Myrna Hackett’s brush with one of America’s greatest tragedies began with a scream.
“Myrna, the president has been shot!” she recalls her mother yelling shortly after noon on Nov. 22, 1963, awakening her from a nap.
Within the next 72 hours, Hackett, then a 22-year-old Texas Women’s University nursing student interning at Parkland Memorial Hospital, would see President Kennedy’s body hauled away in a hearse, tend to the wife of wounded Texas Gov. John Connally and have guns pointed at her by Texas Rangers guarding the body of Lee Harvey Oswald.
She was scheduled to be at work at 3 p.m. but rushed in early in her red 1963 Volkswagen Beetle after learning of the shooting.
“It was horror,” said Hackett, 72, who now lives in Evans. “The president and governor was being treated, but we still had other patients to take care of.”
She got there in time to see the white hearse pulling out of the hospital with Kennedy’s body.
Inside the hospital, Hackett went to her station in the operating room where Connally was in surgery being treated for wounds to his back, ribs, chest, wrist and thigh. At the time, 23 other patients were undergoing treatment in the same emergency room. Seven additional emergency patients were admitted between the time Kennedy and Connally arrived at 12:38 p.m. and the removal of the president’s body at 2:19 p.m.
As a nonsterile student nurse, Hackett was responsible for taking tools and equipment to doctors’ rooms and making rounds in the recovery area.
She remembers Nellie Connally, the governor’s wife, seated in shock, waiting for news of her husband. Hackett offered Texas’ first lady water, coffee, tea and a sandwich but doesn’t recall her taking up the offer.
“She was very composed, even though she was in shock,” Hackett said. “What I remember about her was she was such a Southern lady. She looked like she had just stepped out of a fashion magazine, she was so put together, even then.”
Hackett said the hospital was abuzz about a conspiracy in Kennedy’s death. Nurses whispered among themselves, wanting answers to questions they never received.
She recalls hearing from co-workers that Ronald Jones, the 30-year-old chief resident, was white as a ghost on hearing news the president was being rushed to his operating room. Hackett saw an equipment cart shuttled through the hospital that afternoon that had pink rose petals from Jacqueline Kennedy’s bouquet.
Like many Americans, she had long admired the president, especially for his ideas about desegregation and early efforts in the civil rights movement. She wanted to watch Kennedy’s visit to Dallas on television but missed it because she had to rest up before work.
In the days after the shooting, the hospital was packed with FBI agents and Texas police as Connally recovered and relocated his headquarters to a hospital bed. According to a December 1963 hospital newsletter that Hackett saved, the governor’s assistant set up a special office in a portion of the administrative suite and the Texas Department of Public Safety established a radio communication center in the nursing service office.
Hackett was not at work when Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s assassin, was taken to the hospital after he was fatally shot by Jack Ruby on Nov. 24. When she came in for her 3 p.m. shift, Hackett was unaware that Oswald’s body was in a storage room and went in to get a headrest for a patient. When she opened the door, two Texas Rangers pulled their guns on her and ordered her to step away from the body.
“I didn’t realize they were back there at all,” Hackett said. “I screamed so loud you could have heard me all over the hospital. They were on edge, too, and of course they told me if I had to come back there, please let them know. It’s funny now, but wasn’t so funny then.”
Over the next few weeks, Hackett said, reporters camped around the hospital, and the vibe at Parkland remained dreary.
According to the Parkland newsletter, a wreath hung on the surgery room door where doctors tried to save Kennedy’s life. During the funeral, and in the weeks that followed, staffers used trauma room No. 1 only when necessary.
The hospital’s staff was commended with a letter of thanks from Connally on Nov. 30, 1963, and with a message from Jacqueline Kennedy printed in the hospital’s December newsletter.
Hackett’s encounter with history in the assassinations didn’t end there, however.
Her husband, Earl Hackett, a theology student at Southern Methodist University, was assigned in 1967 as one of the chaplains for the family of Ruby, a Dallas nightclub operator, when he lay dying of cancer at Parkland Memorial.
Hackett said her husband counseled Ruby and his family, but because of the sanctity of his work, was unable to talk much about his experience.
“As a chaplain, you have to treat everyone with the same respect, but it was something to see him work with Ruby, the one who shot Oswald in front of thousands of people,” she said.
After working in Texas and Kansas as a nurse, Hackett relocated to Augusta in 1975, where her husband set up the chaplaincy program at University Hospital.
She retired in 2003 but still teaches clinical classes for USC Aiken twice a week.
She said she’ll never forget that chaotic day at Parkland and the loss of Camelot.
“I thought he was a very good president and was hoping for some good things to come out of his presidency,” Hackett said. “I had never gone to school with blacks growing up, and at the hospital we had white waiting rooms and black waiting rooms. I could never understand why we treated people differently ... but we thought Kennedy might change that.”