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by Robert G. Cowser
Forty-four years after John Kennedy’s assassination is a time for those of us old enough to remember hearing first-hand a report of that event to reflect on its impact on almost every citizen. Several times during the classes in English composition that I have taught the past few years, I have referred to the assassination. I mention to the students that I saw the President in person approximately twelve hours before he was shot. What amazes the twenty-year-olds in my classes is that anyone who was alive when John Kennedy was living is still alive—and even more amazing to them is that that person is standing before them.

A few days after the President announced his plans to visit Texas in late November of 1963 my mother, who lived in Saltillo, a small town midway between Texarkana and Dallas, kept a medical appointment in Mt.Vernon, five miles from my parents’ home. While she was waiting to see the doctor, my mother overheard startling remarks by a pharmaceutical representative. He told another salesman in the waiting room that Kennedy had better “watch his back” when he came to Texas later that month. “He’ll get what’s comin’ to him,” the pharmaceutical representative said. My mother was a Democrat and an admirer of Kennedy. Needless to say, she was shocked at what she overheard.

That year was my second year in a doctoral program at Texas Christian University. When Kennedy planned the trip to Texas, he scheduled a stopover in Fort Worth at the Texas Hotel downtown. He and his entourage were scheduled to arrive around 10 P.M. on the night before his scheduled appearance in Dallas. About 9:30 P.M. a classmate stopped by my apartment. He suggested that we drive downtown to observe the arrival of the president. At first I was hesitant, but my second thought was that I should go. If I saw the famous president in person, I would have an anecdote to tell my future grandchildren. I rode with my classmate to a parking lot near the Hotel, where we joined a group of four or five hundred others also waiting to get a glimpse of President and Mrs. Kennedy.

After waiting five or ten minutes, I saw the couple leave the limousine and walk toward the front entrance of the Hotel. At one point the President left the direct route and walked over to shake hands with a few of the Latinos who had gathered as near the entrance to the Hotel as they could. At the time the event seemed hardly memorable. We were downtown no more than twenty minutes.

About 12:30 P.M. the next day I was walking across the Texas Christian University campus when an undergraduate student carrying a transistor radio called out, “Kennedy’s been shot.” As one might expect, the class in Old English I was planning to attend was cancelled.

At Thanksgiving when I visited my parents in Saltillo, approximately 100 miles east of Dallas, they told me that Officer Tippitt, the Dallas policeman whom Lee Harvey Oswald shot outside the Texas Theater in Dallas, grew up in Clarksville, about thirty miles from Saltillo.

At the end of the following summer, I left Fort Worth in order to teach in the English Department at Southeastern State College in Durant, Oklahoma. I lived in a second-floor apartment. Beneath me lived a young man who was a medical technician at the local hospital. One evening when I was about to walk up the stairs to my apartment, the technician called out to me. “You’ll never believe whose blood I just drew so that it could be tested,” he said. “Marina Oswald and the Dallas cop she plans to marry drove over from Dallas in order to get tested.” The couple took the results of the test to Sherman, Texas, where they were married the following morning.

My neighbor was right. I would never have guessed that the widow of the president’s assassin would ever have contact with a hospital technician anywhere in Oklahoma, certainly not one who lived one floor beneath me.

In 1966 I accepted a teaching position in the English Department at Quinnipiac College in Hamden, Connecticut. One morning shortly after the semester began I went to the snack bar in the Student Center. A group of professors was sitting at a table, one of whom asked me to join them. During our conversation I happened to mentioned that, though I had been teaching at a college in Oklahoma, Dallas’ Love Field was the nearest airport to residents of southeast Oklahoma. I taught at Southeastern State College in Durant, just across the Red River. Before boarding a plane for New York in order to keep a scheduled interview with the Chair of the English Department at Quinnipiac, I had to drive to Love Field. One of the professors said that he did not care to sit any longer with anyone from Dallas. He picked up his coffee cup and walked away. Needless to say, I was shocked by his behavior. Another professor at the table told me that the man who walked away had worshipped John Kennedy.

Numerous reports show that many people over the world blamed Texas, specifically the city of Dallas, for Kennedy’s death. John Rosenfield, a columnist for the Dallas News, reported in the December 4 issue of that paper one example. While visiting in New York City, Rosenfield heard a well-dressed young man refer to the Dallas Cowboys as Assassins when reporting a score between the Dallas team and the New York Giants. In the Dallas Times-Herald for December 4, 1963, Dick Hitt reported that an out-of-state clothing buyer canceled an order previously submitted to a Dallas garment factory. The buyer did not want any Dallas labels on his merchandise.

In 1970 I began teaching in the English Department at The University of Tennessee at Martin. One semester during the 1980s I taught an extension class in English composition at the Henry County High School, about 30 miles from the University campus. The class met once per week. Gerald McElvain, a professor in the psychology Department, taught a class at Henry County the same evening that my class met. We rode together in a car from the University’s motor pool. One evening on the way back from class McElvain mentioned that he studied at Texas Wesleyan College in Fort Worth in the early 1960s. He said that he took his two young sons to the Texas Hotel on the evening President Kennedy came. I quickly told him that a classmate and I went to the same spot that evening.

Almost twenty years after I learned that a man who was a stranger at the time had stood a few yards, perhaps even feet, from me on the evening before the assassination, I learned that a person whom I have known since I was a child witnessed the assassination of President Kennedy. Welcome Eugene Barnett, who served for years on the Dallas police force, is the adopted son of my father’s first cousin. Barnett graduated from the consolidated high school at Saltillo one year after I did. Just recently I learned that he and two other policemen were assigned duties at the corner of Elm and Houston Streets in downtown Dallas on the morning that Kennedy’s motorcade drove down Elm St. When I read the transcript of Barnett’s testimony before the Warren Commission, I learned that Barnett saw the President collapse after the first shot was fired. He testified that he heard a total of three shots. Both officers ran, as they were ordered to do, to the entrance of the Texas School Book Depository. Barnett said that he never saw Oswald or anyone else leave the building.

These incidents, all governed by circumstance, are a reminders history can touch any of us when we least expect it.
© Robert Cowser
"They shoe horses, don't they?"

December 2 , 2007 Guest Column

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