Ramblin' Rhodes: Memories of days surrounding Kennedy assassination vivid

Lucy Baines Johnson, daughter of Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, on CBS’ Face The Nation last Sunday told how she learned about the assassination of President Kennedy, which resulted in her father’s succeeding Kennedy as president.


She said that she was 16 years old and was going into a Spanish class when the word started spreading about the shooting in Dallas 50 years ago this week.

Johnson said that, in spite of the shocked reactions of her fellow students, her teacher told the class the tragedy had not been confirmed and Spanish class would be held as usual.

She expressed her anguish in having no way of knowing whether her father and mother, who were in Dallas with John and Jackie Kennedy, were safe. Eventually, a Secret Service agent came to her school and told her they were all right.

That’s pretty much also how I, as a native Texan, learned of the tragedy unfolding in Dallas.

I was going into a history class my freshman year at the University of Georgia when the word started spreading about the shooting.

Likewise, in spite of the shocked reaction of my fellow students, the history teacher continued with the class as usual with absolutely no discussion about the possibility of the horror taking place in the Lone Star State.

Ironically, less than a year later in October of 1964, Lucy Baines Johnson would be sitting three rows in front of me in the University of Georgia’s Fine Arts Auditorium for a concert by the Stan Getz Quartet performing their 1964 hit The Girl From Ipanema. The concert was sponsored by the college’s Young Democrats Club.

I got to say hello to her briefly and tell her that I am a native of Gainesville, which is 70 miles north of Dallas and Fort Worth.

In fact, the summer after Kennedy’s death, I was in Texas visiting my maternal relatives and went to Dealey Plaza in Dallas to see the area where Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald from the sixth floor of the nearby Texas Book Depository building.

It was a very strange feeling viewing the many fresh and faded flower arrangements that scores of people had left with their attached personal notes of deep sorrow.

It was the first time I had seen anything like that, although such expressions of grief would continue to occur through the years with the deaths of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., England’s Princess Diana, Beatles co-founder John Lennon, rock icon Elvis Presley and Augusta’s own James Brown, commemorated with a statue on Broad Street.

Many, flowers. Many personal objects of memorabilia left in tribute. And many personal expressions of intense sorrow.

I can’t recall whether it was in Atlanta or Washington that in the 1970s I got to see the traveling John F. Kennedy Library Exhibit.

It consisted of papers, objects and photographs that were to be placed in the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, which was dedicated in 1979 in Boston.

I still have the colorful brochure given to visitors with an introduction by Jacqueline Kennedy who wrote, “My husband had looked forward to retiring to his library at the end of his time in Washington.

“Now he will not see the building to be erected in his name. But his parents and brothers and sisters and I all look on it as his most fitting memorial.

“Because John Kennedy was so intensely involved in life, his library will not just be a repository of papers and relics of the past. It will also be a vital center of education and exchange and thought, which will grow and change with the times. Most importantly, it will play a continuing role in preparing young men and women for lives of public service.”

One of the most memorial objects in the exhibit was a coconut that then-Navy Lt. John F. Kennedy used to carve a rescue message.

His PT 109 boat crew members had become stranded on an island after a Japanese destroyer had cut their boat in half. Kennedy managed to recover that coconut and kept it on his desk in the Oval Office during his presidency.

Two other memorable objects included in the exhibit were his personal rocking chair and its pillow with the presidential seal and a ship model of an American whaler that Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev had given to him.

One more connection I had to the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination was interviewing in May 1972 of famous CBS television news reporter Ike Pappas, who came to Augusta to cover a visit by Vice President Spiro Agnew.

Pappas told me several stories about his encounters with world celebrities.

He especially noted that he was just a couple of steps away from Oswald when Oswald was shot and killed by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby.

“I had my tape recorder going and was describing Oswald’s exit from the jail,” Pappas said about the handcuffed Oswald being moved by law enforcement officers to another detention center.

“I did not know it at the time,” Pappas continued, “but I stood in front of Jack Ruby. When the shots were fired, I was so close I felt the concussions of the gun, and I looked down at myself to see if I was hurt.”

Pappas concluded, “In those moments, I thought this very well could be my last story. So I kept on talking into the microphone.”

And, sure enough, if you look at the iconic photos of Oswald being shot by Ruby there is TV reporter Pappas standing right next to them.


BENEFIT FOR CAREY’S DAD: Expert cabinet maker John Murdock, of North Augusta, has been suffering from Lyme disease and has to travel to Washington, D.C., every six weeks for specialized treatment with expenses of $7,800 each time.

Salon Indigo, 106 Davis Road in Augusta, is holding a “cut-a-thon” from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 24, to help Murdock’s family.

His talented singer/songwriter son, Carey Murdock, now based in Nashville, Tenn., will perform sets beginning at 2 p.m.

Carey just last spring performed 61 concerts in nine European countries in three months.

The salon will offer haircuts for donations and will have raffles for items donated by local businesses. Call (706) 922-1740.


LINCOLNTON’S PIONEER DAY: Also this week, don’t forget about the 17th annual Pioneer Day at Lincoln County Historical Park, 147 Lumber St. (near the city cemetery off Georgia Highway 47 near U.S. Highway 378) in Lincolnton, Ga., from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23.

There will be historical demonstrations, music and more.