By Leigh Ann Rutledge
November 19, 2013
50 years. Five decades. Half a century.
No matter how you say it, 50 years has passed since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, TX, Nov. 22, 1963. Carrollton resident Tom Mitchell finds it hard to believe it’s been 50 years since he jet-setted to Washington D.C. to a part of a historic event. “When you called and said the 50th anniversary, I couldn’t believe it,” he said when scheduling an appointment to discuss the event with The FPS. “You are aging me.”
Mitchell was a senior at Ohio Northern University studying Political Science and History Education in 1963. Home for Thanksgiving break, he had been rabbit hunting and was field dressing the rabbits when his neighbor told him the president had been shot. Mitchell continued with his Friday. Tom was out cutting Christmas trees on the family farm the next morning when his dad announced he had purchased a ticket for Tom to go to Washington D.C.
“My dad had no desire to go to Washington D.C. but wanted me to be there. He felt it is was a monumental event like the assassination of President Lincoln,” explained Mitchell. “He wanted me to be a part of something he sensed we would never forget.”
Mitchell had to fly out immediately from Pittsburgh and arrived in Washington D.C. early Sunday morning dressed in a suit and tie and wearing a sports coat. Carrying his suitcase, he walked down Pennsylvania Ave. and having no reservation, rented a room at a hotel.
After dropping his suitcase in his room, he walked up Pennsylvania Ave. to the White House. “There weren’t barriers everywhere like today,” Mitchell said. “I observed the crowd on Pennsylvania Ave. and decided I wanted to watch the procession to the Rotunda in the Capitol Building and walk past the casket.”
Mitchell could see people lined up across from the Capitol Building. Looking around, he realized the quickest way to get to the line was to go through the Capitol Building. He went up the steps on the off side of the building to the basement level. There he fell into step with three Georgetown University students with press passes. (Mitchell had a press pass issued by The FPS). The guard told them all to go in the door and another guard would check their credentials.
Mitchell walked in the door and unnoticed, quickly took off down a side hall and began making his way through the Capitol Building. He went up one floor and saw flowers and bouquets and debris from them. Near the end of the hall he saw daylight and headed that direction.
“I looked up and all I saw was polished shoes,” he remembered. “I realized I was standing in the middle of the Honor Guard waiting to receive President Kennedy.” Mitchell went out on the portico and spoke with a police office, watching the Honor Guard receive the casket and carry it up. “Watching that really unnerved me,” he said.
Mitchell finally got a place in line where he waited eight-and-a-half hours to pay his respects while President Kennedy’s body laid in state.
“The grass around the Justice Building was trampled. It was nothing but mud,” he stated. “People were lined several blocks and down streets. One lady was distraught because she had lost her children. She told a police officer and he just walked away. There was nothing he could do.”
All those people and there were no restrooms, food vendors or first aid stations on the streets. There was also no cell phones or Internet service to spread news. The crowd heard updates either by seeing a television in a window of a storefront or from a battery-operated transistor radio. The news of the death of Lee Harvey Oswald tore through the crowd like a shockwave, he remembers.
“The crowd was of a mixed population,” recalls Mitchell. “We sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ which made the white population nervous. But I don’t recall any major crime during that time. Auxiliary police officers had been called in but there were no federal troops there.”
It’s his opinion there was no trouble because people were in complete shock and they were there to pay their respects.
Mitchell finally made his way past the casket holding the body of President John F. Kennedy. “You go inside amongst a sea of people,” he reminisced, “and when I came out on the far side it was a beautiful crisp, clear night. No people.”
After a tiring day, Mitchell made his way back to his hotel and flew home Monday, Nov. 25.
“I didn’t realize it has been 50 years,” Mitchell said again. “Looking back, I didn’t think we were living in a different era but we were. The Cold War was still going on but we were living in a time of innocence. People still dressed up to do things and go places.”
He felt it was a time of old style after World War II when life was innocent. But that life came to an end during the tumultuous era of the 60s.
“That’s the time, the young rose up and pushed their values through,” he stated. “Ideals relaxed like the style of dressing. There was no reason why the President of the United States could not ride in an open car. We didn’t think of those kinds of things happening. And it shouldn’t have happened. The Kennedys were special.”
He felt the Kennedy family was special even without adding in the political side. “It was Camelot,” he said. “They were kind of American royalty. Jackie was refined, distinguished. She was what we needed in the White House.”
Would President Kennedy have won reelection? Mitchell feels he would have. “He was very popular and everything was upbeat,” he noted. “It was very unfortunate (for the citizens of America).”
Mitchell says he will always remember the time he spent in Washington D. C. “My dad wanted me to be a part of history, be there when the events took place,” he stated. “I am glad I got to be part of history.”