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November 22, 2013

Rep. Jim Wright spent fateful day with President Kennedy

WEATHERFORD, Texas — Jim Wright remembers the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated like no other, riding only five car lengths behind Kennedy’s open convertible when a rifle shot struck down the nation’s 35th president.

The tragedy, said Wright, who turns 91 in a month, forever changed his political world, which revolved around representing Texas’ 12th congressional district for 34 years, including two years as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In a phone interview with the Weatherford, Texas, Democrat, Wright recalled that Nov. 22, 1963, started out as “a marvelous day” when he greeted the president that morning in Fort Worth.

“It was an emotional high seeing our president, hearing him and his speech at the [Fort Worth] Chamber of Commerce breakfast,” said Wright. “There was optimism and upbeat hope.”

Afterwards, Wright, Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife and others joined Kennedy and the first lady aboard Air Force One for the 13-minute flight from Carswell Air Force Base to Love Field in Dallas.

“While on board, the president asked Gov. Connally and myself to come and sit with him in his private quarters,” Wright recalled. “He asked us to explain the pushes that led to the development of Fort Worth and Dallas, and why the two towns were as different as they were.

“We were doing our best to tell him what we knew and what we could put together on that subject. When the plane landed, the president looked at us and said, ‘We must continue this conversation this afternoon on the way to Austin.’”

It would be Wright’s last conversation with the president.

“That day was an emotional roller coaster,” Wright recalled. “Before it was over, it had us all down in the lowest level of despondency.”

Traveling in the sixth car in the presidential motorcade headed for the Trade Mart, where Kennedy was to speak at a luncheon, Wright recalled the crowd along the 10-mile route from Love Field.

“I was pleasantly surprised at the turnout of all the people on the streets,” Wright said. “It was a great welcome from a multitude of people through the streets of Dallas.”

Wright saw the president’s car turn off onto Elm Street shortly before noon and, just a few minutes later, he heard a gunshot.

“My first instinct was that it was the backfire of a car,” he said. “And then I heard the second one and I said, ‘Doggone it, some goofy guy is trying to fire a 21-gun salute!’ But when I heard the third shot, I realized that the cadence was just off, so I knew it wasn’t that.”

In seconds, Wright’s car had passed beneath the sixth floor window of the Texas Book Dispository building from which authorities say Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shots that killed Kennedy.

“I didn’t see him, but there were several others in the motorcade who claimed he was leaning out with the rifle in his hands,” Wright said.

Wright recalled a Secret Service man running beside the president’s car — which was carrying JFK, wife Jackie, Connally and his wife, Nellie — and observing the agent diving inside the convertible to push the president down.

“Then the car shot forward, and I saw Ms. Kennedy leaning against the backseat looking out of the back of the car,” said Wright. “The Secret Service man was pulling her back into the seat. We followed the car to [Parkland Hospital). When we got there, I saw people helping carry the president inside and also helping Connally, who had been shot also.”

A few minutes later, said Wright, he and others were informed that Kennedy had died.

“A man came up to me with a microphone and wanted me to make a comment, but I just couldn’t express myself,” he said. “I’ve been in war, been overseas, been in combat missions, and that was bad, but something about this was just devastating.

“I’ve never experienced anything quite like that.”

Three days later, Wright attended the Requiem Mass held for Kennedy at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C.

“He was so vivacious and full of life and upbeat. He truly was a beloved president,” said Wright. “I truly believe that Kennedy may have been the most inspirational of all of our presidents.”

Then, as if a last thought, Wright added: “It’s very hard to believe that it has been 50 years.”

Sally Sexton writes for The Weatherford (Texas) Democrat.

 

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