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Saint John Fitzgerald

3 posts in this topic

Saint John Fitzgerald - Thirty-nine years ago, when Joe McQuade was nine years old, he saw President John F. Kennedy a few minutes before before Lee Harvey Oswald did.

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Editor's note: This column was first published in 1979 in The Alvin Sun.

It was a gray morning, but many of us were literally skipping with excitement. They were letting us out of school, marching us down Black Oak Lane to the Humble station so we could see the president.

A couple of eighth-grade boys carried our church banner and an Irish flag. Monsignor McCullough hoped the symbols of Irish Catholicism would win a laugh from Jack Kennedy.

The nuns lined us up in neat rows. I was a short fourth-grader, so I got a choice spot up front. "Stay put when the motorcade comes," they told us again and again. "You'll scare the president if you run toward his car."

The night before, my father had told me whom to look for as the parade passed before us. "There'll be President Kennedy, Jackie, Governor Connally, Lady Bird -"

"Who's she?"

"She's Lyndon Johnson's wife."

"Who's he?"

It wasn't long before we heard the rumble of motorcycle cops come to block off the nearby intersection. Moments later, applause from the public school kids up the road told us he was near. We all strained for an early glimpse, primping our bright yellow uniform sweaters.

There he is! He's right here in our neighborhood, and he's going to see us!

How different he looked. Gorgeous, of course, but red-faced and stocky. Little more than his head and shoulders showed above the black limousine's huge rear door.

As the car rolled toward us, Kennedy noticed our smart brown-and-yellow uniforms. He straightened and turned in his seat, smiled broadly at us, and pointed to our flags in the back row.

It had happened. Fifteen feet from us, framed by the familiar auto supply store across the road, Saint John Fitzgerald had looked directly at us and behaved as if he were one of us -- as though we were just as special as he.

Our section of Ft. Worth was, maybe, four percent Catholic. Back in the days of Latin Mass, Friday fasting, parochial school uniforms and unreconstructed Southern prejudice, little Catholic kids knew they were different.

But that day Kennedy made us feel special. (In 1963, this was a man who filled small Catholic kids with the same kind of awe as the pope, the angelic hosts, the Holy Trinity itself.) St. John didn't straighten and take special notice when he saw those public school kids. No, he felt a kinship with US.

My father saw him seconds later in front of the grocery store. Then the motorcade sped up the last two miles or so to Carswell Air Force Base for Kennedy's plane to Dallas.

A couple of hours later, during altar boy practice, Monsignor McCullough entered the church through a side door, motioning the assistant pastor away from us. They spoke just a few seconds.

As the young priest hurried back to the center of the altar, he said quietly, "We are going to say a rosary now. The governor and the president have just been shot."

The rest of the student body filed in. I knelt in that church for a horrible hour, shut off from television and radio, praying for the life of the handsome Catholic president who had just changed the way I saw myself.

In the years afterward, through all my personal and religious changes, I forgot the most profound emotion I felt that day. Then in 1978, Nellie Connally's recollection of the Elm Street sequence during the House assassination hearings brought it back with a chill.

She remembered Jackie crying, "They've killed him. They've killed my husband."

That was the same hopeless isolation we kids felt in church that day -- only two hours after our triumph.

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Dealey Plaza is cordoned off today for an "official" (i.e., non-public) commemoration, and so rather than being there, I write this brief commemoration of my own.

Last night we watched Parkland. I know of no better way to capture a sense of the events and their immediate meaning than by portrayal through the great American art form of the motion picture.

An antithesis to Oliver Stone's JFK, Parkland portrays the assassination and its immediate aftermath in an extremely disciplined and realistic manner. The most powerful aspects for me were the sense of real time -- just how quickly and inexorably it all happened -- and the enormous dignity and strength of the ordinary citizens of Dallas who tried to save the President and comfort Mrs. Kennedy. The young nurses, doctors, and technicians at our public hospital who quickly overcame their horror and valiantly attempted to resuscitate the bullet-shattered man, the senior police officer outside the emergency room who delicately assisted Jackie into the hearse for the waking nightmare drive back to Love Field, all are portrayed with clarion dignity and realism. Perhaps most moving is the portrayal of Dallas businessman Abraham Zapruder (by the incomparable Paul Giamatti), which somehow signaled the immutable change in the country and the world by illustrating how the event and his role in it -- the man's own motion picture of those frozen seconds in time -- would change his life and our view of things forever.

I struggle with what to tell my own children about November 22nd, 1963. I myself was only a baby at the time. I grew up thinking in a strange way that the whole world was in my adopted hometown that day.

And I guess in a way we were.

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