By PAUL KUNTZLER
The weather was surprisingly warm on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. I left my Capitol Hill apartment that morning in a blue dress shirt, slacks and Bass Weejan loafers. At 21, I worked for Structural Clay Products Institute at 1520 18th St., N.W.
At 1:30 p.m., I went to lunch at the Dupont Pharmacy. While walking back through Dupont Circle, two young men were scurrying about me. I crossed over to P Street and turned left onto 18th Street.
It was 2:36 p.m. when I entered my office. I noticed immediately that no one was at the receptionist’s desk. Then I saw that the staff was in the boardroom. I asked the secretary to Executive Director Richard Alderson, “What’s happening?” She said, “The president has been shot!” Walter Cronkite was on television.
Within a minute, Cronkite took off his horn-rimmed eyeglasses, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official. President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”
I started crying. I said to myself, “I’ve got to get out of here!” I ran into Mrs. Ballad. She was stunned at the news.
My partner, Stephen Miller, was in the Capitol Building on House Appropriations Committee staff. After seeing the United Press wire, he went into Kenneth Sprankle’s office. ”Mr. Sprankle, the president has been shot!” Sprankle, chief of staff and a conservative Republican, looked up from his desk, “Well, he’ll surely be re-elected now!”
The Washington telephone system ceased functioning at 1:30 p.m. At home, I turned on television. Stephen told me what Sprankle had said.
For the next four days, television programming and commercials were canceled. It was reported that Kennedy was hit in his throat just below the Adam’s apple and that a German Mauser rifle was found in the Texas School Book Depository Building.
Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested as a suspect in the killing of Patrolman Jefferson Davis Tippit. On the first of his many trips through the third-floor corridors of the Dallas Police Department, Oswald said, “I didn’t shoot anybody, sir. I haven’t been told what I am here for.”
At 6:05 p.m., Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base. JFK’s casket was unloaded with Jacqueline and Robert Kennedy into a Navy ambulance.
What I did not know then was that Kennedy’s casket was empty, according to multiple reports, including the 1988 British series “The Men Who Killed Kennedy, The Cover-Up.” Before Air Force One had left Dallas Love Field, Mrs. Kennedy came forward for President Johnson’s taking the oath of office. During this period, the Secret Service removed Kennedy’s body from his casket.
At Andrews, JFK’s body was taken off on the other side of Air Force One and flown by helicopter to Walter Reed Army Hospital. Mortician John Melvin Liggett using his mortician wax altered the wounds and removed two bullets. Then his body was flown to Bethesda Navy Hospital for the autopsy.
Stephen and I went to dinner at Mike Palm’s wearing our Kennedy buttons.
Later Oswald said, “I do request that someone to come forward to give me legal assistance.” By then, Oswald had been charged with the Tippit killing. At 1:30 a.m., Oswald was arraigned on the charge of murdering JFK.
In American law, every person accused of a crime is presumed innocent unless and until he is found guilty in a court of law. But District Attorney Henry Wade said, “I would say without any doubt that he is the killer. The law says beyond a reasonable doubt to a moral certainty that he is the killer of President Kennedy.”
Late Saturday morning, we went down to the front of the White House where Kennedy’s body was lying in state. Diplomats were arriving to pay their respects.
That evening Oswald said, “I emphatically deny these charges!” And finally, “I’m just a patsy!”
On Sunday afternoon, Stephen and I were on the Capitol grounds when Jacqueline Kennedy arrived with Caroline and John Jr. in their blue suits. Kennedy’s casket was carried up the Capitol steps. We watched John Jr. salute his father. It was then that I learned that Jack Ruby had shot Oswald.
At 10 p.m., we got into line on East Capitol Street with tens of thousands. Walking east with the enormous crowds to Lincoln Park and back again, we finally passed through the Rotunda of the Capitol at 7 a.m.
Offices were closed that Monday for Kennedy’s funeral at St. Matthew’s Cathedral and for his burial in Arlington Cemetery.
John Kennedy was the first important person to die in my young life. I regarded his passing as if I had lost a family member.
For an entire year, I remained in mourning.
Paul Kuntzler is a longtime LGBT rights advocate based in Washington.