Beyond the Lens
By Robert R. Rees,
CyberProfile Contributing Editor
irst Lady of Texas", Nellie Connally spoke about the JFK assassination. Charm, poise, and strength are traits that she shared in common with her late husband, John, the former Governor of Texas. To say that Mrs. Connally will never forget November 22, 1963 is to miss the point entirely. A new era of social upheaval was issued in the day President Kennedy was executed; and Nellie Connally's goal at this luncheon was to share her private memories of that special time in history from her own uniquely singular perspective.
John Connally began his autobiography with the story of the Kennedy assassination, as that's what most people always wanted to know about. Nellie Connally began her talk by referring to notes that she had taken back in 1963, after she had brought her husband home to their mansion from Parkland Hospital. Her account was originally kept as a record to share with her children and grandchildren, outlining her thoughts, feelings and role in this real-life tragedy.
"My notes lay dormant for over thirty years. I never thought of them again. I found them recently, and some historians have told me that they are a special part of Texas and United States history, and should be preserved forever. You hear many stories, but this is how it was during that terrible, unbelievable time in history," Mrs. Connally stated solemnly.
She left Austin at noon on Thursday, November 21, 1963. The Governor's wife was filled with excitement as she prepared to meet Mr. and Mrs. John F. Kennedy in San Antonio. There she joined her husband, John, Vice President Johnson, and Lady Bird Johnson in order to meet Air Force One when it touched down. Nellie wondered if her suit was all right, as she nervously clutched presents she had brought for the President and his First Lady. The door to the jet opened, and out stepped Jackie. She was dressed in white with black accessories; behind her was the President, "young, handsome, and tanned," Mrs. Connally recalled with pride. Next it was into the bubble-topped limousine, and off on their first motorcade in Texas. The masses were large and friendly along the route, and at Brooks Medical Center, where John F. Kennedy addressed an enthusiastic crowd.
After his talk, the Connallys rode with Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy. On their way to the airport, to board Houston-bound Air Force One, their limo was followed by a secret service car, which in turn was followed by Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. A dinner honoring Congressman Albert Thomas was next on the agenda in the Bayou City. The audience again was quite pleased with these special visitors from Washington, and showed their appreciation in no small measure. Following the supper, it was off on Air Force One again--this time to fly into Fort Worth. Even though it was 11:00 p.m., crowds lined the streets from Carswell Air Force Base to the Texas Hotel. The people standing in the dark hoped to catch a glimpse of the President and his beautiful young wife, as they motored to their hotel where they would spend the night--JFK's last.
Nellie Connally recalled, "I awakened early on Friday morning, November 22, 1963. The day was gray and somber. Rain was falling. I had a white suit to wear that day with black accessories. I was glad I hadn't worn it the day before, or Jackie and I would have looked like twins. I had a two-piece pink wool with me, and decided since the weather was so bad...I'd wear it instead of white." A large crowd of nearly three thousand awaited the politicos for a breakfast speech. "The President had a conversation with Senator Ralph Yarborough. There were grumblings from the Vice President and insults from Senator Yarborough." Mrs. Connally could sense that something negative was brewing. Mrs. Kennedy was the last one to make an entrance to the breakfast, and she did it in a two-piece pink wool suit! "I had guessed wrong in wearing pink. I never would have, if I had known. The crowd loved it," Nellie remembered with a broad smile. The President gave a great speech in Fort Worth, and then it was out to the cars once more. This ride put the Governor's wife in the car with the Johnsons, since the bubble-top car was not used in Fort Worth, and only three could sit in the backseat. Senator Yarborough twice told the Vice President that he would not ride in the same car with him. The President declared flatly, "You will ride with LBJ or not ride." Therefore, Yarborough was in the automobile with the Connallys. Nellie rode in the front part of the limo, with the Secret Service men, on the way to the Fort Worth airport. They were headed to Dallas for a luncheon at the Trade Mart, then off to Austin for a reception at the Governor's Mansion." I'd been planning and working on this for days. I thought I had everything arranged--even down to what the children would wear. But what hostess doesn't have a qualm or two when she's going to entertain a President and his First Lady?" Mrs. Connally silently fretted.
"I asked John if I could ride with him in Dallas, and his reply was 'certainly'" she recalled, with some uneasiness. The weather was pretty. The bubbletop was not used." We got in the jumpseats right behind the driver and secret service man in the front. I was on the driver's side. Mrs. Kennedy was behind me. The President sat directly behind John. We were a happy foursome. I had my yellow roses; Jackie had red ones." Nellie was very pleased by the positive responses she noticed all around them, as the motorcade proceeded on its route.
She turned to the President as the formation of cars turned onto Elm Street and said, "Mr. President, you certainly cannot say that Dallas does not love you." He smiled and then there was a loud, terrifying noise. "It came from the back," she continued, "I turned and looked toward the President--just in time to see his hands fly up to his neck. He sank down in his seat. There was no utterance of any kind. There was no grimace. I had no sure knowledge as to what the noise was. I felt it was a gunshot, and I had the horrifying feeling that the President could be dead. Quickly, there was a second shot. John had turned to the right to look back, and had whirled to the left to get another look to see if he could see the President...he couldn't." The Governor realized what had occurred and said, "No! No! No!" Connally was hit himself by the second shot and yelled, "My God, they are going to kill us all!" He was wheeled back to the right and down to his knees. Nellie tried to pull the two of them down to the floor of the car. Then came a third shot. "With John in my arms, and still trying to stay down, I did not see the third shot hit," Mrs. Connally went on, "but, I felt something falling all over me. My sensation was of spent buckshot. My eyes saw bloody matter in tiny bits all over the car." John Connally was bleeding badly and was motionless.
"I thought my husband was dead," Mrs. Connally stated somberly. From behind her came Jackie's tortured wail, "Jack! Jack! They've killed my husband! I have his brains in my hands!" The Secret Service man yelled for the driver to pull out of the motorcade. On his radio phone he related to the motorcyclists to head to the nearest hospital. "We pulled out of line at a terrific speed," Mrs. Connally recollected. "John moved slightly. I knew he was still alive. I whispered in his ear,' It's all right. Be still.' over and over again. I never looked back after John was shot. I saw the crowds on the right side of the road streaking past. I couldn't help but think what an awful sight to see two women holding their lifeless husbands in their arms, streaking down a roadway in utter horror and disbelief." She didn't know that Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy were on the floor of the limousine, with a Secret Service man on top of them, all the way to Parkland Hospital.
Almost instantly they arrived at the hospital as the car screeched to a stop. Secret service men swarmed. Naturally, most of the attention was being paid to Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy. "No one was taking John out of the car. I knew in my heart the President was dead. I wondered how long I must wait before I could insist that someone tend to my dying husband," she said. Just then Connally heaved himself up and out of Nellie's arms, and fell over towards the door. A kind, thoughtful man picked the Governor up, and put him on a stretcher bound for a nearby corridor.
"I ran along the stretcher. What I was running from or running to I did not know, but run I must--that much I knew," she declared. "It hurts. It hurts," groaned the ailing Governor as he was wheeled to a small emergency room. Nellie added, "They left me standing as alone as I've ever been outside a closed door." President Kennedy was wheeled into the room to the right of Connally in a midst of confusion, and a bustle of people. Two straight back chairs were brought out for Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Connally to remain in like vigilant sentinels, stationed just outside the emergency rooms' doors. Someone from the hospital's personnel asked Mrs. Connally to go to the office, and fill out some forms on the Governor. Dumbfounded and nonplussed, Nellie remained in her assigned chair, shocked by the remark she found so incongruous.
Dallas's Mayor Cabell appeared and offered assistance. Mrs. Connally was grateful for a friend during this seemingly surrealistic tragic day. Speaking of friends, Bill Stenson, John's assistant on the tour, arrived at Emergency Room No. 2. "I saw John--pale, but moving on the table," she remembered. Mr. Stenson told Mrs. Connally, "John just said, 'Please take care of Nellie.'" "Could anything nicer happen to a wife, than to have her husband--in that pathetic, shot-up, half-conscience state--think of HER concerns and welfare? I thought, he is a remarkable and so very wonderful man. His one statement would sustain me now, and could, if need be, comfort me forever," she decided.
The Governor's wife wondered to herself, "Did they have adequate and good doctors attending to John? Or, were they all across the way in Emergency Room No. 1 with the President?" Suddenly the Governor's body was wheeled out of emergency and into surgery. The waiting was interminable. However, reassuring information was soon to be forthcoming. "My husband...would live," she sighed with relief. Relatives soon joined Nellie at the hospital. But, Mrs. Connally worried about her smaller children, and what they might think or hear. Nellie wanted them to be called in Austin and told that John Connally, their father, was alive. "I knew that the assassination of a President, and the ascension of a new president, might leave the news of a wounded Governor little air time." She was correct.
Media reported mistakenly, "For Connally--three wounds in the head. Several chest wounds. The Governor is dead." Some of the Connally family set up their headquarters, naturally, at their Austin mansion. Meanwhile, out of surgery--John went into the recovery room. The whole of Parkland was under strict security, with armed guards plainly visible along the corridors. Tubes, a sling, an oxygen mask...Connally was a very sick man. Nellie recalled, "I kissed him on the cheek and spoke quietly and briefly. This was a moment of real meaning for John and for me. We had experienced such a terrible tragedy. We were so glad to be alive, to have each other, to have been spared...for what reason we did not know. Even in this severe state of shock, we knew that for this one precious moment how lucky we were," Mrs. Connally remembered.
As soon as John started to rally, he introduced Nellie to the personnel surrounding him. Naturally, his first question pertained to the health of the President. Connally's doctors decided not to tell him on November 22 or 23. Saturday morning, the 24th, when John inquired again, Nellie said gently, "The President is dead." Softly, sadly, the Governor said simply, "I knew." Long days followed, and the nightmare of the accident kept coming back over and over again to the Connallys. "It was all I thought about. All I talked about. What if? Why? Why?" Mrs. Connally pondered. The hospital staff could not have been nicer, when the Governor's office was set up in their confines, Nellie recalled.
While the Governor was still in the recovery room, Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. They brought Oswald to the very same hospital where, Mrs. Connally related, "MY husband was slowly recovering from the gunshot wound that Oswald have given him!" Very shortly it was announced that Oswald was dead.
"I had no doubts about John's doctors anymore. I knew that he had the best doctors anywhere. They have my devotion always," she said. The Governor's wife wasn't distraught or hysterical. "I didn't cry, or scream, or sob. I was scared. I was cautious and I became suspicious." Mrs. Connally was asked to give a statement to the media.
For the television cameras Nellie Connally read from her prepared statement. It was more difficult for her to do than she had anticipated. Nellie wanted audiences the world over to know how well the Kennedys had been received in Dallas. After all, the media had quickly dubbed Dallas, "The City of Hate." She felt the city had taken too much abuse, as regards the issue of the JFK assassination. All of Dallas was not responsible for the Presidential tragedy. "After my speech I went straight back to John's room, to make sure that he was all right...and that's where my notes end."
You can email Robert Rees at
Katy, TX USA.
Also visit his web site at web.Lconn.com/mysterease.
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