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Frizzi: The 25th Anniversary of the 25th Anniversary

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The date of Nov. 22 still brings a chill to those of us who are old enough to remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the 50th anniversary of which comes this year.

Those of us who do remember are, I'd say, 55 years old or over. I was a 6-year-old first grader in Pittsburgh at the time, but still remember vividly.

I also remember the 25th anniversary of the shooting. I was a 31 year old living in Dallas in 1988.

After Kennedy's death, Dallas experienced years of public scorn. It was known as the "city of hate". The Kennedy campaign, gearing up for re-election in 1964, was well aware that Texas was not friendly territory, mainly due to the administration's stance on racial desegregation. President Kennedy had called the National Guard to ensure that African-American students were able to attend the University of Alabama and the University of Mississippi. Those moves pretty much cost the Democrats the deep-south states.

Many white Texans did not approve of the federal government overruling a state's rights. They interpreted Kennedy's decision to be the abuse of big government. But Texas still had strong Democratic ties. Vice President Lyndon Johnson was born and raised in the Hill Country. Kennedy had added him to the Democratic ticket in 1960 for the purpose of winning Texas. John Connally, a conservative Democrat, was the state's governor at the time. Texas also had 25 electoral votes. Kennedy could not win re-election without Texas. So, he decided to go there in November to try to mend fences.

Just a month before Kennedy's visit, Bloomington's Adlai Stevenson, appointed by Kennedy to be Ambassador to the United Nations, was spat upon and smacked in the head with a protest sign after a speech in Dallas. The day before the shooting, The Dallas Morning News ran a full page ad from The American Fact-Finding Committee, a right-wing organization, accusing the Kennedy administration of being soft on Communism and persecuting those who opposed their policies.

However, the Kennedys were greeted by friendly, cheering crowds in both Ft. Worth and Dallas that fateful day. The President and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy were riding in an open top Lincoln limo with Governor and Mrs. Connally. Just as the motorcade approached Dealey Plaza and turned onto Elm Street in front of the Texas School Book Depository, Nellie Connally turned to Kennedy and said, "Mr. President, you can't say Dallas doesn't love you today."

Those were the last words Kennedy ever heard. He was shot dead before the limo went under the Pacific Railroad overpass. Governor Connally was also hit but survived the shooting.

After the assassination, Dallas was scorned. The whole world saw the coverage of the murder and the funeral as it happened on TV. Dallasites were refused service in restaurants when the staff learned where they came from. The city was scarred. It was also brokenhearted. The initial plan was to remove the scar and tear down the Texas School Book Depository but wiser heads prevailed and saved the building. Nonetheless, Dallas would always be connected with the Kennedy assassination. They would be reminded of the tragedy every Nov. 22.

Visitors from all over the world would ask to be taken to the assassination site, as I did when I first came to Dallas in 1985.

I remember Dealey Plaza having an eerie pall over it. It was just as it was in 1963. The building, the monument on the grassy knoll, the overpass, looked just like the pictures. The Dallas Trade Mart on the Stemmons Expressway, where the President was to speak at a luncheon, looked the same, and still had the same sign with the same electronic marquee that had once welcomed the President and Jackie. The presidential motorcade sped by the Trade Mart on the way to Parkland Hospital.

At that time, the Texas School Book Depository was used as a local administration building. Upon entering, I was greeted with a sign that said that the sixth floor, from where the assassin shot Kennedy, was closed.

Elm Street was open to traffic as it led to the Stemmons Expressway. The motorcade was to take the Stemmons to the Trade Mart. It seemed odd that vehicles would drive over a spot where one of the worst crimes in the history of the world occurred. I would drive over the spot several times myself. After awhile, I became immune to its historical significance. Like everybody else, I just looked at Elm Street as the way to get on to the Stemmons and get back to my apartment.

As late as 1981, local reporter Bobbie Wygant interviewed John Belushi and Blair Brown, who were promoting their movie, "Continental Divide". As the interview began, Belushi asked Wygant where she was from. When she said Dallas, Belushi turned to the camera and said, "Dallas! The city that killed our President." Wygant pleaded with Belushi not to say that during the taping. Wygant was on the air on Nov. 22, 1963. Her live 30-minute show was interrupted seven times with updates on the assassination. She was told to pick up where she left off and did so in her usual professional manner.

In 1988, when the rest of the world was covering the assassination anniversary, Dallas-area media focused on the recovery of the city's image.

Two instances are credited with the resurrection of Dallas. One was the success of the Dallas Cowboys. An expansion team in 1960, the Cowboys had won seven conference championships and two Super Bowls by 1988. The franchise had successfully marketed itself as "America's Team." It had fans from coast to coast as did its cheerleaders.

But the Cowboys were also a victim of the Dallas stigma outside of the Dallas area after 1963. The Sunday after the assassination, which occurred just two days earlier, the NFL decided not to cancel the games. The Cowboys traveled to play in Cleveland. Many Cowboy players were concerned for their safety. When the Dallas Cowboys were announced, the crowd responded angrily. Cowboys quarterback Eddie LeBaron was so worried he advised his teammates to put their helmets on and keep them on.

The city's image was also improved by the TV show, "Dallas", which aired on CBS from 1978 to 1991. The series, which followed the lives of the Ewing family and its oil empire, gave Dallas a glamorous image of wealth, beauty and power. In time, most people would associate Dallas more with "Who shot JR?" instead of who shot JFK.

By 1988, the Cowboys weren't the only pro team in town. The second coming of the Washington Senators moved to the area in 1972 and became The Texas Rangers. Bobby Valentine had just guided the Rangers to a sixth-place, 90-loss season. This was before George W. Bush and his partner, Tom Schieffer, owned the ballclub. Tom's brother, Bob, is currently the host of CBS' "Face The Nation". He was a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram when Kennedy was shot. While at the offices of the Star, he received a phone call from a woman wanting a ride to Dallas. The woman turned out to be the mother of Kennedy's alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.

In 1979, the Dallas Mavericks joined the NBA with actor James Garner a member of the ownership group. The Mavs made their first trip to the NBA finals, losing to the Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers. This time, the local papers had full page flyers saying "Beat LA". The Mavericks' played in Reunion Arena, at that time a state-of-the-art facility that also housed some of the nation's biggest rock concerts. Hockey would not come to Reunion until 1993, when the Minnesota North Stars moved south.

The skyline of Dallas would change drastically in 25 years. When I arrived on the scene, the joke was that the official bird of Dallas was the "crane". Construction was rampant. By 1988, the nine tallest buildings in Dallas had been built. Reunion Tower, now the fifth tallest observation tower in the United States, was built overlooking Dealey Plaza.

In the wee hours of Nov. 22, 1986, a friend of mine and I crashed a party in the tower and eventually made our way up to the observation deck. I remember looking out over the assassination site from out perch. It still looked pretty damned eerie.

Winding our way around the deck, we stumbled (literally and figuratively) past a window that looked into the broadcast booth of a radio station. The DJ on the air looked bemused and waved. He probably didn't miss a beat on the air. I'm guessing he wasn't Barry Champlain, the Eric Bogosian character from the 1988 movie "Talk Radio", but, hey, you never know.

Dallas was also a hot bed of the blues revival of the late 80s, led by Oak Cliff's Stevie Ray and Jimmie Lee Vaughan. I saw the Vaughan Brothers play more times than I can remember. In 1990, Stevie Ray was killed in a helicopter crash after performing at the Alpine Valley Music Theater just north of Chicago.

Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested at the Texas Theater in Oak Cliff during a matinee. I went there in 1991 for the Stevie Ray Vaughan benefit concert which benefited an Oak Cliff public education fund. The seat where the law found Oswald was painted red. A mural of President Kennedy was on the back wall of the theater.

Like Peoria, Dallas also had a bar called "Schooners". This was a blues joint where every Thursday night was "amateur night". Backed by a drummer and bass player, anyone could stop by and show off their chops. One night, an air conditioner repairman, a valued member of the community in the summertime, strolled in. He pulled out his harmonica from his shirt pocket next to his pocket thermometer and hammered out the sweetest blues this side of Little Walter.

As the 50th anniversary is doing now, the 25th anniversary made international news. Dallas seemed to dread the occasion. Like those who wanted to tear down the Texas School Book Depository, many wanted the memory of that awful event to just go away. But others knew they had to face the event and deal with the onslaught of press and sightseers, many from the far corners of the Earth. Besides, it was tourism and the city would benefit from the income.

The morning of the 25th anniversary I went downtown. Dealey Plaza was crowded. I never saw so many people speaking different languages in one place. Visitors on vacation, members of the national and international media, no one was without a camera. Everyone was pointing at the sixth floor window. The grassy knoll was crowded. Traffic was doing its best to navigate its way down Elm Street. It was crazy. Conspiracy theorists were handing out leaflets left and right, pointing out "facts" that the federal government, CIA, FBI, etc. did not want we, the people, to know.

Two months later, on President's Day, the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository was opened to the public in the form of The Sixth Floor Museum. I went down that weekend. Both the sixth and seventh floor features footage and artifacts of Nov 22. The window from where Oswald was said to have shot Kennedy is walled off with Plexiglas. Replicas of shipping boxes are set up the way police found them. I was able to look out a neighboring window at the cars making their way down Elm Street, going under the under the Pacific Railroad overpass to get on to the Stemmons and go about their day.

Years later, in what was probably one of the hottest summers in Dallas history, I took my wife Heddy to Dallas for a friends' wedding. It was her first visit, so the first place I took her was Dealey Plaza and the museum. Not much has changed since 1963. There's a replacement picket fence, near the "grassy knoll" where Abraham Zapruder captured the shooting on film and where the alleged second gunman supposedly lurked.

Off to the side of the building, a young entrepreneur had parked his replica of JFK's Lincoln convertible limousine. For just $20 each he could take us on a tour of the parade route, drive down Elm, go under the overpass, and take us by Parkland Hospital. We naturally declined.

It must have been a slow day for the tour guide. When we came out of the museum, he was offering two teenage girls a tour price of "two for the price of one".

As we walked to our car, we noticed the tour guide had landed a customer. The limo drove past us with a young guy sitting in JFK's spot. He smiled and waved at us, just as JFK might have done. We did likewise.

Oliver Stone shot the assassination scene for his 1991 movie, "JFK", at Dealey Plaza. They were advertising for extras. I thought about taking some vacation time from work, cutting my hair into a flat top, getting a white shirt and thin tie and going down there. But, I didn't. I thought that the shooting would last too long. Besides, there would be more than enough people. Later, the movie company was running ads in the papers begging for more extras.

I liked Dallas. I had a blast living there as a bachelor in the late 80s and early 90s. I could get off work and decide to go to a ballgame or to a bar with great live music. Any major band on tour had Dallas on its schedule. The Improv comedy club had two locations in Dallas during a time when stand-up comedy was in its heyday. Or I could meet some buddies at a random hotel bar for "Happy Hour", where for the price of a Coors Light draft one could plow through copious helpings of tacos, brisket, pizza and buffalo wings. The Tex-Mex restaurants were incredible! I still have a lot of good friends there. As a result, I saw very little of the state of Texas. Everything that I wanted or needed was in Dallas.

Dallas was, is, and will always be a center of conservative thought. The George W. Bush Presidential Center was built on the campus of Southern Methodist University. It houses the President Bush's Institute, which is a conservative action oriented think tank. The former President now lives in the affluent Preston Hollow section just north of downtown. He can usually be seen in the front row at Ranger games at The Ballpark in Arlington, which he, Rusty Rose and Tom Schieffer built. The green grass batter's eye in center field was officially named Greene's Hill after the former mayor of Arlington. This was after visiting broadcasters started to refer to the hill during broadcasts as "The Grassy Knoll".

Why is JFK still so fascinating 50 years after his passing? I'd say because of baby boomers and television. We boomers remember the stars of "Camelot" in the White House. Millions were glued to Jackie Kennedy's now famous televised tour of the White House. President Kennedy played the TV like a harp. Our parents liked them because, like them, the Kennedy's were a young couple with young children. The guy was a vet of World War II, got married and had kids. It just so happened he was President. It was the ultimate American dream.

The press loved the Kennedys. They brought grace, charm, culture humor, youth and energy into the White House. They were constantly photographed.

Boomers also remember the non-stop coverage of Kennedy's assassination and state funeral. We remember where we were when we heard the news. We remember Stan Stearns' iconic picture of Kennedy's young son, John-John, who had turned 3 years old just three days after his father was killed, saluting his father's flag draped casket.

I expect that the fascination with all things Kennedy will fade as the boomer generation (and our parents) grow older and start to fade away. As the years pass, and more of Kennedy's personal mistakes come to light, his popularity tends to diminish somewhat. He barely got any of his agenda passed in Congress. He increased U.S. involvement in Vietnam. And there's still the question of whether Kennedy fairly won Illinois' 26 electoral votes in 1960.

For my money, in less than a single term in office Kennedy attempted to racially integrate southern universities, started the Peace Corps and kick-started the U.S. Space Program. More importantly, he and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, may have prevented World War III by their calm handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. That's pretty impressive in my book.

Kennedy's death took the wind out of the sails of this nation. It still hasn't recovered. The Vietnam War and Watergate helped make us the cynical nation we are today. Would America have been better off if Kennedy had lived? He most certainly would've beaten Barry Goldwater in a landslide in 1964 as his successor, Lyndon Johnson did. But other than that, who knows?

But those of us who were old enough to remember living during that one brief shining moment that was the Kennedy administration also remember when we stopped and shuddered a half of a century ago, on the day when the Earth was cracked at a spot on a route that I would take back to my apartment.

About the Author
Donn Frizzi is a well-traveled man, if you consider Pennsylvania to southern Indiana to Texas and finally Peoria to be the definition of well traveled. But in each of his stops he gained certain insights that make him who he is — including a Pirates and Rangers fan who must travel to St. Louis to watch quality baseball without buying a plane ticket. Poetic justice, perhaps? A talented writer, Donn also can make a good point by putting pencil to paper and drawing with satirical splendor. We’re hoping to persuade him to grace our website with an occasional toon, as well.