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 Amazon.com. The Towner Collection of film, photos, and cameras can be viewed on-line at Towner Collection at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.]