is being charged. And the role of the police chief and Mary [Suhm] and their advice and counsel. The $3 million budget for the type of event it is, is a very reasonable one, actually. The press riser, for example, is like a two-and-a-half-story house, it’s that tall, and that’s where a lot of the broadcast booths will go. It’s down by the underpass … The inscription—this is the monument so to speak that’s going in Dealey Plaza—it will have the last paragraph of [JFK’s] speech never delivered. Nancy Marcus has just graciously announced that she’s going to underwrite it. It will be unveiled that day. It’s been through all the historical preservation approval processes. It’s fabulous. It’s metal, but it’s 20 feet long …
RA: It’s on the grassy knoll, in the ground.
GH: There’s going to be, what, 5,000 people in attendance that day?
RA: Probably. 4,500.
LP: Five thousand to 6,000.
GH: How many applied through the website?
LP: Close to 15,000. … The only seating is for the underwriters and the committee and the officials—city, state, federal officials. Everyone else stands.
GH: Did you plan the program, Ruth?
RA: Uh huh. Almost in its entirety. The mayor and I have a running joke about it, because when we were [first] talking about it, he said, ‘You own this.’ Well, I owned it for about five minutes! … So the five minutes I owned it, I was still on the phone talking to him, I think. He said, I want a dignified [event] … and I thought, David McCullough. He’s a friend, and a great person. He may be America’s best historian—and his voice is so good. That’s so important. So, he was delighted.
My idea was for him to do two five-minute spots: one five minute of his writing [about Kennedy], and another five minutes of his ideas of Kennedy’s most famous words. When I talked to him, he said, ‘Ruth, I’m going to do one 10-minute, and it’s going to be all Kennedy.’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir!’ And he said he was going to call Caroline, and see what were her favorite scriptures … not scriptures! … but passages, of all his speeches. He’s very emotional about Kennedy. He told Margot Perot about a week ago, ‘I don’t want to be John Boehner!’—you know, cry all the time. …
So, that was one idea. Then I thought, we have to have music. So I thought, I want the U.S. Naval Academy Choir. So, I had just met Admiral Pat Walsh a week or two before, when he had spoken at Cary Maguire’s house. He was from Dallas, went to Jesuit, had just retired from the Navy, and the last job he had in the Navy, he was the admiral of the Pacific Fleet. Well, you don’t get bigger than that. He was this attractive man of about 58, and he said, ‘My mentor was Jim Collins.’ All of a sudden I woke up, because that’s my brother. I said, ‘How can I use you?’ [Chuckles.] So I called and said, ‘How do I approach the Naval Academy to do this?’ and he said, ‘Well, you talk to the superintendent.’ I said, ‘How can I get in touch with him?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m having dinner with him tomorrow night.’ … Then the Perots got in the picture, and they’ve been very supportive…
LP: American Airlines is flying all 70 or so members of the choir here both ways, for free, which is lovely.
RA: Then I was determined to have a flyover. So I saw Pat Walsh again at a Christmas party, and I’m sure he thought, ‘Here’s this woman again!’ I said, ‘Listen, I’ve got to have a flyover, who do I talk to?’ And he sent me an email saying, ‘You write a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, and say you want a Missing Man Flyover with the Blue Angels.’ … Then, of course, the Blue Angels were the first to go in the sequester. So, we’ve just been without all this time, and I simply wouldn’t give up. Roger Staubach sort of held my hand through all this, because he’s the big Navy hero of all time, so we’ve come up with a charitable group of about 350 flyers. The Missing Man flyover, which will close the ceremony, will be performed by the Central Texas Wing of the Commemorative Air Force.
GH: So those are the major elements?
RA: Mayor Rawlings will speak for 10 minutes. Then we have a girl from Dallas Baptist University who’s going to sing the “Star Spangled Banner.” We’re also going to have bagpipes, and we’re going to have bells ringing and a moment of silence at 12:30, which was the actual time of the shot. I had lunch with Laura Bush—she was the first one, after I knew I was going to do this. We went up to a Chinese place in the Village, and I said, ‘You’ve been to so many commemorations, what would you suggest?’ And she said, ‘Bells. Bells are very effective.’ See, I wouldn’t have thought of bells. So I got bells on the brain. I never let them off, like I never let this flyover off.
LP: The Dallas Symphony [brass section] will play starting at 11:30, before the program starts. They will play all of Kennedy’s favorite patriotic songs. Then at 12:10, the actual program will start. We’ll actually be shutting down DART rails for an hour for the program. We expect the program to conclude at 1 to 1:05.
GH: What happens if it rains?
RA: The show goes on. There’s no way to tent it. So, that’s all we can say. I remember Nov. 22, 1963, because it was kind of cloudy and cool, and then by the time [the Kennedys] came at noon, the sun was out full force, just a beautiful day.
GH: What have the main challenges been with this event?
RA: Well, the money, most of all, because we’re not using a dime from the city. We’ve been successful, yes, but it’s not been easy. Luckily I’m an old fundraiser, so we started early and thought big. Some people gave contributions a year ago. … A lot of people want to be a part of what’s going on, and I’ve never seen so much publicity. Every day in the paper, there’s something about the Kennedys. The closer it gets, the more momentum [builds].
GH: As you know there’s been some criticism of the commemoration—from Jim Schutze in the Dallas Observer, from the Coalition on Political Assassinations [COPA] group, from the conspiracy community in general. They say Dallas’ ‘old guard’ has been over-controlling and has worked to block dissenting viewpoints from participating. How do you respond to that?
RA: Well, I think that’s the mayor’s to answer.
LP: We have dealt with it. They’re going to have a place. We have a permit for the plaza, so we’ll have our event there, because we’re permit-ted. But they will have a voice. We’ve found an area that’s accessible … COPA has been offered a place. Then, as soon as the plaza opens after the last prayer, they can come and be on the plaza. The site where they’re going to be is over by the JFK Memorial on Elm Street. The mayor has been in constant communication with them, with John Judge. They’re having their convention here at the Lawrence Hotel. It’s been very open. We all feel we’ve recognized their … First Amendment [rights].
GH: Ruth, you mentioned the weather on Nov. 22, 1963. I’ve read that you were at the old Dallas Trade Mart that day, waiting to hear the president speak?
RA: Yes, I was on the grand jury that day, and went across the street and stood on the corner of the book depository, at 12 o’clock, for my husband to pick me up to go to the Trade Mart. While I’m standing there, he [Lee Harvey Oswald] was up building his nest. To start the story, [Dallas Morning News president] Joe Dealey had called me in September and said, ‘You’re going to get a subpoena from the sheriff’s department;’ he was one of three on the nominating committee, and they wanted me to be the first woman on a grand jury in Dallas. I thought, well, that sounds interesting, so the sheriff did come. (We’d call that a heads-up today.) So I was on the grand jury, and we let off a little early that day [Nov. 22].
About half the 12 were going to the Trade Mart. So [my husband] picked me up, and we went on out there. So we sat and sat, and finally … Joe Dealey was standing there with a transistor radio, and he told me later, ‘I wanted to tell you what I was hearing, but,’ he said, ‘we didn’t know how the people in the hall would react.’ Which I thought was kind of interesting and strange. I don’t know how he thought they’d react. Finally Erik Jonnson, he was president of the Citizens Council, which had hosted the event, he went to the microphone and said, ‘Very sad announcement I have to make. We understand the president has been shot.’ He didn’t say he’s dead. I don’t know whether he knew it or not. Then he said, ‘I’ll ask Luther Holcomb to come and give the benediction. So he did, and then people just started going out, very quietly.
GH: You mentioned earlier the ‘city of hate’ tag that some have put on Dallas of that era, blaming the city itself for the president’s murder. What is your impression of the Dallas of that period?
RA: Well, you see, on the old newsreels, the crowds were just screaming [for the Kennedys that day]. There was not one egg thrown. Everybody was just screaming, they were beside themselves. So, I never felt any of that. I guess I’d read a little, and some of that existed, but not enough to blame a city for anything like that.
GH: Frequently mentioned in this ‘city of hate’ narrative are the unruly incidents here involving Lyndon Johnson in 1960 and Adlai Stevenson in 1963. The storyline is that an ‘atmosphere of fanaticism drew susceptible individuals like Oswald to Dallas.’ What do you think of that view? You were here then.
RA: I know, but I was younger. I wasn’t into all that. I just thought I lived in the best city in the world. You know, I wasn’t thinking anything like this. Never did, never have, never any of that.
GH: But Ruth, I’ve even seen your father, Carr Collins Sr., cited as being part of the ‘hate crowd’ of that era, along with Rev. W.A. Criswell and others who opposed Kennedy. That is part of this narrative as well.
RA: Is it? I didn’t know. But dad—dad was political, but he was never mean. He never thought of such a thing like that.
GH: Would you say that Dallas has been unfairly tarnished by these critics?
RA: Yes. Everybody, my family, they were—my brother, Jim Collins, was a big Republican and all, but just because they were Republicans, my family didn’t go down and throw an egg at Lyndon Johnson. It was no more … than people now, you can turn on television and see everybody arguing over what’s going on now, just the same old, same old. The press, though, the foreign press, is trying to … is all picking up on this, and they’re wanting to say that this [upcoming event] is a ‘redemption.’ You know, that’s just the worst thing. But that shows you where they’re coming from. That makes good reading, that’s all I can figure out, because all this has been hashed over [for] 50 years.
Did you see the Wall Street Journal three or four days ago? They had a full-page, color picture of Oswald, and in the middle of it they said the Russian government had done such a thorough investigation—see, they were blaming Russia, and thinking all of this might have been tied into Russia—they said after all their carrying on, they realized that this man was very capable of doing this without any help from anybody. He was a very disgruntled, mixed-up, crazy kid that did it. I was glad to see that. It shot the conspiracy theory, you know, blew it up. I’ve never thought that it was a conspiracy. The Connallys never thought it was a conspiracy.
GH: Are you worried that something crazy might happen on Nov. 22, with Dallas in the international spotlight?
RA: Not really. Yes and no. But I think, the mayor got the idea to do this, when people were calling him from around the world and saying, ‘What are you going to do for the commemoration?’ He told me he considered this the most important thing of his four years in office, because he wants Dallas to come across as great as it is. I’d put Dallas up against any city in the country for being on fire and exciting, for philanthropy and volunteerism, and all those good things. … I have no apologies for this [commemoration]. I think it’s going to be very good. It’s not going to be hula-hoops or anything; it’s going to be very dignified, and really some tears. It will be a very touching moment. And I think we’ll all be proud of it. Less is more. We’re not trying to do more.