Gary Phillips was one of the last people to see President John F. Kennedy alive. His annual reminder of that milestone is coming around again.
Phillips was among many high school students who got out of class so they could watch the presidential motorcade roll through Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
It’s not an easy day to forget, even if you didn’t witness the assassination.
“Every year when it turns to November, I start thinking about it. News items come up,” the Felida resident said.
There has been even more interest in the topic over the last month after the National Archives released thousands of documents related to the assassination.
Phillips is a retired businessman who became a born-again Christian, earned a master’s degree in theology and had a second career in the ministry and Christian education.
He was a high school senior 54 years ago when President Kennedy’s swing through Texas included an appearance in Dallas.
“The fact that the president was coming to Dallas was huge. I wasn’t that politically astute, but the president is the president, whether you voted for him or not,” Phillips said.
At 17, Phillips couldn’t vote at all. But one of his parents had voted for JFK in 1960; he thinks it was his mother, who certainly appreciated Jackie Kennedy’s fashion sense.
“My mother made a pillbox hat for herself,” a nod to one of the items the first lady was wearing that day.
School officials allowed students to leave campus for the event, if they could get there on their own.
“There were no buses. You had to be old enough to drive, or go with someone who drove. I didn’t drive; I went with two other guys,” Phillips said.
“We found a parking place. We didn’t have to walk far.”
The motorcade passed, and that was that, the boys thought.
“Once the parade goes past, you take off and we were on the way to the car.”
It’s always ‘they’
Then he heard shots.
“Just a bus backfiring,” Phillips told his companions.
“Then we saw a lady literally yanking her hair out. It freaked us out.”
When they got to their car, “The radio was not working.”
On the way back to Bryan Adams High School, “We were yelling at the guy in the car next to us. ‘What happened?’ Both cars were doing about 40 mph.”
The guy in the next car said: “They shot Kennedy!”
“It’s always ‘they,’ ” Phillips noted.
“At school, we had the greatest excuse in the world to say screw it.”
But the three teens went their own ways to class, accompanied by the voice of newscaster Walter Cronkite over the school’s speaker system.
When the bell rang, “We changed classes. That’s bedlam, usually; all you could hear was shuffling feet.”
One common sentiment was along the lines of “Great, he’s shot where we live.”
That was not meant to minimize a national tragedy, Phillips emphasized. The residents of Dallas weren’t the ones having a really bad day.
“It would have been horrible if he’d been assassinated in Seattle or in Baltimore,” Phillips said.
But it really brings a tragedy home after “horror and evil intruded into your environment.”