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Kennedy Assassination Changed Lives of Those Who Witnessed Shooting in Dallas - 2003-11-22

Sometimes history will turn on a moment. So it did on November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

Forty years later, many Americans still considered Mr. Kennedy's murder a tragic and defining moment in their lives.

VOA's Tim Wardner was in Dallas recently to talk to some who were there when history was made

Gail and Bill Newman remember that afternoon almost a lifetime ago that changed their lives. It was 40 years ago that President John F. Kennedy was murdered on the streets in Dallas, Texas. He was the youngest U.S. president and a symbol of progress in the early 1960s.

"Well, we were only 22 years old, just young people, and we had two children, 2 and 4. And basically our thought was just raising our family and getting by day by day," said Gail Newman.

"We're all very vulnerable people and something can happen to us at any given time, even to the president of the United States," her husband added.

The Newmans are witnesses to history. They stood nearest to President Kennedy when the fatal shot hit.

"And I can remember it was a 'boom, boom,' about like that, Mr. Newman said. "And I remember seeing his hands come up and just as the car passed in front of us and the President was straight out from the curb edge from us, the third shot rang out. And I remember seeing the side of President Kennedy's head blow off, a mass of white and then red. And he went over into Mrs. Kennedy's lap across the car seat and she hollered out, 'Oh my God, no, they've shot Jack,' and I turned to Gail and said, 'Gail, that's it hit the ground.' We turned and hid on the grass behind us and covered our two children."

As they lay on the grass protecting their children, a wave of shock began to radiate from where they were to every corner of the world. The president's limousine raced down the Stemmons Freeway to the ambulance bay at Parkland Hospital where Dr. Robert McCelland was called to the emergency room for the incoming president.

"The crowd parted and I saw Mrs. Kennedy sitting there on the chair and I almost fainted when I saw her," Dr. McCelland said.

Standing in the vortex of history, Dr. McClelland, and a team of specialists, made a hopeless effort to save the president's life.

"Mrs. Kennedy kept coming in and out of the room. I would say it was a controlled chaos. I think that nobody was surprised when they said he was not going to survive," he said.

To the security of the presidential airplane, they carried the slain president. The new president, Lyndon Johnson, and the staffs of both men gathered for the oath of office and return to Washington. On board was Jack Valenti, then a confidant of President Johnson.

"He asked Mrs. Kennedy if she would come, and stand beside him as he took the oath of office and she came in, eyes cast downward," Mr. Valenti said. "I've often thought of this phrase 'catatonic trance.' I didn't know what that meant but I saw it that day because that's what she was in. What I saw was a deep cavern of grief that was dark and foreboding and that just absolutely had infected these people."

A young man, named Lee Harvey Oswald, is thought to have shot the president from a building where he worked as a stock clerk when the President's motorcade passed.

"Well, it was a reaction of horror. Total dismay, and just hysteria almost," said historian Darwin Payne, a newspaper reporter on the scene.

In the days following the assassination, Mr. Payne followed the story. He went to Oswald's rooming house. "So Oswald was one of perhaps a dozen roomers who had rooms in this house."

Oswand was captured in a movie theatre. "When they approached him Oswald said something like, 'This is it.' It was under this stairway, just behind here, that Oswald posed for that famous picture with his rifle and the pistol," Mr. Payne related.

The assassination of the president unleashed speculation that lasts to this day about the circumstances of the event.

"How one individual, misguided youth, Lee Harvey Oswald, could kill the president of the United States all by himself, as the Warren Commission concluded, seems very strange, although most thoughtful people, I believe have concluded that he did act alone. I feel that he did act alone, myself, but most people don't think so," Mr. Payne said.

For at least 20 years following the assassination, the city of Dallas was stigmatized.

"So many people in Dallas regret so deeply what happened, but they really resent the fact that Dallas was blamed when the killer should have been blamed," said Gary Mack, director of the Sixth Floor Museum, the site of the shooting, in Dallas.

Now that historic and terrible day still draws hundreds of thousands of people to the Dealey Plaza site.

"He captivated most people because of that youthful vigorous attitude that he had," Mr. Payne said. "And he seemed to be witty and charming and people enjoyed seeing him and being around him. With Kennedy we were looking ahead to the future, and the future seemed to have been taken away from us."

The future that was lost with President Kennedy's death, and what might have been, are questions that will remain unanswered forever, now as they were on that day 40 years ago in Dallas.