President John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas 55 years ago this week.
On Nov. 21, 1963, Houston was abuzz about the impending arrival of President John F. Kennedy. Already campaigning for reelection in 1964, Kennedy needed the support of the Democratic Party in Texas, which meant he needed to reunite the party's conservative- and progressive-leaning factions, which had become sharply divided.
Kennedy wasn't sure what kind of reception he would receive in Houston, so no official parade was scheduled just in case no one showed up. But Kennedy needn't have worried; 75,000 Houstonians turned out to see him and his wife, Jackie, lining the downtown streets that Kennedy's motorcade would travel on its way from the then-Houston International Airport to the Sam Houston Coliseum, where he was scheduled to speak at a dinner.
Rather than go downtown and fight the crowds, one young mother loaded her two sons into the car and drove along Broadway Boulevard through what was then just open prairie – the streets and neighborhoods there now were just sprouting – toward the airport.
The young family parked at a lonely corner near the airport and waited.
"We saw the plane come in, and my mother told us to pay attention, that she could hear the motorcycles revving up and the president would be coming soon, and we'd have to look hard, quickly," remembered Monte Monroe.
The presidential motorcade passed by, fairly slowly.
"The president went by. He was maybe 10 feet away in a convertible – a cream-colored Lincoln Continental, the presidential flags fluttering on its fenders, by my recollection," Monroe said. "My mother screamed, 'Hi Jack and Jackie!' and they both looked over the trunk of the car, looked straight at us – with big smiles, resplendent – and waved at us. I can still see that vision in my mind's eye.
"They went by and, the next day, he was gone."
After spending only about six hours in Houston, the Kennedys flew to Fort Worth for the night, then to Dallas the next day. They landed at Love Field at 11:38 a.m. Nov. 22, 1963. At 12:30 p.m., Kennedy was shot as his motorcade passed the Texas School Book Depository in Dealey Plaza. At 1 p.m., he was pronounced dead at Parkland Hospital.
The assassination of President Kennedy – 55 years ago this week – became the touchstone of a generation. Nearly everyone who was old enough to remember the event knows to this day exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.
For Monroe, it was one of several events in his youth that jump-started his interest in history and of telling the stories of the people involved in it.
Monroe, recently appointed the Texas State Historian, has been an archivist for the Texas Tech University Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library for 18 years. During that time, he's had the pleasure to hear and share the stories of people from all walks of life. Some of the more memorable for him tied back to that childhood encounter with the Kennedys.
"Years later, I talked to other people who also were in that motorcade," Monroe said. "One was former Sen. Ralph Yarborough of Texas, who was in the third car back, and I got his perspective on the assassination. He believed there was more than one shooter. He was a World War II veteran and could smell the smoke when it happened. He and John Kennedy were very close senatorial colleagues first, and he was a strong supporter of Kennedy when he was president. He was there at the hospital that day – you can still see him in the old footage."
Several years back, Monroe also had the chance to swap Kennedy stories with Texas Tech alumnus Dr. David Carr and his mother, Ernestine Carr, on their ranch near Mason along the Llano River. Ernestine – the widow of Waggoner Carr, who was the Texas Attorney General at the time of the Kennedy assassination – was in her 90s, but was just as fiery as ever, particularly when Monroe told his tale.
Ernestine pounded the table and said, "My God, Monte, I saw you there!" When asked to clarify, she continued, "I saw a little family there. We were in the fourth car back, and I remember seeing a little family standing there, a mother and her two sons."
"She was adamant that she had seen us there," Monroe said. "Who knows whether it was us or somebody further down the road, but we were the only people there at the time – at least on our stretch of the road – because everybody else was downtown."
Ernestine also told what it was like joining the motorcade and the group going through Texas on its planned five-city visit.
It was Waggoner Carr, however, who had one of the most gripping tales. During the last interview before his death in 2004, he told Monroe about having to leave the group in Fort Worth because of a prior engagement.
"Waggoner told me he was with the president all the way through to Fort Worth, then he had to come out to West Texas to give a presentation to a Kiwanis Club or something like that, and he was going to take a little private plane out to do it," Monroe recalled. "The president approached him on the dais at the hotel there in Fort Worth, shook his hand and said, 'Wag, I know you've got to go give this presentation. We look forward to seeing you tonight in Austin at the conclusion of our visit. I want you to know that Mrs. Kennedy and I have been bowled over by the warm reception of the Texas people.'"
"Little did I know when I got on the plane that anything would run amiss," Waggoner told Monroe.
"He landed wherever it was out here in West Texas," Monroe said, "and, lo and behold, somebody came out and said, 'Mr. Attorney General, you're going to have to go back to Dallas. The president has been assassinated.' That's when he first learned."
As Attorney General, the top law enforcement officer in Texas, Carr initially led the investigation. He had the benefit of his political clout as a former Speaker of the Texas House.
"He told me, looking me right in the eye – and when you have a World War II veteran looking you right in the eye and telling you something, you have a tendency to believe them – he said, 'If you think a president of my own party, assassinated – shot down – on the street of one of my largest cities in my state, and I'm the top law enforcement officer, if you don't think I wanted to find the murderer, you're wrong,'" Monroe recalled.
But because of the level to which the crime rose, new President Lyndon B. Johnson called Carr up to Washington, D.C., and broke the news to him that the investigation would have to be a federal matter. Johnson asked Carr to work with the federal commission, which would be led by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.
At Johnson's insistence, Carr went to meet with Warren, but on the way, he was ambushed by members of the media, calling him a "murderer." Once he arrived at Warren's office, he was kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting.
"He kept asking the secretary, 'Is the chief justice going to be available to talk? I'm busy, I've got to get back to Texas,' and he never came out – he was playing a waiting game with Carr," Monroe said. "Ultimately, Carr had enough. He got up and said, 'Ms. So-and-so, please tell the chief justice that I'm a very busy man, too, and that I have a very important murder to investigate in the state of Texas, and here is my card. You give that to him and, if he wants to talk to me, he can call me.'"
The secretary checked one more time and, finally, Warren emerged.
"He was very frosty, very cool toward Carr because, like everybody else, he thought Carr and all Texans were responsible for the president's murder," Monroe explained. "Carr said that very quickly they were able to have a rapprochement; they reached an agreement on how they were going to move forward on it; and he said, 'After that, we never had another problem; we worked very closely together.'"
Carr, a fastidious man, took copious notes throughout the investigation of Kennedy's assassination, including the full story of the ballistics test the commission conducted to see whether Lee Harvey Oswald could have shot Kennedy from the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository. They ultimately ruled that he could have – and did.
"I have a picture of Waggoner's finger pointing at a box, a little school box that Oswald's elbow was propped upon when the assassination occurred," Monroe said. "That, and all of Carr's materials, will ultimately come to the Southwest Collection."
There it will stay under Monroe's care, under eyes just as watchful now as they were 55 years ago.
"It's funny how things come around and connections happen later in a person's life," he said. "Whether you're drawn that way through happenstance or just by sheer luck, I don't know.
"When this job became available, I took it and it turned out that this has been one of the greatest things that has ever happened in my life. This is an outstanding institution, the Southwest Collection. It reaches all over the country and all over the world, and I have a chance to meet extremely interesting people, up close and personal. It's more than an archive; it's history and people involved with history. And in this place, you're around it every day."