Friday marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, a tragedy that had a lasting impact on the country and on many Houstonians.
President Kennedy and the first lady spent six of his last 24 hours on Earth in Houston where enthusiastic crowds lines the streets to see them. The first couple attended an event at the Rice Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom for The League of United Latin American Citizens or LULAC.
“Gosh almighty, everybody was just bubbling over with excitement,” said LULAC member Ernest Eguia who was at the hotel on November 21, 1963.
Houstonians gathered for a glimpse of the president. They got much more than that when the president spoke and then called on Mrs. Kennedy to come forward.
“Jacqueline came up, and as you know spoke in Spanish, and the people went wild,” according to LULAC Vice President Alex Arroyos who spoke with KPRC’s Phil Archer in advance of this week’s anniversary.
The Kennedys went from the LULAC event to an appreciation dinner for Congressman Albert Thomas who helped bring NASA to Houston. Later that night, they traveled to Fort Worth and Dallas. The next day would be one that would change the country forever.
Some Houstonians played a significant role in the historic tragedy. Retired Fort Bend County Sheriff Milton Wright was a young Department of Public Safety trooper in 1963. He was driving the fourth car in the presidential motorcade when the shots rang out near Dealey Plaza.
Wright followed the President's car to Parkland Hospital. When they arrived, he helped lift wounded Texas Governor John Connally out of the limousine's jump seat.
“As soon as we got him out a secret service guy ran right up in the car and pulled the president over to one side,” said Wright. “I could see partially the side of his head was gone.”
Wright helped put the president on a gurney and then stood guard outside while doctors worked to save President Kennedy and Governor Connally.
One of the doctors was famed Houston surgeon Dr. Red Duke who was at the time a fourth-year resident at Parkland.
“As I turned I noticed Mrs. Kennedy sitting beside the door. And her clothes were badly stained,” said Dr. James H. “Red” Duke, Jr. of UT Health Sciences-Memorial Hermann Hospital.
Dr. Duke went into the trauma room where doctors were already working on President Kennedy.
“They said there's a guy across the hall needs some help. And I thought I've got as good a chance over there as I do here, because this is pretty bad.”
The man across the hall was Governor Connally who was also badly wounded and gasping for air. Dr. Red Duke said they put a chest tube in him and that reestablished his ability to breathe.
Connally lived, but something in many Americans died with John F. Kennedy that day. All the promise, the youthful exuberance, the glamour that captivated a generation was gone in an instant.
Dr. Red Duke remembers how a colleague summed it up.
“He said to me there's something evil about this event. That's some words I'll take to the grave. But it was.”