50 years later, Kennedy's visit still a treasured memory for San Antonians

50 years later, Kennedy's visit still a treasured memory for San Antonians

Credit: JFK Archives

President and Mrs. Kennedy on the tarmac at San Antonio International Airport - Thursday, Nov. 21, 1963.


by David Flores / Kens5.com


Posted on November 20, 2013 at 12:04 AM

It's a moment frozen in time for Bertha Gonzalez: the image of a smiling young president in the last full day of his life greeting her with open arms at San Antonio International Airport on Nov. 21, 1963.

As the wife of San Antonio Democratic Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez, she had been around John F. Kennedy on other occasions. But it was different this time.

"He walked up to me and said, 'Hello, Bertha. Happy birthday,'" Gonzalez said. "I stuck out my hand, but he gave me a kiss. I almost fainted. He was so nice.

"He made you feel like you were a friend from way back. Every time my birthday comes along, I think of that great day and the awful thing that happened the next day."

A day after Bertha Gonzalez turned 46, Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a motorcade through downtown Dallas. He was 46, as well.

"We were both born in 1917," said Gonzalez, who will turn 96 on the day before the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death Friday.

Congressman Gonzalez, who died in 2000, had accompanied Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, on the flight from Washington to San Antonio, where the president started his ill-fated Texas trip.

Bertha Gonzalez was waiting at the airport with four of the couple's eight children when Air Force One touched down in San Antonio shortly before noon that Thursday.

Sammy Miller and Bobby Schneider were among 22 San Antonio motorcycle policemen who had been assigned to escort Kennedy’s motorcade, which would travel downtown via Broadway en route to Brooks AFB.

“As I recall, they had already brought the cars and limos around at the airport, and they were lined up in the manner the motorcade would go to Brooks,” said Miller, now 74. “I was near the right-rear fender of the president’s limousine, which was on the side where the president was sitting, and Bobby was in front of me on the same side.

“I was never more than 10 feet from the president until we got to Brooks. It’s something that you never really forget. I’ve thought a lot about that day in the last month.”

Officer: 'This guy is real ... He is a 100 percent human'

Schneider rode his motorcycle near the right-front fender of the presidential limousine, but sometimes lagged back to help keep the crowd from the vehicle.

“I could reach out and touch the car,” Schneider said. “That’s how close I was.”

Schneider, 76, recalled being struck by how friendly the Kennedys were.

“They kept asking us if we were OK and if we needed anything,” Schneider said. “I remember as we were starting to turn onto Houston from Broadway, the president leaned over and handed me a cup of water. The weather was warm and it gets hot riding on the bike.

“I never had a lot of respect for him because he was a Democrat and I was a Republican, but that totally changed my mind. I thought, ‘This guy is real. He’s not so much a politician as he is a 100 percent human.’ The interaction he and Jackie had with Sammy and me really impressed me that they were not the people I thought they were.”

With the 1964 election less than a year away, Kennedy had come to Texas to shore up support in a state he had carried by less than 50,000 votes in 1960. Kennedy was scheduled to visit five Texas cities in two days.

A big proponent of the country’s space program, Kennedy went to Brooks AFB to dedicate the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine. He took time from his tight schedule to visit four Air Force volunteers who were living in a hyperbaric chamber, which was being used to evaluate the effects of space flight on humans.

Kennedy flew to Houston on Thursday afternoon after a three-hour visit in San Antonio and then spent the night in Fort Worth.

After speaking at a breakfast in Fort Worth on Friday morning, Kennedy took a 13-minute flight to Dallas, where he was scheduled to speak at the Trade Mart before the shots rang out in Dealey Plaza near the Stemmons Freeway.

Bertha Gonzalez: ‘It was just an awful day’

Congressman Gonzalez left San Antonio with Kennedy after his visit to the city, but Bertha Gonzalez remained behind.

The president’s itinerary had him flying from Dallas to Austin on Friday afternoon for a fund-raising dinner that evening. The Kennedys were scheduled to spend the night at Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ranch in Johnson City and fly back to Washington on Saturday night.

"It was a very windy day when the president was in San Antonio," Bertha Gonzalez recalled. "Henry wanted me to go with him, but I said, 'I can't go. Look at my hair. I've got to get my hair done. I'll meet you in Austin.' He said, 'OK. Knowing you, you won't be satisfied if you don't go get your hair done.'"

Gonzalez was at a beauty salon in San Antonio early in the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, when she heard the news of the shooting that struck down the president and wounded Texas Gov. John Connally.

"They were just about through with my hair when the news came on that he had been shot," Gonzalez said. "I ran out of the beauty salon. I can't remember if I paid the poor people. I was crying and crying. I couldn't visualize the president getting shot, and I was worried about Henry because I knew he was in the motorcade.

"I was trying to get hold of him but I couldn't. I got on a bus to go home because I didn't drive. I was so upset that I took the wrong bus. I ended up taking a taxi home. Henry finally called and said, 'I'm all right, I'm all right.' It was just an awful day."

Cisneros: ‘San Antonio put a lot of faith’ into Kennedy

The tragic end of Kennedy's trip to Texas contrasted sharply with the way it began in San Antonio, where thousands lined the streets to catch a glimpse of him and the first lady.

One onlooker, a future San Antonio mayor who would become a cabinet member in another president’s administration 30 years later, stood at the corner of Broadway and Avenue B with his classmates when Kennedy’s motorcade cruised toward the heart of downtown.

Henry Cisneros was a 16-year-old senior at nearby Central Catholic High School, which had let out classes to allow its students the rare opportunity to see the country’s first Catholic president.

“They took the entire school – there were 800 of us at Central Catholic at the time – and they literally took us outdoors and marched us down the street, and went to the corner of Broadway and Avenue B,” Cisneros said. “It was a quick motorcade. They were moving at a good clip down the street. But there was the open car. We saw the president and Mrs. Kennedy, Vice President Johnson and Mrs. Johnson, and Henry B. Gonzalez, Congressman Gonzalez, and other city luminaries.

“It had a particular poignancy when the next day we heard that he’d been shot. We saw him just 24 hours earlier in San Antonio. The country took it hard. San Antonio had put a lot of faith, a lot of hope, into President Kennedy and his administration.”

Deep sense of grief for San Antonio Catholics

Cisneros, who served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton for four years in the 1990s, was in math class when he heard the news of the shooting in Dallas over Central Catholic’s intercom system.

“At that point he had not died,” Cisneros said. “The class ended. We went to our next assignments. For me it was an ROTC class. And there one of the brothers, one of the teachers, said that the president had passed. He was Irish, the brother, the religious man. And he took it very personally, very personally.

“It was a deep wound. Of course, we all know Kennedy was the first Catholic president. He was an Irish president. This group of Irish Catholic brothers really, really took it as if one of their own family had been shot.”

That deep sense of grief and sense of loss permeated the entire city, Cisneros said.

“There was a special love for this young, charismatic, energetic, positive, optimistic, forward-looking president, John Kennedy,” Cisneros said. “He embodied much of the hope that a city that was relatively poor, relatively Hispanic, had about the American dream. So for him to be cut down in the prime of life, not only did it impact what we wanted as a people and our sense of optimism and hope, but Latinos have a particular sense of family.

“There were tears in every household in my neighborhood. It was a personal loss, as if someone in our family, or at least empathy with his family. There was family in this, not just politics, not just president, not just leader, not just the nation, but family feelings. I walked downtown from Central Catholic that day, and I was struck by the silence. I think people just went home to watch the news, to grieve.”

Cisneros wrote a poem about the tragedy for an English assignment he had been given before the assassination.

“I decided that day to write it on the disjuncture between the crisp, cool brightness of that November afternoon as I walked home – beautiful day, just a classic San Antonio fall day – and what was in our hearts, what we knew had just occurred.”

Cisneros’ poem was included in an anthology published by the San Antonio library in 1964.

Police officer: San Antonio crowds were jubilant to meet Kennedys

Fifty years later, Kennedy’s visit to San Antonio on the day before he died remains one of the city’s most treasured collective memories.

The president’s motorcade traveled on Broadway until it came to Houston Street, where it turned right. It proceeded west on Houston until it turned left at St. Mary’s Street. The route continued toward Southwest Military – St. Mary’s turns into Roosevelt south of downtown – where it took a left to get to Brooks AFB.

Jesse Clements, then a 26-year-old San Antonio police officer, was posted outside the Brooks gate of Southwest Military when the motorcade entered the base.

"It was a state of euphoria," Clements said. “Everybody was happy. It was a big jubilation. That's why going from that to what happened in Dallas the next day hit people in the pit of their stomach."

Clements, 76, had worked the "dog watch," from 11 p.m. the previous night to 7 a.m. Nov. 21, when he reported back to work at 10 a.m.

"I was in the patrol division and off duty, but they called us all in," Clements said. "They posted us along the route to protect the motorcade. I saw the whole ceremony and I heard Kennedy's speech from where I was posted because they had loudspeakers. They had constructed a huge, wooden platform and they had a podium on it."

Maurice Rose was among the president’s motorcycle escorts that day.

"That was my first major escort," said Rose, 72. "I saw him when he got off the plane and was at Kelly when he left. There were people everywhere. Our job was to direct traffic at intersections and keep the people back because they wanted to run at the car. People were excited to see him.

"I don't remember any adverse reaction from anybody. Kennedy was friendly and he was smiling. He waved to everybody. I remember he and Jackie were in the back of the limousine."

Kennedys shook hands with policemen at Kelly AFB

Rose was escorting a house that was being moved the next day when he heard the president had been shot.

“It was a blow,” Rose said. “Naturally, we had all felt close to him because we had just seen him the day before.”

Miller said he’s reflected on Kennedy’s visit more than usual this November.

“The main thing I remember about his whole trip to San Antonio is when he and Mrs. Kennedy got out of the car at Kelly, and came over and shook hands with about 12, 14 of us who had escorted him,” Miller said. “It was really sincere. I’ll never forget that.”

Miller has fond memories of the motorcade in San Antonio.

“The route was packed all the way out to Brooks,” Miller said. “I don’t recall one incident. I’m very proud of the way the city welcomed the president. I think there was a lot of admiration for him. I don’t believe I heard any derogatory remarks or boos. It was strictly a gleeful, amazing mood.” 

Schneider said he was surprised when the Kennedys shook hands with the policemen as they made their way to Air Force One at Kelly.

“I remember them saying, ‘Thanks for taking care of us,’” Schneider said. “They were totally different than any escort we had done for dignitaries.”

Miller was still sleeping the next day when his wife called him with the terrible news.

“I was really stunned and in a state of shock,” Miller said. “I don’t know if I ever got over the shock, really. Those of us who had escorted him the day before had been relatively close to him for the entire time he was here. We felt a bond or a kinship with him, although we had to maintain the stoic look when we were out there. It was a tough thing to know he had been killed.”

Cisneros: ‘The Kennedy moment endures’

Schneider was putting away his motorcycle in his garage on Nov. 22 when his wife broke the news to him about the shooting in Dallas.

“The ride the day before endeared him to me, and to hear 24 hours later that he was dead just took my breath away,” Schneider said. “I was emotionally wiped out for a while.”

Emotionally drained and grief-stricken, Henry B. Gonzalez returned to his family on the night of Nov. 22. Gonzalez was outside the trauma room at Parkland Hospital in Dallas where Kennedy was taken after he was shot.

“Henry said nobody was paying attention to Mrs. Kennedy at the hospital,” Gonzalez said. “She was sitting there in a little chair, crying and all bloody. Henry went over to her because he was not about to let her be by herself. When he asked her if he could get her anything, she said, ‘Get me some water and a cigarette.’

“Well, Henry didn’t smoke but he bummed a cigarette and got her some water. I don’t even know how he was going to light it. Henry said he felt so sorry for her.”

Cisneros said Kennedy’s legacy remains strong 50 years after his death.

“Now some can decry that and say, ‘Well, he didn’t accomplish that much and he spoke better than he delivered,’” Cisneros said. “But no one can deny the 50-year duration of his ideals. He personally may have been shot, but his ideas, his ideals, his values did not die. They’ve only been enhanced over the years. So the assassin’s bullet did not accomplish what he might have had in his deranged mind.

“Though we’ve had a loss of innocence, critical wars like Vietnam, and our ideals have been crushed through Watergate and other things, and no one has lived up to that youthful energy and people are skeptical of it now, nevertheless, the Kennedy moment endures.”