Off the guest list, Kennedy devotees still make the trip to Dallas
By AVI SELK, Staff Writer
Dallas Morning News
19 November 2013 11:14 PM
Sarah Hoffman/Staff Photographer
Don J. Miller (second from left) discussed his display with visitors to Dealey Plaza on Tuesday.
Of the 5,000 people predicted to attend the ceremony in Dealey Plaza on Friday commemorating John F. Kennedy’s assassination, planners expect most will be from Dallas.
Half a year ago, every living U.S. president came to Dallas to dedicate the George W. Bush Presidential Center. None are expected to return Friday to mark the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death.
Of the 5,000 people expected to attend the ceremony in Dealey Plaza, planners expect most will be from Dallas.
At least a few officials will travel from other cities — U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro and his brother, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, among them. But if many other visitors are on the guest list, organizers can’t name them.
So forget the guest list. With no ticket to the ceremony, Kennedy devotees have been streaming to Dallas all month, conspiracy theorists, wanderers and students among them.
Brought here by accident, ritual or curiosity, they are the same mix of unlikely pilgrims who for half a century have held unofficial vigil over the plaza.
Among the first
Born decades after the assassination, 14 South Carolina university students were among the first to make the journey to Dealey Plaza this month.
The critical thinking class from Winthrop University had spent the semester comparing official Kennedy history with conspiracy theories. Their professor, Bryan Ghent, flew them to Dallas on Nov. 9 to see the scene firsthand.
“It’s a little left-field to do as a regular course,” he said. “I felt for the 50th anniversary it’d be appropriate.”
The weekend trip didn’t change many students’ minds about how Kennedy died. But the plaza, the Sixth Floor Museum and the tourist circuit that has grown up around the killing surprised them.
Upon returning to South Carolina, one student wrote of her disillusionment:
“I am angry at the so-called experts trying to sell their books next to the tacky Grassy Knoll signs and ‘educate’ the public on their truth. I am angry at the cars continuing to drive over the famous X that marked the spot where Kennedy was shot as if it doesn’t mean anything.”
Two weeks later, a Dallas road crew would tear up that X along with much of Elm Street as the city prepared to transform the plaza for Friday’s ceremony.
Up the steps
As a machine spat chunks of pavement into the back of a dump truck on Monday, David Ludwick carried a rucksack stuffed with his belongings up the steps of Dealey Plaza.
His beard was graying and his skin sun-weathered, but his first impression of the plaza was the same as it was for many of Ghents’ students.
“It looks so small,” Ludwick said, setting his bag down.
He was 4 years old in 1963, living in San Diego, when news of the assassination bumped Rocky and Bullwinkle off the TV. He didn’t understand then why a cartoon’s cancellation so upset his parents.
He’s learned much since.
Ludwick spent his latter years doing yard work in El Paso, he said. Until border violence drove him and a friend to “redo life” somewhere else.
With their lives packed in a truck, they detoured through Dallas to visit friends, he said. “We weren’t even thinking about the assassination.”
Now he thought about it.
“A president as popular as that, killed like some third-world dictator,” Ludwick said. “Of all the places in the world, he should have been safest in Dallas.”
Since he was here, Ludwick figured he might just stay through Friday’s ceremony. Then again, maybe not.
“You can’t obsess on the past to the point you’re locked on it,” Ludwick said before picking his rucksack back up and descending the stairs.
Locked on the past
At the top of those steps stood two men locked on the past.
Leo Kerner and Bob Cochran had come to Dallas with JFK Lancer, a national group of enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists who mark the assassination each November. They both spoke of Kennedy in near-religious tones, as a martyr for peace.
But over the decades, the two men had grown different in their philosophies.
In his Louisiana drawl, Kerner brooked no interruption to long sermons on the Pentagon conspiracy he thought brought down Kennedy.
“There was lie told here,” he said at the end of one.
Cochran — who drove in with his daughter from Wichita, Kan. — sat quietly by the steps, his eyes drifting to the street work below.
“I’m not into the conspiracy,” he said when it was his turn to speak. “I’m a collector.”
He held in his hand a hard-bound volume of Kennedy’s speeches. On the front pages were the signatures of everyone he’d met on the plaza that day — from the man hawking conspiracy pamphlets to the police sergeant watching tourists from the top of the hill.
Cochran has been collecting names at Dealey Plaza for 20 years. It’s as close as he could get to what he called “Kennedy’s spirit” and, later, “ultimate truth.”
Cochran had written out a remembrance speech to Kennedy and planned to recite it on the anniversary. But like many visitors to Dallas this year, he couldn’t get a ticket.
By Friday, the weather would be chilly and Dealey Plaza ringed with barricades and camera crews.
That was no matter, Cochran said. He’d simply wait until the official crowd left, then march into the plaza and do what he does every year.