A Kennedy white house usher looks back on JFK’s death
This month marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy‘s assassination—an event that shook a nation and whose effects are still felt today. In a new book, November 22, 1963: Reflections On The Life, Assassination, And Legacy Of John F. Kennedy, journalist Dean R. Owen collects more than 100 remembrances of JFK and that fateful day. The contributors include the Secret Service agent who tried to shield the president; his nephew, Robert F. Kennedy; Tom Brokaw; and the priest who gave JFK his last rites.
We’re publishing a series of these reflections in the weeks leading up to Nov. 22. The third, from Nelson C. Pierce, who worked as a White House usher during Kennedy’s term, is below.
I took the call from Texas that the president’s death was official. So I called the engineers and had them lower the flag at half-staff at the White House. And I called the General Services Administration Control Center which notified all the embassies and all the ships at sea… Basically, when the president’s body arrived at Andrews and went to Bethesda Naval Hospital, they said the casket probably would arrive at the White House around ten o’clock (that evening). But that didn’t happen. They called back, and said it would be longer. And it was. It was about 4:20 am when he arrived at the White House.
The first lady and Bobby Kennedy came in together and went to the East Room to open the casket. I was still in the office. When I heard they were coming down the hall, my doormen were busy with other members of the party. I locked the elevator and I wondered what I would say to the first lady. As she came around the corner and, of course, she was still in her pink suit with blood stains, and I knew immediately. Our eyes met. And we had a rapport and I knew that I didn’t need to say a thing. She realized how I felt.
President Kennedy was a wonderful person. The first time I announced him, he turned to me and mouthed the words, “Thank you.” That made me feel better, but I got back in the office and my knees were still shaking.
I’m asked time after time after time, “Who was your favorite?” I didn’t have a favorite. I worked for the President of the United States, regardless of party affiliation. It was thrilling to work for six presidents. That’s how I describe it: You have six friends. You like them all equally.