Exactly one year ago today I posted a very personal story about John F. Kennedy and how my mother saw him speak and shook hands with him on November 22, 1963 in Fort Worth, Texas mere hours before he was assassinated. By writing about her story, I attempted to do justice to my mother's experience that day and honor a very important part of my family's history.
Upon posting, the story was met with an overwhelming amount of support. Now it is one year later, and I have decided to re-post it here so that it might reach others. Here is the story in its entirety:
Fifty years ago today my mother was 13 years old when she shook hands with President John F. Kennedy. It happened in Fort Worth in front of the Hotel Texas where Kennedy spent his final night on earth. It would be the site of his final public address, and my mother was there.
Being Mexican-American and Catholic on Fort Worth’s historic Northside in the early 1960’s, then a mostly white, Protestant neighborhood, my mother grew up feeling different. Susan Alcala was the daughter of hardworking, blue collar, first-generation Americans who raised her in a bilingual home.
At school, Susan felt pressure to fit in and wanted so badly to feel accepted. John F. Kennedy, youthful, handsome, and charismatic, gave my mother hope and inspiration. He was the candidate of the outsider, the outcast, young people, the poor and working class. He was a visionary who spoke of equality, civil rights, humanity, freedom, and peace.
My mother was only 10 years old in 1960 when she campaigned for the would-be president by going door to door, handing out pamphlets, wearing buttons, and giving out bumper stickers. Make no mistake, Kennedy was not liked by everyone. The vast majority of her schoolmates as well as the adults in her neighborhood were fervent supporters of Richard Nixon. Not Kennedy. Although it might be rare for a 10-year-old child to take such an active interest in politics, it was a testament to just how important Kennedy was to those who identified with him.
My mother still remembers the fateful day vividly and is moved to tears every single time she tells the story. She often still cries at the mere mention of President Kennedy or upon seeing his image, and it forever pains her to know that the Dallas area is often closely associated with the tragic events and that meanwhile Kennedy’s pleasant trip to nearby Fort Worth is largely forgotten. I will do my best to tell her story now.
My mother’s aunt and uncle Tía Lucy and Tío Manuel took my mother and her cousins to see President Kennedy early that morning. November 22, 1963 was a Friday which meant the girls would have to miss the first half of school that day, but this was a very important occasion. The leader of the free world was in their humble Texas town.
My mother and her cousins stood in the cold rain outside the Hotel Texas in downtown Fort Worth, just 2 miles from my mother’s modest childhood home. The impromptu speech began with an introduction by Congressman and future Speaker of the House Jim Wright who said, “This is the proudest day in the history of Fort Worth and Tarrant County.” And then suddenly, there he was. President John F. Kennedy addressed the crowd with confidence and optimism. He spoke of his appreciation for Fort Worth and his plans for continued economic growth, America as a benevolent world leader, and the importance of the space program. He was effortlessly funny, charming, and inspiring.
Immediately after the brief speech, Kennedy approached the crowd, which surged forward in a rush of anticipation. In a fever pitch of excitement, my mother was among those who were lucky enough to shake hands with him. The crowd was beyond exuberant with deafening cheers, and my mother would later describe Kennedy’s demeanor in that moment as “gleefully surprised” at his enthusiastic reception. Not only had my mother just seen her idol in person, she had just met him. It was the single happiest moment of her 13-year-old life.
In preparation for writing this story, my mother tearfully described shaking his hand by saying, “I did not want to let it go. He was my President. I did not want to let him go. Soon we would all have to let him go. For good.”
Immediately afterwards, Kennedy left to go into the hotel ballroom for a private event where he would deliver his final speech. The outdoor crowd where my mother had been was dispersed, but Susan and her cousins weren’t ready to head back to school just yet. They left the Hotel Texas and made their way to a nearby spot along Kennedy’s planned motorcade route. This isn’t the infamous motorcade that took him through Dallas. No, that would happen later. This would be the motorcade route that would take him from the hotel to Carswell Air Force Base in West Fort Worth.
My mother and her family stood along the planned route along with hundreds of others hopeful to catch another glimpse of the President. There they stood along Jacksboro Highway, and around 11 AM the motorcade began to approach. Here came the presidential limousine with the top down for everyone to see, and there was John Kennedy waving to the crowd. My mother had already just seen him, but there was someone she had never seen in person before. For you see, during the speech outside the hotel, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy had still been inside the hotel getting ready for the private function that was to follow. She had not been present for the impromptu outdoor speech my mother had just witnessed.
My mother adored Jackie Kennedy well beyond any movie or music star of the era, and unable to afford magazines, my mother had only ever been able to see her on a black and white television screen. Suddenly, there seated next to her husband was Jackie in real-life color having vibrant auburn hair, and 13-year-old Susan was awestruck. This was the biggest day of my young mother’s life.
The Kennedy’s were rushed away, and my mother and her cousins were taken to school. My mother arrived at J.P. Elder Middle School around noon reeling with joy. She began telling her schoolmates about her tremendous morning. Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy were flying the 40 miles from Carswell Air Force Base to Love Field in Dallas. While my mother was telling her friends all the wonderful details about shaking hands with the President, Kennedy’s motorcade was taking him through the streets of downtown Dallas. My mother’s world was about to be shattered.
Young Susan was sitting in class still lightheaded, when everything would change forever. My mother describes it as though her entire world collapsed. An end of innocence. The end of her childhood.
The horrifying news came over the loudspeakers throughout the school. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, had been fatally shot and pronounced dead. She was shocked. Students and teachers alike were stunned and began to sob. My mother had just seen him. She had just touched him. She could not believe the news. She did not think it could be true, but the horrible reality slowly began to sink in. My mother describes that moment by saying that it was as though her heart was ripped out.
Shortly thereafter school was dismissed. My mother ran home distraught, heartbroken, and inconsolable. Her family huddled around the television set to watch the news coverage. They went to Mass. They prayed. They cried for days. The heart and soul of a nation had been shot down in his prime.
My mother still cries each and every time she tells the story, and she tells it every so often to friends, family, and acquaintances. She has even told her story to people she has met while traveling throughout the United States as well as internationally, and she has discovered that people from all over the world seem to have a profound interest in Kennedy. Even though it happened 50 years ago, the wounds still seem fresh for her.
I grew up just 25 miles from the site of the assassination, hearing her story throughout my entire life. It has become part of my family history. Sacred yet tragic. Hopeful yet horrifying. Perhaps as a direct result of this story and its impact on me, I have always been interested in President Kennedy, the assassination, his brother Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., the 1960's, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War.
My mother’s story informed all of my world views, including my odd combination of optimism and cynicism. Naiveté and skepticism. But more than anything, my mother’s story strengthened my belief in the power of ordinary people to make a difference in the face of great adversity. By telling her story to others, my mother has kept alive the memories and importance of that day. Kennedy’s legacy and the events of November 22, 1963 should never be forgotten. The spoken word is powerful. Stories are powerful. Pass on your stories.
Lane Ingram, M.Ed., LPC
Upside Wellness, Clinic Founder