(Editor’s note: ECM Publishers Political Editor Howard Lestrud and his granddaughter Kaley Lestrud, a student at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, were in Dallas, Texas, Friday, Nov. 22, covering the special public commemoration of President John F. Kennedy’s life.)
by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor
DALLAS — For a moment Friday, Nov. 22, time returned to 50 years ago on Nov. 22, 1963.
More than 5,000 ticketed persons witnessed a solemn 50th anniversary program in Dealey Plaza to celebrate the life, legacy and leadership of President John F. Kennedy, the nation’s 35th president. Event admission was free.
Kennedy was gunned down on the streets of Dallas by an alleged assassin perched on the sixth floor of the former Texas School Book Depository Building overlooking Dealey Plaza. Many question the theory that a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, was the only person behind the shooting.
Those embracing the lone gunman theory and those supporting conspiracy theories were out in numbers on the streets of Dallas last week to espouse their theories and to learn more.
The focus, however, was for Dallas to have its first President Kennedy commemorative event since the assassination. It was titled The 50th: Honoring the Memory of President John F. Kennedy.
In addition to the ticketed attendees, a large riser arrangement accommodated hundreds of media representatives from around the world. All three major U.S. broadcast networks covered the commemoration. World leaders were also in attendance, including Prince Albert of Monaco.
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough paid tribute to Kennedy with words of praise. They also recited words from many of Kennedy’s speeches.
Rawlings also spoke words from a speech Kennedy never delivered, one he was to deliver that day in Dallas 50 years ago at The Trade Mart. The words have been etched in a permanent monument just above the grassy knoll in Dealey Plaza.
“President Kennedy brought that message in his pocket down that street on Nov. 22, 1963,” Rawlings said. “That message was to be delivered a few miles away, in a speech to Dallas leaders following his parade. It was a speech he never got to make.”
Rawlings said those unspoken words “resonate far beyond the life of the man.”
The unspoken words of Kennedy are remembered on the monument: “We in this country, in this generation, are – by destiny rather than choice – the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of peace on earth, good will toward men.”
Rawlings opened his talk saying: “A new era dawned and another waned a half century ago when hope and hatred collided here in Dallas. We watched the nightmarish reality that in our front yard our president had been taken from us, taken from his family, taken from the world.”
Kennedy’s presidency, his life and his death, Rawlings said “seemed to mythologically usher in the next 50 years to come. What ensued was five decades filled with other tragedies, turmoil and great triumphs.”
Rawlings continued: “While the past is never in the past, that was a lifetime ago. Now, today, we, the people of Dallas, honor the life, legacy and leadership of the man who called us to think not of our own interests, but of our country’s. … These five decades have seen us turn civic heartbreak into hard work. They’ve seen us go from youthful invincibility to existential vulnerability, towards greater maturity as a city and a community.”
Rawlings said that today, “because of the hard work of many people, Dallas is a different city. I believe the ‘New Frontier’ of President Kennedy’s administration did not end that day on our Texas Frontier. And, I’d hope that President Kennedy would be pleased with our humble efforts toward fulfilling our country’s highest calling: that of providing the opportunity for all citizens to exercise those inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The city of Dallas must continue on that course.”
McCullough, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, quoted from Kennedy’s speeches and remembered him as a brilliant orator whose words inspired a generation to improve society.
“His words changed lives, changed history,” McCullough said. “He talked of all that needed to be done, or so much that mattered: equal opportunity, unity of purpose, education, the life of mind and spirit, art, poetry, service to one’s country, the courage to move forward into the future, the cause of peace on earth. … He was ambitious to make it a better world, and so were we.”
The event was staged in Dealey Plaza with a large JFK banner held high from a crane tower. Rawlings asked for a moment of silence at 12:30 p.m., the actual time President Kennedy was shot 50 years ago. Bells then tolled throughout the city.
Music was performed by the 60-member U.S. Naval Academy Men’s Glee Club.
Bishop Kevin J. Farrell of the Catholic Diocese of Dallas gave the opening invocation, and prayers were also offered by the Rev. Zan W. Holmes Jr., pastor emeritus of the St. Luke’s Community United Methodist Church of Dallas.
Many who did not have lottery tickets to attend the event watched the proceedings on large LED video screens throughout Dallas.
The event also served as a lesson for younger Americans on the president’s legacy. The entire eighth-grade class at Kennedy-Curry Middle School in Dallas attended the memorial after taking part in an essay-writing contest about the legacy of the nation’s 35th president.
Howard Lestrud can be reached at [email protected].