The Towners, Eyewitness Photographers at the JFK Assassination (Part 4)

On this, the 53rd anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination, I post my last (for now) excerpt from my book, Tina Towner, My story as the youngest photographer at the Kennedy assassination.

My film has been closely scrutinized over the years, mostly by researchers. Authorities had the original film for a good while on two different occasions. The first time was in 1963 immediately after the assassination when Daddy turned the original undeveloped film over to The Dallas Morning News. Another time was in 1977-78 when I turned over the original film and slides to investigators for the temporary use by the Select Committee on Assassinations. LIFE magazine also had the Towner images in 1967 for an article they published in November that year.

There are a few frames missing from my motorcade footage as the presidential limousine passes in front of the Texas School Book Depository. No one knows for sure who removed those frames or why, but I do know it happened before March 1977 when I took the film to Ft. Worth to be studied by Jack White and he brought the splice to my attention. I suspect it happened while in the hands of the Dallas Morning News and/or authorities in 1963, because the film was developed by them, and the noticeable jump in the film at that point has been there since the beginning as far as I can remember. A few theories about who made this mysterious splice  and why wiggle around in cyberspace, but they are only theories. I read somewhere that at least one researcher believes I did it myself when I stopped filming and started again, but I know for certain that is not true. I did not pause filming.

Excerpt from Chapter 2:

The drive home [from Dealey Plaza] was long and silent, except for the news broadcasting on the car radio. All the way, we listened to unconfirmed reports that the president was dead. As soon as we walked in the house, we turned on the radio and listened while Mother made sandwiches for lunch. We soon heard the official report that President Kennedy was dead. All I could do was nibble on the sandwich set before me. Then my parents asked me if I wanted to return to school, which was the original plan. I had not considered not going back to school, so without giving it much thought, I decided to go back, and my parents let me. I probably shouldn’t have.

Back at school, I became confused. I checked in with the attendance office and went to class. Of course, no classes were actually in session. Dumbfounded students and teachers sat at their desks listening to the horrible news over the loud speakers in the classrooms. My friends knew I had gone to see the presidential motorcade, but no one knew I had been at the actual assassination site. The questions began. When I told them where I had been standing, looks of disbelief showed on their faces. It was hard for it to register with anyone that I…was a witness. More importantly, it had not registered with me either – until I began talking about it with the other students and noticed their reactions. My classmates didn’t dwell on it with me, and the teacher just looked at me helplessly. Someone asked why I had returned to school. I had no idea. Neither the kids nor the teachers knew what to say to me. I was totally lost and numb, but I made it through the rest of the day somehow….

On the day of the assassination, the local television and radio news broadcasts immediately began directing anyone who had taken any pictures at the assassination site to turn the negatives over to (I believe) The Dallas Morning News. Maybe The Dallas Morning News was not the only one asking this, but that is where Daddy dutifully hand delivered his undeveloped film. He submitted the undeveloped roll of film from his Yashica and the undeveloped reel of film from the movie camera, as requested…by the authorities. I did not go with him. He said he received a receipt for them, but I never saw it. Hindsight told Daddy and me that readily turning our pictures over to anyone was not a wise decision….A short time [after submitting the images to the authorities], Daddy began to worry that he might never see our film and negatives again, but we did. He said the authorities had possession of our film for several weeks. I cannot verify that, but I suspect he waited much longer than he should have waited for the materials to be returned to him….

There is no record of when the film and photos were finally returned to us by authorities. We loaded the film into the projector and anxiously watched the whole reel of home movies from the beginning, as we waited for the presidential motorcade segment to begin at the end of the reel. We were shocked when the film ran out and began slapping the projector at the end of the family home movies. We thought the JFK portion was gone forever, but it wasn’t. It was still there but detached at the end of the reel. Daddy spliced it back onto the rest of the film, and we watched it in agony. This was the very first time we saw what we had captured on film. Imagine today having to wait weeks (probably  months in this case) to view your video for the first time.

In my oral history at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in 2008 Tina Towner 2008 oral history, Stephen Fagin, who is now the curator of the museum, asked me if I ever get tired of talking about the JFK assassination. The answer is no, because I don’t actually talk about it very much. Sometimes years have gone by without anyone asking me about it. It is interesting that many people I have talked to over the years seem to believe I am not as affected by or as deeply involved in the event as they think I should be. However, I suspect that most of the eyewitnesses and eyewitness photographers that day feel the same way about it as I do.

[My book is available at The Towner Collection of film, photos, and cameras can be viewed on-line at Towner Collection at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.]

The Towners, Eyewitness Photographers at the JFK Assassination (Part 3)

Frame of my film, Elm Street toward triple underpass, immediately after the assassination, November 22, 1963

Continuing the JFK assassination theme, this is the third excerpt from my book, Tina Towner, My story as the youngest photographer at the Kennedy Assassination, which I self-published in November 2012:

Excerpt from Chapter 2, 1963 The President Comes to Dallas:

My first thought [after hearing the gunshots] was that someone was throwing firecrackers out of a building window. I wasn’t the only one who thought that. When I heard the first gunshot, there had been enough time for me to move back toward or onto the curb. I stopped and looked up at the buildings to see where the sounds were coming from. I didn’t see anything, but I didn’t know what I was looking for. I heard three gunshots, and sometime between the first and last, an unknown man grabbed my arm and pulled me to the ground. He held onto my arm until he though it was safe to get up. I wish I knew his identity….

Everything happened very fast. The aftermath was very confusing, but I was not afraid. I got up off the ground and connected with my parents. The three of us stood quietly together for a few seconds amid the sirens and chaos, as we looked down from the plaza toward the triple underpass. Daddy calmly stated that he knew exactly what had just happened – someone just tried to shoot the president with a high-powered rifle, which he recognized from his Army training. He remained extremely calm throughout the entire ordeal. We all three did….

Many people ran toward the grassy knoll and behind it where there were railroad tracks. Daddy took his camera and followed the crowd….When he finally returned, he brought with him a grim report.

Daddy took three more photographs while he was away from Mother and me, making a total of four color photos….He probably regretted not taking as many photos as possible, although I never heard him say so.

I do not remember whether Daddy asked me before he went down the hill or after he returned, but he calmly asked me if I had used up all of the film in the movie camera. I told him I had not yet heard the film clicking inside the camera, so he told me to keep filming and to pan slowly up and down Elm until I heard the film run out inside the camera. After I finished using up the rest of my film, I took my place beside Mother, and we patiently waited together as we watched the nightmare unfold around us.

[My book is available at The Towner Collection of film, photos, and cameras can be viewed on-line at Towner Collection at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.]

The Towners, Eyewitness Photographers at the JFK Assassination (Part 2)

As I continue to recognize the upcoming anniversary of the JFK assassination, the following is the second excerpt (of several) from my book, Tina Towner, My story as the youngest photographer at the Kennedy assassination.

Excerpt from Chapter 2, 1963 President Kennedy Comes to Dallas:

In October, 1963, Daddy read an article in the local newspaper reporting President Kennedy’s scheduled trip to Dallas in November. I don’t know if Daddy voted for Kennedy, but he seemed to like him OK, and I think he would have wanted to see the presidential motorcade, regardless of who the president was. I knew nothing about politics and only read the newspaper when required to by a teacher as a school assignment, but I did know who President Kennedy was….

I probably wasn’t as enthused about the president’s visit as my parents would have liked me to be, but a week or two before the president’s scheduled trip to Dallas, Daddy asked me if I wanted to get out of school to go with him and Mother to see the presidential motorcade. I jumped at the chance….

Prior to the scheduled motorcade, a public announcement indicated that going to see the presidential motorcade would be an excused absence from public school….I was in the eighth grade. My mother wrote an excuse for me to give to the school’s attendance office, and my parents picked me up from school around 9:30 or 10:00 a.m. I heard there were a few other students doing the same thing, but I didn’t know any of them by name….

Friday, November 22, 1963, was a pretty day. It was partly cloudy and cool. Some reports said it was a warm and sunny fall day, but it was cool enough for me to wear my blue sweater, which is visible in some photographs taken by other amateur photographers at the site. We drove from Oak Cliff across the Houston Street viaduct toward downtown Dallas, only six or seven miles from our house. Daddy had already decided where he wanted to go to watch the motorcade. He thought the best place would be at the end of the motorcade route, at or near the Elm and Houston intersection. He believed it would be less crowded there, parking would be free at the nearby Union Terminal, and we could walk to the site from our car. After turning the corner onto Elm from Houston and passing by the grassy knoll area, the motorcade would disappear under the triple underpass, enter Stemmons Freeway, and head toward its next stop at the Dallas Trade Mart for a luncheon where President Kennedy was scheduled to speak.

In 1963, Union Terminal was a very busy train terminal located where Union Station is today. We parked in a large parking lot on the west side of the terminal and walked through Union Terminal, which smelled heavily of exhaust fumes. We continued walking north on Houston to the corner of Houston and Elm. From our car, the walk through the parking lot and train terminal was at least a couple of blocks. It was then approximately another four blocks to Elm Street.

We arrived at our chosen spot early, around 11:00 a.m. The motorcade was scheduled to arrive around 12:30 p.m. Daddy said his first choice for a good vantage point was on Elm Street about halfway down the hill from Houston toward the triple underpass. He thought that location would allow us a clear view of Kennedy’s motorcade as it came down the hill from Houston, and he would have more time to focus the camera. However, I began to feel queasy standing in the sun, so we stayed up on the plaza where there was a little shade that Mother and I could sit in while we waited. We picked our spot on the corner; but Daddy still wanted to check out the area farther down the hill to make sure there wasn’t a better location for us. He decided we could stay where we were, and we planted ourselves on the southwest corner of Elm and Houston, directly across Elm from the Texas School Book Depository building. While we waited, Mother and I took turns sitting on a small, green, folding camping stool we brought with us for that purpose. Like most the men that day, Daddy was dressed in a suit and tie; Mother and I were each in a sweater and skirt, and I was wearing bobby sox and flats.

As we waited for the motorcade, I recall that Daddy looked up at the buildings on “our” corner and observed a number of people looking out of the windows. He commented that they really had birds’ eye views and specifically mentioned watching one woman lean out of the window in a building catercorner to the Texas School Book Depository building. In our oral history recorded by the Museum in March 1996, Daddy stated that most of the windows in the TSBD had the shades pulled down. He also stated, as he had stated several times over the years to family and friends, that he told a uniformed police officer standing next to him that he saw a man in a white coat standing in a sixth floor window. Several times over the decades, Daddy repeated that the police officer saw this person, too….

As the motorcade finally approached, Daddy, Mother, and I took positions next to each other on the corner around which the motorcade would turn. Daddy asked a uniformed police officer for permission to step off the curb (which has since been removed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act), and we stepped into the street….Standing to my left, almost elbow to elbow with me but a step behind, Daddy opened the viewfinder on the top of his Yashica camera, pushed the magnifier out of the way, held the camera up to his face, looked through the hole in the viewfinder, and captured one magnificent color photograph of the presidential limousine. At the same time, I took 8 mm movies with the Sears Tower Varizoom movie camera….I looked through the viewfinder, as Daddy taught me to do, and smoothly panned the camera in motion with the limousine, as it turned left onto Elm directly in front of and around me….

Because of the obtuse angle of the Houston and Elm corner, the presidential limo began to disappear down the hill into the crowd to my left. I continued filming until I could see only the back of the limousine. The meter on the movie camera was broken, which we were already aware of, and Daddy told me earlier that I would know when the film ran out when I heard the clicking sound of the film inside the camera. He knew before we left home that the reel of film in the movie camera was nearing the end; however, he was confident I would have plenty of film for what I needed. Under expected circumstances, this would have been true.

After the limo passed us by, bystanders on our corner began to move back up onto the curb, and many of them turned and started following the president’s limo down the hill. Both of my parents began to walk away from where I continued filming a few seconds longer….

I believe Daddy was about to head down the hill to get another photo, but there was not enough time before the first gunshot sounded – only a second or two, if that, after I stopped filming….

[My book is available at The Towner Collection of film, photos, and cameras can be viewed on-line at Towner Collection at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.]

The Towners, Eyewitness Photographers at the JFK Assassination (Part 1)

In recognition of the upcoming anniversary of the JFK assassination, the following is the first of what will be several blog posts containing excerpts from my book, Tina Towner, My story as the youngest photographer at the Kennedy assassination, which I began writing on December 26, 2009, and self-published in November 2012.

Excerpt from the Introduction:

On November 22, 1963, I was an eyewitness to the John F. Kennedy assassination. I stood with my parents James M. and Patricia D. Towner in Dealey Plaza on the southwest corner of Elm and Houston streets, directly across Elm Street from the Texas School Book Depository building. My parents were fifty years old. I was thirteen and, as far as I know, the youngest photographer at that tragic event.

At the site that day, my father took a total of four color transparencies using a Yashica 44 twin lens camera. At the same time he was photographing the presidential limousine, I was taking 8 mm color home movies with a Sears Tower Varizoom movie camera. Daddy taught me how to use the movie camera as soon as we got it, so I was experienced with handling it….The first of Daddy’s four photos is of the presidential limousine as it turned the corner around us. This remarkable historic photograph, originally a color image, is…prominently displayed in black and white in The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza….

In my presence, someone asked Gary Mack [deceased July 15, 2015], curator of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, what my story was, and he replied, “Tina’s story is that she doesn’t have one.” He put into words exactly how I felt….

In February 2015 I donated the Towner photographs, film, and both cameras to The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. Doing this was basically my hope since the museum opened its doors on Presidents Day in 1989. The late Gary Mack was the museum’s curator at the time of my donation; and he and the museum had been hoping quietly and patiently for years for me to make this decision, which I did only months before Gary died in 2015. The donation was finalized in February, and Gary was able to review, catalog, and make his Curator Notes on the Towner Collection before he passed away. The timing of how the donation process unfolded says to me that the donation was meant to be, and the materials are now where they were destined to be.

My book is available at, and the Towner Collection of film, photos, and cameras can be viewed on-line at Towner Collection at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.