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For 50 years, Howard Wilkinson has been covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. He's interviewed mayors, council members, county commissioners, governors, senators, and representatives. With so many years covering so many politicians, there must be stories to tell, right?

Searching for answers to JFK's assassination in Dealey Plaza

John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy arriving in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.

Sixty years ago today, shortly before noon, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as his motorcade rolled through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas, Texas. In this article from his Tales from the Trail archives, WVXU's Howard Wilkinson recalls his constant quest for answers to what happened on that day in 1963.

For decades after that awful day of November 22, 1963 — and exactly two weeks from my 11th birthday — I had an overwhelming desire to see Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas.

Because on that day, when I was a fifth grader at Cleveland Elementary School in Dayton, Ohio, a horrific event was taking place nearly 1,000 miles away in Dealey Plaza, in the heart of downtown Dallas, Texas, that would leave emotional scars on the hearts and minds of millions of children, traumatic memories that would last a lifetime.

John F. Kennedy — our young, handsome, dynamic president who had barely squeezed into office in 1960 — was shot in the head and neck as he was seated next to the elegant and beautiful first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, covered in his blood and brains, in a presidential limousine as it wound its way through the plaza.

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It was early afternoon; I was in music class, when the speaker on the wall in Mrs. Cairn's class crackled and the principal, Mr. Roweton, came on, clearing his throat before he spoke.

I have an announcement for students and staff I hoped I would never have to make, he said in a somber voice.

I have to tell you some very sad news. President Kennedy was shot and killed about an hour ago in Dallas, Texas, as he rode in a motorcade. The president is dead. The vice president, Lyndon Johnson, will be sworn in as the new president soon.

Mr. Roweton asked us to all return to our homerooms where we would be dismissed for the day.

I gathered up my books, half in shock, and walked up the stairs to the second floor classroom of Mrs. Phipps, who lives on in my memory as the best and kindest teacher I ever had.

I was the first to walk into our homeroom and saw something I will never forget — Mrs. Phipps, her head in her hands, face down on her desk, sobbing and shaking.

She hugged each and every one of us as we were dismissed and filed out of the classroom.

Decades passed and still I wondered, did Lee Harvey Oswald, shooting from a sixth floor window at the Texas School Book Depository, act alone, or were there conspirators in a plot to kill a president who had more than his share of enemies?

I read every book and official report I could on the subject — some of the lone-gunman and other conspiracy theories made sense; others were clearly errant nonsense, the stuff of supermarket tabloids.

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It meant something to me, because even as a 10-year-old kid — a very politically aware 10-year-old at that — the assassination moved me deeply because of the admiration I felt for JFK.

I had more reason than most to be grateful to JFK. My family lived only a few miles from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. All of us in the east Dayton neighborhoods were acutely aware of the fact that, in the event of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, the Air Force base would be a prime target and we would no doubt be vaporized in the blast.

The Kurtz family, three doors down from us, had a fall-out shelter dug into their backyard, just in case; and I had no doubt Mr. Kurtz would do whatever was necessary to keep everyone safe in the worst-case scenario.

Quite a burden for a kid to carry around.

Especially in October 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union faced off nose-to-nose over nuclear missiles the Soviets had in Cuba, so very close to American soil.

President Kennedy, under more pressure than any American leader had ever faced before, played both the diplomatic and military hand to perfection. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev blinked first; and nuclear Armageddon was avoided.

So, in my mind, our family owed JFK our lives.

That is why, even as an adult, I followed with a passion nearing obsession every scrap of news or conjecture that dribbled out over the years about what happened in Dealey Plaza on November 22.

House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) was to investigate the assassinations of President Kennedy in 1963, and later, Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

After exhaustive hearings and testimony, the HSCA reached a conclusion that Kennedy was probably assassinated as the result of a conspiracy. But the committee had no idea who was behind it.

A very unsatisfying result.

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HSCA let all of the conspiracy suspects off the hook — the CIA, the governments of Cuba or the Soviet Union, organized crime, anti-Castro groups, the FBI or the Secret Service.

But it could not exclude the possibility that members of organized crime or anti-Castro Cubans were involved in a "probable" conspiracy.

None of this was good enough for me. Or for millions of other Americans.

I needed to see Dealey Plaza for myself.

It is a pilgrimage that millions of people have made over the years, whether they believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone or are conspiracy theorists of one stripe or another.

I blew hot and cold on the conspiracy theories, bouncing back and forth from the one gunman camp to one of the many conspiracy theories suggested in the 1991 Oliver Stone film, JFK.

To me, though, it required a trip to Dallas.

I got my chance in August 1995, when I went to Dallas to spend a few days with my old pal, Kevin O'Hanlon, a Nebraska cornhusker who was then working for the Associated Press in Dallas. Kevin and I were old friends from his time as a county reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer. He was (and is) a character; and there are people over in the Hamilton County Courthouse to this day who recall Kevin fondly and have some hilarious stories about him.

Kevin had his hands full when I first arrived in Dallas. Baseball Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle, one of Dallas' best-known citizens, had just died on August 13 at the age of 63. Kevin had to cover his funeral, a huge ceremony at a Dallas Methodist mega-church.

But Kevin had the next day off and he seemed more than happy to be my Dealey Plaza tour guide.

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We drove downtown from the O'Hanlon home in the city's north suburbs, pulling into a parking lot just off the plaza and behind the former Texas School Depository Building — the building from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired his Mannlicher-Carcano infantry rifle, aiming through a sixth-floor window at the JFK motorcade.

We walked around the corner from the parking lot and found ourselves atop the famous "grassy knoll," where, on the day of the assassination, well-wishers and curiosity seekers gathered to get a glimpse of the presidential motorcade as it slowly passed by, carrying the president and first lady in the back jump seat, and Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife Nellie seated directly in front of them.

The thing that struck me immediately as I stood atop the grassy knoll and looked out across the diamond-shaped plaza was how small it was.

On television and in news photographs, it had always seemed to me to be a vast expanse of land. It was not that at all.

In fact, it seemed like a tiny postage stamp of land, surrounded by tall office buildings on two sides, the knoll on the south side and an expressway and railroad tracks at the bottom of the triangle.

It was only 15 acres in all — only about three acres more that the Campus Green at the University of Cincinnati.

We decided first to go to the Texas School Book Depository, which, by 1995, was a county administration building. Oswald was an employee there and had easy access to all seven floors of the building.

The window from which Oswald was said to have fired his rifle was in the far corner of the sixth floor.

The interest in the building and Dealey Plaza was so great, with people streaming into Dallas from all over the world, it was decided to turn the assassin's floor into The Sixth Floor Museum, an interactive museum which told the stories of Oswald and Kennedy and how they came together on that sunny November day in Dallas.

I got a cassette player and earphones from the front desk and listened to a narrated tour of the floor.

The place that everyone wanted to see was the corner window through which Oswald took aim on the president.

But the area surrounding that window was glassed in; inside were stacked boxes that Oswald is said to have used to steady his military rifle and a greasy brown paper bag on the floor which, at one time, held Oswald's lunch of fried chicken.

But you could not get inside the glass partition to look out that window and see what Oswald saw.

Instead I walked about 10 feet to the right to the next window, which had a slightly different angle but essentially the same field of view as the limousine moved away from the building on Elm Street.  

Again, I was struck by what a tiny place it was. Elm Street was not far away at all; in fact, it lay right in front of me, in plain view.

Yes, I thought, Oswald, with his Marine Corps training, could easily have shot Kennedy from this vantage point.

The question is whether he would get three shots off in under six seconds — the amount of time the conspiracy theorists say he would have had — or the 8.5 seconds that the "lone gunman" theorists say.

FBI weapons expert Robert Frazier got off three accurate shots from the window in 4.5 seconds using Oswald's Mannlicher-Carcano rifle.

But then there were the grassy knoll and the people who claimed to see smoke rising from the vicinity and began racing toward the knoll after the first shot was fired.

After we toured the museum, I walked over to the knoll and went behind the stockade fence between Elm Street and the railroad yards beyond the plaza.

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There I looked out on the spot on Elm Street where the presidential limousine seemed to slow down and another shot was fired — this one the fatal blow that tore off part of the president's skull.

There were plenty of gaps in the fence where one could shoot a rifle and, once again, it seemed to be a very easy shot, even with a moving target. The spot on Elm Street — which is now marked — and the picket fence were so incredibly close together.

I have never fired a gun in my life, I thought, and even I could hit a target from here.

Was it plausible that there was another gunman behind that fence? Yes.

Was it plausible that Oswald fired three shots from that Texas School Book Depository window? Yes.

Was it plausible even that a third shooter could be involved, shooting and missing from across the plaza, his bullet striking the curb? Yes.

Did I find the answers to my questions in Dealey Plaza in 1995? No, I did not.

Perhaps it is time for a return trip.

Updated: November 20, 2023 at 12:12 PM EST
This article was first published Nov. 22, 2019.
Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.