by Martie Cenkci
Southwestern Division Public Affairs
DALLAS—A half century came full circle on Nov. 22, when the City of Dallas held a ceremony at Dealey Plaza marking the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The crowd of 5000 invited guests, almost 1000 news media, and members of the public withstood bitterly cold and damp weather to watch an abbreviated ceremony that included the unveiling of a new monument at the “Grassy Knoll.” The monument included words from President Kennedy’s undelivered address at the Dallas Trade Mart, his destination on Nov. 22 when he was shot and killed by an assassin while he rode in a motorcade on Elm Street in downtown Dallas.
Hosting the ceremony was Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, who said, “It seems we all grew up that day, city and citizens, and suddenly, we had to step up and try to live up to the visions of our beloved president.”
Rawlings called for a moment of silence at 12:30 p.m., the time the shots rang out from the Texas School Book Depository on Nov. 22, 1963. The thousands of people gathered this year fell silent. The only movement during that time came from the freezing drizzle that sprinkled the crowds and the fluid movement of four birds that flew patterns in the sky and landed atop the Texas School Book Depository. The weather was a stark contrast to the weather of 50 years ago, when a sunny and balmy November day prompted officials to remove the clear “bubble” protection from the Presidential limousine.
There were familiar faces, well-known reporters and a few of those—much older now—who appeared in some historic photos of that time. Because the setting itself seemed frozen, both in time and in weather, there were also vivid contrasts: In one area of the media risers, an Al Jazeera reporter was giving his on camera stand-up, in another, a Reuters reporter pulled a clear plastic poncho over his laptop to file a story on the spot. Photos were flying on smart phones. All of this technology made Dealey Plaza, so unchanged from Nov. 22, 1963, seem like a movie stage setting from long ago.
Historian David McCullough was the keynote speaker, and his remark that President Kennedy “was ambitious to make it a better world — and so were we” touched a chord with many of those at the event who were of that generation.
“He spoke to the point and with confidence," McCullough said. "He knew words matter. His words changed lives. His words changed history. And rarely has a commander in chief addressed the nation with such command of language."
President Kennedy’s command of the language was legendary, and the leadership that he provided during his short 1000 days lay the groundwork for much of the infrastructure that the Army Corps of Engineers built for the region and the nation a half century ago. The Corps’ Southwestern Division priorities still track with some of the biggest efforts of the Kennedy years: 25 new reservoirs in the SWD region alone from 1060-1965, reflecting the importance of multipurpose reservoirs; projects to preserve and protect the vital Texas coast; and begun in 1963, construction on a system of channels and locks to connect the many reservoirs along the length of the Arkansas River—later to become the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System.
The words that President Kennedy was scheduled to deliver at the Dallas Trade Mart, now carved into the monument on the Grassy Knoll, are these:
"We in this country, in this generation, are—by destiny rather than choice—the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of "peace on earth, good will toward men." That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago, "except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain."
Fifty years later, his words still ring true, as the Army Corps of Engineers continues his legacy of Building Strong for America.