OGDEN — Fifty years ago Friday, teenager Bill Jackson stood in a cheering crowd as President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade passed by.
The president waved from the back seat of his convertible, which also held wife Jacqueline, wearing a stylish pink suit and matching hat. Kennedy stood to acknowledge the student band, playing roadside in his honor.
Kennedy’s car safely completed its route, and the president’s party headed off, to Air Force One.
Jackson, a Texas native, made a special trip to see his president in Fort Worth. Jackson and his older brother were driving back to college when breaking news came over the radio that shots had been fired at Kennedy’s next campaign stop, 35 miles to the east, in Dallas.
“I was on the freeway when the radio said shots had been heard in downtown Dallas,” recalls Jackson, now 68 and working as a circulation district manager for the Standard-Examiner. “There was not a lot of information. My brother dropped me off at my dorm, and everyone just gathered around the foyer, where they had a television. We were glued to the TV.
“Then the news came on, saying the president had died. Everybody was pretty upset. It was just a shock. We couldn’t believe something like that could happen.”
Jackson, now a longtime Ogden resident, shared vivid memories to mark the anniversary of Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, allegedly by shooter Lee Harvey Oswald, who was fatally shot two days later by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby.
“I was 18, a freshman at the University of Texas, in Arlington, and a big Kennedy fan,” Jackson recalled. “We all were at that age. Kennedy was so charismatic. He just seemed to know all the right things to say, and all the right gestures. He had a very natural way about him. When he waved at them, the kids in the band went crazy.”
Jackson and his brother had arrived early, to hear Kennedy speak outside the Hotel Texas.
“It was a standard speech, nothing that would stand out,” Jackson said. “He said it was great to be in Texas, and mentioned that Mrs. Kennedy was still getting ready. He thanked us for coming out. Then we went a couple blocks over, to watch his parade go by. I was probably about 10 feet away when his vehicle passed. The kids in the band went wild when he stood up in his car and waved at them. It was a really big turnout, even though it was raining. Mrs. Kennedy was in the motorcade, and she was lovely. It was quite an experience, and it’s been permanently in my mind. I can see it like it was yesterday.”
Jackson said he and his dorm mates were crushed by the news of Kennedy’s death.
“Most of us were pretty excited about the Kennedys, and the way the country was going,” he said. “We couldn’t believe it. It was like he was one of us. He gave us something to cling to, to feel good about. Everyone was in a state of shock, and most of us just went home. I went home, and I didn’t leave the house for several days after that.”
Jackson said as more has been revealed about Kennedy’s life, particularly his infidelities, he sees less to respect about the hero of his youth.
“Back then, I was very liberal and considered myself a lifelong Democrat. I was really taken by Kennedy’s youthfulness and vibrancy. Knowing what I know now about his personal life is disturbing. Back then I might not have cared, but now I do. The bloom is off the rose, so to speak.
“I don’t feel bad that he charmed us all. After eight years of President Dwight Eisenhower, kids my age were really pumped up by the Kennedys. It was a different time, a different era.”
But five decades ago, Jackson was thrilled to be so close to a president who seemed poised to change America for the better.
“I almost felt like I could reach out and touch him,” Jackson recalled. “At the time, it felt great to be a part of history. Now when I look back on it, I don’t take any pride in the fact I was there and saw him on such a tragic day. It was a terrible blow to all of us.
“But I am glad I got to see him. It feels like I was there for a little bit of history that way. But I hope I never have to go through anything like that again.”
Contact reporter Nancy Van Valkenburg at 801-625-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @S_ENancyVanV.