A piercing screech filled the air, a sound like he had never heard. He stopped. The 16-year-old steered the car toward the only available patch of grass.
“I don’t think I had asked if I should turn there or not, but just as I approached the intersection there was this screaming, screeching sound. I had never heard anything like it in my life and I just kind of froze,” said Dr. Gerald Stanglin, KC vice president of instruction. “I looked ahead and didn’t see anything and I looked in the mirror and didn’t see anything. I knew something was right on top of me so I pulled the car up on that grassy triangle. The screech was motorcycle sirens. I had never heard motorcycle sirens.”
On Nov. 22, 1963, Stanglin witnessed the aftermath of one of the most tragic events in U.S. history, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
“That whole time has had a very profound effect on me. It just seems like the world really changed at that time,” Stanglin said. “I’m having a hard time figuring out if it’s because I was growing up or because the world really did change about that time or what. It’s just a part of my life; it’s a part of who I am.”
Earlier that day, Stanglin along with his mother, younger sister, aunt and cousin found themselves among a sea of Texans all vying for an opportunity to greet Kennedy and first lady Jackie Kennedy as they disembarked from Air Force One at Love Field Airport in Dallas.
“The best way I can describe it is if you’ve ever been in the ocean and you’ve gotten up to about your neck and when the water moves you just kind of go with it regardless of where it was. The crowd just started surging toward the fence. I had my 11-year-old sister with my right hand holding her left and I realized that she was going to get trampled so I was really holding onto her. Finally she yelled at me and says, “Mother’s got my other hand.’ because we were about to pull her in two. And as they walked down the fence, I tried to get closer but the wedge of people going in was such that I ended up getting farther away. That’s when the picture was taken, right when they’re [Kennedy and Jackie] up there by the fence.”
As the crowd dispersed, Stanglin filed in behind the driver’s seat and with his family, hurried to try to get to the Trade Mart where Kennedy was scheduled to have lunch with some of the city’s leaders. Minutes later, parked at the intersection of Harry Hines Blvd. and what is now Market Center, they could do nothing but stare as the president’s motorcade rushed by, lost as to what was happening.
“The whole motorcade went right in front of us on the way to the hospital. She [Jackie] was bent down and all I could see was the back of her dress and I think just barely her hat,” Stanglin said. “The first thing I thought of was they’ve had an emergency and they’ve got to get back to Washington. They were driving very, very fast in a convertible so that’s why everyone was down. That was my thinking. So we just sat there.”
Following the motorcade was the radio station, K-BOX 1480 AM, in a mobile news unit. Confused, the family tuned in to the car radio looking for some kind of information as to why the motorcade had sped away. As the radio announcements began coming in saying that shots had been fired at the president’s motorcade, Stanglin made a U-turn in an attempt to follow the motorcade to Parkland Hospital.
“A police officer was talking to a woman in the car right ahead of me and he said, ‘No you can’t turn here. The president’s been shot.’ I was like ‘Oh my goodness,’” Stanglin said. “I drove on down and tried to find a way to get into the hospital and ended up behind a building in a blind alley. We finally just gave up. We started leaving, just dumbfounded. We couldn’t believe it.”
Unable to gain access to the hospital, they stopped to eat at a local drive-in on their way home, all the while listening to the radio announcements in an attempt to keep up with the latest news.
“The information over the radio started getting worse and worse and worse. We heard that a priest had been called in, that there was talk that they had administered the last rights but there was no confirmation that he was dead. And then as we were sitting there, not quite through, they announced the president of the United States was dead,” Stanglin said. “We were just in an absolute stupor. What do you do? What do you say? I don’t remember anything more past hearing that in the car and we drove home, just in disbelief.”
A high school junior at the time, attending Dallas Christian School, Stanglin never thought to return to school after hearing the news of the president’s death.
“The teacher, about a week before, said that he was tired of students skipping his class so if you skipped his class for an unexcused reason, you got a zero that day for a daily grade. I never, I mean I never missed school unless I was sick or there was some kind of emergency,” Stanglin said. “So after the president was shot I never even thought about it. I think they went ahead and cancelled school about 2 or 2:30 but they had told us [earlier] we had to be back by 1:30 and I fully intended to but I was just in shock.”
The days that followed the Kennedy assassination were what came to be known as “TV’s finest four days.” The nation was transfixed with the news coverage of Kennedy’s death and the events that followed. Stanglin and his family were no exception.
“I remember going with Mother to the local grocery store and hearing about the plane flying to Washington, D.C., with the president’s body onboard,” Stanglin said. “And I remember just looking up and visualizing that and just feeling cold, clear through and through to my bones. I still remember how it felt. And all that week, everybody was just somber and wasn’t much of anything to say or do. “
Stanglin and his family became a part of that fateful day. They played a role, however small, in a major American transformation.
“I got a zero in American history that day. I still have the report card in which I got a B+ instead of an A for those six weeks. I was witnessing one of the maybe four or five major events in American history that day and I got a zero,” Stanglin said. “But it doesn’t bother me; I’ve gotten over it. In the years since I’ve just kind of smiled and thought, ‘How ridiculous is that?’”