Retracing President Kennedy’s steps in North Texas, 50 years later

atinsley@star-telegram.comNovember 20, 2013 

  • Video playlist: JFK assassination 50th anniversary

  • JFK tributes Local activities to honor the 35th president include: Through Dec. 6: Photos of the Kennedy visit are on display at the Fort Worth Central Library. Through Feb. 8: Star-Telegram photos of the presidential visit are on display at the University of Texas at Arlington. Through Jan. 12: An exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art features art displayed in the Kennedys’ suite at the Hotel Texas. Friday: A commemorative breakfast at the same site of the 1963 breakfast where the president spoke at the Hotel Texas in downtown Fort Worth. Friday: Official ceremony at Dealey Plaza in Dallas.

— At some point today, Robin Brown will pull into town driving a midnight-blue 1963 Lincoln convertible, similar to the one that carried President John F. Kennedy in Dallas five decades ago.

Brown, 59, of Gainesville and his family will arrive at the downtown Hilton hotel, formerly the Hotel Texas, and check into rooms on the eighth floor near where Kennedy spent his last night.

On Friday, they will continue to follow in the president’s footsteps from 50 years ago, first attending a sold-out Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce commemorative breakfast, then going to a public event in Dallas at the site where shots rang out and claimed Kennedy’s life on Nov. 22, 1963.

“You can’t put a price on being part of these events,” said Brown, a Gainesville funeral home owner and operator who has studied Kennedy and the assassination for 40 years.

Brown, a fourth-grader when the president died, said attending the local ceremonies was so important that he paid for a one-year membership to the Fort Worth chamber when he believed Friday’s breakfast was for members only.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us,” said Kendal Balda, Brown’s 29-year-old daughter, who will join him for the commemorative events. “We need to do this now because we won’t be here for the 100th.”

Kennedy will first be honored around 6:15 a.m. Friday when Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price lays a wreath at the JFK Tribute downtown, across from the Hilton.

The breakfast at the Hilton will begin at 7:30 a.m., and Secret Service agent Clint Hill — who was assigned to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and was in the motorcade during the assassination — will be a guest speaker. Former House Speaker Jim Wright, who was with the president during his Texas visit, will be honored with the chamber’s High Impact Legacy Award.

By 11:30 a.m., a pre-show will begin in Dallas, at the event to honor the president’s life and leadership.

The ceremony will include prayers, the tolling of church bells, music by the U.S. Naval Academy Men’s Glee Club and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, a reading by historian David McCullough and a speech by Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings.

Tourists, spectators and conspiracy theorists are already showing up at Dealey Plaza, and their numbers are expected to swell by Friday. Many are pausing for photos and taking time to look at the grassy knoll and remember that this is where Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago.

Hotel Texas

In Fort Worth, Friday’s ceremonies will center on the hotel where Kennedy stayed Nov. 21, 1963.

Employees have embraced their role in history and proudly talk about the president’s long-ago visit.

They wear lapel pins that read “A moment in time; a place in history.”

Employee training includes a section on the president’s visit and how JFK stayed in Suite 850, which no longer exists because of renovations through the years, said Dave Fulton, vice president and general manager of the Hilton Fort Worth.

The hotel does feature a presidential suite on the 15th floor that pays tribute to the president, and photos of him are displayed throughout the building, Fulton said.

As important as the photos are to remembering the past, those who worked at the hotel 50 years ago say they have never forgotten their brief moments with Kennedy.

Rodney Roberts was proud to greet the president.

He shook hands with JFK and muttered something like “Mr. President, we’re pleased to have you here.”

“Like most young people at that time, I was star-struck at seeing the young president and his beautiful wife,” said Roberts, who was a 21-year-old assistant room captain in the Town Club on the lower level of the hotel.

“It was clear to me from that brief encounter that President Kennedy was not just an ordinary person but someone really special,” he said. “I was a young true believer who really thought that he could, if not save the world, at least make a big difference. And I knew that I would always remember that day.”

Roberts said it’s hard to believe so much time has passed since the president’s visit.

“In many ways, it seems like it happened only last week, and it’s hard to believe that half a century has passed since then,” he said.

That’s also true for Florence Gonzales, the elevator girl who escorted the Kennedys to their floor.

“I was overwhelmed to have the honor to serve them,” said Gonzales, now 83, who lives in North Richland Hills. “They were originally to go up in another elevator, but at the last minute, the Secret Service changed plans and they ended up in my elevator.

“I was so busy admiring Mrs. Kennedy I did not realize he was touching my hand until I turned around and saw him standing there and we shook hands,” Gonzales said.

About two weeks before the visit, as the Secret Service checked hotel security, a rocking chair was brought to the room from the freight elevator, Gonzales said.

But that wasn’t the only special item brought in.

Local residents decided to decorate the room with some of their art — 16 pieces, including works by Maurice Prendergast, Vincent van Gogh and Raoul Dufy.

Most of those pieces have been reunited for the exhibit “Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy,” now at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

Gonzales recalls that after the visit, the first lady wrote a letter to the hotel staff “thanking us for all that we did for them while they were here.”

“What a difference 24 hours makes,” she said. “One day I was on top of the world because I was chosen to escort them to their floor. And the next day my heart was broken.”

Enduring memories

For Dee Dee Geltmeier, one of many people working at the hotel during the president’s visit, the experience stayed with her for life.

In 1963, she was a 39-year-old serving breakfast at the hotel along with other members of her church, helping raise money for their missionary league. She died a decade ago but was known to tell people about how she shook the hands of Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.

“After the breakfast, all the servers and kitchen workers watched as President Kennedy and Vice President [Johnson] walked past them,” said Cheryl Charles, Geltmeier’s daughter. “My mother was … very pleased to shake [their] hands.

“We would always talk about … how my mother shook hands with two presidents in one day.”

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610 Twitter: @annatinsley

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