The Palestine Herald, Palestine, Texas

November 22, 2013

Elkhart man met Kennedy the day he died

By CHERIL VERNON
Palestine Herald-Press

PALESTINE —

Do you remember where you were 50 years ago on Nov. 22, 1963?

Many people do — as that was the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a motorcade through downtown Dallas during a five-city tour of Texas to boost his re-election bid.

Elkhart resident Gary Robbins, 82, knows exactly where he was that day.

On that day, Robbins was a 32-year-old motorcycle police officer for the Fort Worth Police Department, making $315 a month. Fifty years later, all he has to remind him of that day is his old motorcycle police helmet, historical details and photos he has found through various archives.

“It's something I will never forget,” Robbins said. “I shook his hand that day. Thirty minutes to an hour later, he was dead.”

Kennedy started off the morning of Nov. 22, 1963 in Fort Worth. The nation's 35th president, Kennedy spoke briefly to several thousand people outside the Texas Hotel in Fort Worth, where he and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy spent the night. In the hotel, the president also spoke at a breakfast meeting with the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.

“A motorcycle police officer for the Fort Worth Police Department, I was assigned to escort the JFK motorcade from the old Texas Hotel in downtown Fort Worth after his speech in front of the hotel,” Robbins recalled. “The motorcade went north on Main (Street) then out Jacksboro Highway to River Oaks and then out to Carswell Air Force Base.”

Arriving at the air force base, the president exited the car they were riding in and started up the ramp. According to Robbins, his wife reminded him he did not thank the officers who escorted the motorcade.

“He came back down from Air Force One and shook hands with all of us,” Robbins recalled. “It was quite an honor. I have found some pictures from his visit to Fort Worth and one picture was President Kennedy shaking our hands. I think I was standing behind Mrs. Kennedy, but it's hard to tell in that photo and it was 50 years ago.”

Relieved of their duty after he boarded, less than an hour later, Robbins and some of his fellow officers were seated at a cafeteria ordering their lunch. Someone started talking real loud saying the president was dead.

“We thought it was a joke at first, but it was not a joke,” Robbins recalled. “It was hard to accept.”

After boarding Air Force One at the air force base, Kennedy's plane landed at Love Field in Dallas at 11:40 a.m.. The presidential party boarded a Lincoln convertible. Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife, Nellie, were seated in the front seat. The presidential motorcade headed on a route through downtown Dallas, toward the Trade Mart where the president was scheduled to speak at a luncheon. At 12:30 p.m., gunshots rang out as the motorcade passed the Texas School Book Depository at Dealy Plaza.

The president was shot in the head and neck. Connally also was hit.

The president was taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital, but he could not be saved. Last rites were administered at 12:57 p.m. Connally eventually recovered.

“It's been 50 years. I haven't really talked about it much, but I thought on the 50th anniversary it was time to tell my story,” Robbins said. “All I have left of those days is my old police helmet.”

Robbins spent 17 years with the Fort Worth Police Department, spending a total of 27 years in law enforcement in the Fort Worth area. He spent some of those years as a Fort Worth Police Department helicopter traffic cop and other years as a city marshal and working with the sheriff's office.

After Kennedy's assassination, Robbins was one of the officers who was assigned to guard the funeral plot of Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.

“As many people did, I had a great deal of bitterness for Oswald, but I had to do my job,” Robbins said. “We guarded his grave at night for almost two years. Not too long after we stopped guarding it, someone stole the tombstone.”

Through the years, Robbins also escorted President Richard Nixon and presidential candidate George Wallace. He also met New York Yankees baseball great Yogi Berra while serving as a police officer.

“They put me on Nixon's plane the last time he was there (in Fort Worth),” Robbins recalled.

While working as a police officer and owning a limo service at one time as a second job, Robbins met actor James Garner and his limo service also escorted Elvis Presley during his later years while in the Fort Worth area.

He and his wife, Dell, moved to Elkhart in 1996, as their daughter, Donna Kilgore, lived in the area.

“We liked the piney woods and were ready to get out of the big city,” Robbins said.

They have three children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“I'm a history buff. I look up our ancestry in my spare time and have found lots of information going back pretty far,” Robbins said. “I hope someone in my family will be interested in all of this history down the road.”