JFK Event Marked by Warm Words, Frigid Temps

Dramatic backdrop at today's JFK ceremony (Photo credits: Jeanne Prejean)
Dramatic backdrop at today’s JFK ceremony (Photo credits: Jeanne Prejean)

I’m still not sure why today’s program observing the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy had to be held outdoors, at the scene of the crime no less, as opposed to a quiet reflective space, like the Meyerson Symphony Center. Probably it had something to do with the dramatic sweeping camera angles that were available or, just maybe, with the “redemption” of Dealey Plaza (and the Dealey family) itself. Whatever the reason was, that is where some 5,000 souls gathered today in Dallas in wet, windy, sub-freezing-feeling temperatures, for a mercifully shortened program called “The 50th: Honoring the Memory of President John F. Kennedy.”

The event was shortened because it was so blasted cold out there. With temps in the upper 20s considering the wind-chill factor, a steady breeze snapped the big flags, which had been lowered to half-staff. A light rain kept spattering down, and pretty soon your hands were shaking and your feet felt like ice blocks, no matter how many pairs of wool socks you’d layered on. Since for “security reasons” no umbrellas were allowed, all anyone—including the hundreds of VIP guests–could do was pull their hats lower, or don one of the provided, clear-plastic ponchos. As VIPs Alan Peppard and Margaret Keliher strolled in down front and found their seats, Keliher turned around and mugged for someone behind her: “Brrrrr!!”

Ceremony guests huddle against the wind, cold and rain.
Ceremony guests huddle against the wind, cold and rain.

As a result of these adverse conditions, a scheduled performance by musicians from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra was scrubbed. (Too cold for them to play their instruments.) Nixed too was a scheduled flyover by the Centex Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, which had been planned to close the ceremony with the “Missing Man” formation salute. That had to have been a particular blow to 50th Committee chairman Ruth Collins Altshuler, who’d worked hard to make the flyover happen.

As it was, ironically, the event’s most affecting moments may have come before the “official” program started. That’s when, on two giant screens flanking the stage, guests watched historical “newsreel” footage highlighting President Kennedy’s career: his triumphant visit to Berlin in 1963, a trip to Ireland the same year, his 1961 inaugural address. Here you could hear his words and see his charisma, making the loss that followed seem all the more poignant.

Bishop Kevin Farrell provided today's invocation.
Bishop Kevin Farrell provided today’s invocation.

Not that other parts of the program weren’t affecting as well, in their own way. In a video explaining the tribute’s purpose, Altshuler said she hoped simply to do justice to the memory of “this great man.” Not long afterward, the Dallas Metro Police Pipes and Drums group came bag-piping down Elm Street, right past the old Texas School Book Depository building, site of the Sixth Floor Museum. In his invocation, Catholic Bishop Kevin J. Farrell talked about how Dallas had been implicated “by the gun shot by one man.”

From left, Rev. Zan Holmes, David McCullough, Mike Rawlings, Bishop Kevin Farrell and Ruth Collins Altshuler
From left, Rev. Zan Holmes, David McCullough, Mike Rawlings, Bishop Kevin Farrell and Ruth Collins Altshuler

Then it was time for the two big featured speakers: first Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, then historian David McCullough. Rawlings, who was said to have fretted for months over his talk, had a big, booming, hearty, politician’s delivery, and a message full of seeming introspection and Texas bravado. He said while “hope and hatred collided” in Dallas in 1963, the city in the five decades since had “turned civic heartbreak into hard work.” Dallas had been “inhospitable to honest debate,” he contended, but today it is a “different city.” Then he unveiled a new memorial to Kennedy on the grassy knoll and asked for a moment of silence.

Mayor Mike Rawlings addressing the crowd.
Mayor Rawlings said today’s Dallas is a different city.

It was at this point–at 12:30 p.m., exactly when the fatal shots had been fired on Nov. 22, 1963–that bells could be heard tolling throughout the city. This promised to be a truly moving gesture (I know, because I started feeling the waterworks coming on). But then—hey, everybody’s a critic!—it seemed to end way too soon, pinched off in mid-toll. All in all it seemed more like 10 or 15 seconds of silence and bells—not even a full minute that the president obviously deserved. (Did somebody slip a disc ringing the bells back there?)

McCullough followed, all big white hair and warm magnificent iconic voice that would say “history” even if he were reading a restaurant menu. McCullough seemed most eloquent reading his own words, as when he recalled the ’60s generation, saying that Kennedy “was ambitious to make it a better world, and so were we.” He was less sure-sounding ticking off passages of Kennedy’s own words about civil rights, education, the arts, space, and science, and so on. And, he ended on an odd, cliched note: As Kennedy’s “campaign song said, he had high hopes,” McCullough intoned. “And so do we. And on we go.”

With that–and an understated closing prayer by the Rev. Zan Holmes Jr., then some final songs by the U.S. Naval Academy Men’s Glee Club—the crowd poured out of Dealey Plaza. They were an unusually quiet mob—numb, maybe—seemingly happy to get their legs moving again in the Arctic-like air. “The 50th” and all it stood for was behind them—finally. After all the remembrances and the conferences and the speeches and the angst-ing—after all the bruising this city had taken over this sad event that happened five decades ago—it was time, at long last, to get back to living life in 2013.

Guests at today's ceremony.
Guests at today’s ceremony.