Then-Gov. Carl Sanders recalled this week how the fateful day affected him beyond the grief he felt for the loss of a friend.
“That was an awful event. Something I’ll never forget,” he said.
He was in his hometown of Augusta entertaining clients of the railroad when a pair of Georgia State Patrol cars arrived to return him to Atlanta. The troopers told him they believed that the president, the vice president and the Texas governor had all been killed and that his office had received a call threatening him, too.
“I said, ‘What are they going to kill me for?’ ” Sanders recalled.
That night, he slept peacefully despite his wife’s nervousness, only to be awakened at 2 a.m. by an officer reporting that the man making the threat had been arrested unarmed on the grounds of the Governor’s Mansion. It was a young man recently discharged from the Marines because of mental illness who had been driving through the state when he learned of Kennedy’s assassination and decided to follow suit.
Sanders and Kennedy, both active young Democrats half a century ago, had other connections.
Before his election as governor in 1962, Sanders had bucked the state party leadership and led a faction at the 1960 Los Angeles Democratic convention to campaign for Kennedy’s nomination. Once elected, the president felt a kindred spirit in Sanders, who was just eight years younger and also a World War II veteran.
The relationship soon paid off for Georgia and Sanders even before he entered office. The Pentagon had ordered Fort Gordon in Augusta closed and its mission transferred to Fort Monmouth, N.J.
Fort Gordon’s signal school classes were going to be shifted, meaning the loss of about 10,000 soldiers, reducing the post to military and economic insignificance.
Taking a plane flown by fellow Augustan and businessman J.B. Fuqua, the governor-elect went to Washington to meet with Kennedy in the Oval Office to plead his hometown’s case.
Sanders said he told the president, “It would look like I just had no influence at all. He said, ‘Let me see what I can do.’ ”
Kennedy later called with news that he had halted the closing.
“It was a big victory for me politically and for the county economically,” Sanders said, adding that two years later Monmouth closed and its mission wound up at the Augusta post.