How Texas A&M, Conservative Bastion, Grappled With JFK’s Death

I was a freshman and an ROTC cadet when the president was assassinated one Friday morning. Some people were glad, but most were just shocked.

Wounded: The author in college.
National Journal
Tom DeFrank
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Tom DeFrank
Nov. 22, 2013, 8 a.m.

It was an In­di­an sum­mer noon­time in cent­ral Texas, one of those fleet­ing Novem­ber days when the wind stops screech­ing from the north across the flat­lands be­fore the chill settles in for good. A nor­mal Fri­day at Texas A&M would have brought the pre­dict­able week­end ex­odus from our Col­lege Sta­tion cam­pus to Hou­s­ton, San Ant­o­nio, Fort Worth, and oth­er more hab­it­able ven­ues.

Nov. 22 wasn’t a nor­mal Fri­day. Yes, the pres­id­ent of the United States was in Texas, but more sig­ni­fic­antly, the Thanks­giv­ing Day foot­ball clash with our bit­ter rivals from the Uni­versity of Texas was just six days away. This meant one of Ag­gie­land’s most ven­er­able tra­di­tions — the an­nu­al bon­fire. Fresh­men in the ROTC Corps of Ca­dets would be up at 5 o’clock the next morn­ing to cut, clear, tote, and stack gi­gant­ic logs for the world’s biggest bon­fire, lit on the eve of the Tur­key Day clas­sic. It was the great rite of pas­sage for first-year ca­dets like me, known as Fish.

The Corps began lunch at 12:10, and stu­dents could eat un­til 1, but fresh­men al­ways chow­ed down as swiftly as pos­sible. Less time eat­ing meant few­er op­por­tun­it­ies for haz­ing by up­per­class­men, es­pe­cially the sad­ist­ic sopho­mores. So on this par­tic­u­lar Fri­day, sev­en of us left Duncan Din­ing Hall about 12:40.

As we reached our dorm, a ju­ni­or in our out­fit said that someone had taken a shot at Pres­id­ent Kennedy. We rushed in­to a room and someone flipped on the ra­dio. An an­noun­cer was re­port­ing shots fired at the pres­id­en­tial mo­tor­cade at a triple un­der­pass on the west­ern fringe of down­town Dal­las. No re­port of cas­u­al­ties.

Hav­ing grown up 16 miles away in Ar­ling­ton, I didn’t need fur­ther elab­or­a­tion. Dal­las back then was the pre­ferred big-date ven­ue for high school kids. Ar­riv­ing from west­ern sub­urbs, you had to drive through the triple un­der­pass.

A fresh­man named Faulkner who lived in the room wandered in, asked what had happened, and let out a shrill whoop. “They fi­nally got the bas­tard,” he ex­claimed. Three of us grabbed him sim­ul­tan­eously and flung him to the ground. The an­gri­est was my room­mate, Mike Russo, a tough-talk­ing street kid from Brook­lyn who six weeks af­ter­ward flunked out, was draf­ted in­to the Army, and was killed in Vi­et­nam a year later. Russo was re­strained be­fore he could punch out our class­mate. “Enough vi­ol­ence for one day,” some­body said. Faulkner still didn’t un­der­stand what he’d done wrong, but he left us to our stu­pefac­tion.

We clustered around the ra­dio and waited. Time moved slowly. Even­tu­ally we heard that the pres­id­ent had been shot in the head but was still alive. Nobody said any­thing, but we were all think­ing the same thing: How of­ten does someone get shot in the head and sur­vive? The ra­dio an­noun­cer, a coun­try-west­ern disc jockey usu­ally tout­ing “The Boss Sound,” read each bul­let­in as it flashed across the tele­type. He an­nounced the ar­rival of an­oth­er, then star­ted read­ing. “Pres­id­ent John Fitzger­ald Kennedy, the 35th pres­id­ent of the United States”¦. “ The Boss Sound paused.

“Ladies and gen­tle­men, the pres­id­ent is dead.” My watch read 1:35.

We hung by the ra­dio all af­ter­noon to learn the lur­id de­tails: The shots had not come from the triple un­der­pass after all, but from a sixth-floor corner win­dow of the Texas School Book De­pos­it­ory, a de­crep­it old build­ing at the corner of Hou­s­ton and Elm with a gi­gant­ic Hertz car-rent­al bill­board on the roof. I had al­ways checked that Hertz clock to cal­cu­late wheth­er I’d make my movie, din­ner, or foot­ball game on time. This was like hav­ing a pres­id­ent murdered on your front porch.

Later, walk­ing across cam­pus — I’m not sure why, since we all knew classes would be can­celed — I passed a sopho­more from my out­fit, Com­pany A-1, nick­named An­im­al A. He was the mean­est man I’d ever known, but tears streamed down his cheeks, spill­ing onto the creases of his field jack­et. I passed the A&M ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing as its flag was lowered to half-staff, and sud­denly a car squealed to a halt in the middle of a street in front. An Army ma­jor jumped out and rendered a crisp sa­lute to the sink­ing ban­ner, then drove away.

The cam­pus was like a tomb that week­end. The sense of shame, hor­ror, and tragedy was over­whelm­ing — and amp­li­fied be­cause the as­sas­sin­a­tion happened in our home state. Des­pite some half-hearted grumbling, the bon­fire was can­celed, but the Thanks­giv­ing foot­ball game went on as sched­uled. In Texas, life im­it­ates foot­ball, then and now.

Kennedy wasn’t pop­u­lar on cam­pus, and the as­sas­sin­a­tion didn’t shake every­body off their keels. On Monday morn­ing, my Eng­lish pro­fess­or began his lec­ture with a sick ques­tion. He wanted to know what fam­ous per­son had died on Fri­day, and he wasn’t ask­ing about Kennedy; he was re­fer­ring to Al­dous Hux­ley, au­thor of Brave New World.

Texas A&M is no longer all-male and all-mil­it­ary, but it’s still a con­ser­vat­ive bas­tion that dis­likes Barack Obama, gave Mitt Rom­ney a com­fort­able mar­gin in 2012, and will de­liv­er for the GOP pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate in 2016. Still, only the hard-core loath­ers reveled in the death of a pres­id­ent that Fri­day. For the most part the cam­pus, like the rest of the na­tion, was seized with shock and dis­be­lief.

Dal­las didn’t kill JFK, but the loc­al pur­vey­ors of in­tol­er­ance who spat on Lyn­don John­son and ac­cos­ted Ad­lai Steven­son were un­in­dicted cocon­spir­at­ors. Sadly, some of their ilk en­dure, and they of­ten seem to flour­ish in the na­tion’s cap­it­al. As a na­tion grieves for what might have been — at least for those of us old enough to re­mem­ber the hope and in­no­cence snuffed out along with a vi­brant, youth­ful life — this 50th an­niversary should at the very least re­mind us that the haters are still around. And, alas, they aren’t all ji­hadists.

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