By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
The weather is inching toward crispness, but it’s not there yet when Hugh Aynesworth steps into Dallas’ Dealey Plaza under a bland autumn sun.
He is on familiar turf, this man who always will wear a triple badge of proximity as the lone reporter to witness the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, the arrest of alleged gunman Lee Harvey Oswald, and Jack Ruby’s fatal shooting of Oswald.
It is coming up on 50 years since Aynesworth, 82, served as an investigative reporter specializing in science and the aerospace industry at The Dallas Morning News.
And now he again enters the time tunnel that always leads to the intersection of Elm and Houston Streets.
“It was a very emotional day, of course,” he says as he points toward the spot where he stood in a crowd awaiting the presidential motorcade. “Sometimes I dream about it, maybe four or five times a year. I’ll think I hear shots.”
Fifty years later, a stream of traffic prevents him from standing on the precise spot where he stood during that fateful Friday lunch hour.
If it wearies him to point out the spot over and over again, he hides it well.
But there it is, the place on the pavement where he stood for the last good part of a day that never really ended for him.He had not been assigned to cover JFK’s visit, but Aynesworth wanted to catch a glimpse of the vibrant president.
Aynesworth took the short walk from The Dallas Morning News building to join the crowds that lined the motorcade route.
“It was a special, special day,” says Aynesworth, who details the assassination and its aftermath in his latest book, “Nov 22, 1963: Witness to History.”
“The crowds were seven, eight, 10-deep in some places. That day was exciting because Kennedy was so well-received and [First Lady] Jackie just wowed the crowd.”
History’s pivotal seconds
Just before 12:30 p.m., the limousine carrying JFK entered Dealey Plaza, the vehicle having turned onto Houston Street. Ahead loomed the Texas School Book Depository.
Aynesworth was standing about eight feet from the passing limousine.
“A few seconds later, I heard what I thought was a motorcycle backfiring,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do. I probably wanted to run, but I didn’t know where.”
That first shot occurred after JFK had started to wave with his right hand, witnesses said.
Two more shots followed. The fatal bullet struck JFK in the head.
“Some people were covering their children,” Aynesworth says. “One woman threw up right behind me.”
As panic swept Dealey Plaza, Aynesworth caught sight of a man gesturing frantically and pointing to a window. The man turned out to be a witness of the person later identified as Oswald in a sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository.
The witness, a steamfitter carrying his hardhat, provided a fairly accurate description of Oswald for an all-points bulletin.
“We didn’t know who was shooting,” Aynesworth says. “It was a scary time.
“At some point, the journalistic thing came out with me.”
Reporters in 1963 lacked contemporary technology such as mobile phones, tablets and Twitter accounts. Aynesworth called on his instincts; experience; ingenuity, and contacts, not to mention old-fashioned shoe leather.
When he found himself with nothing to write on and nothing to write with, he grabbed a utility bill from his pocket and wheedled a novelty pencil from a small child in exchange for a few quarters.
Aynesworth conducted a few quick interviews with people who had witnessed Oswald–a former U.S. Marine who had tried to defect to the Soviet Union when he was 20—in the Texas School Book Depository window.
Aynesworth’s habit of trying to be within earshot of a motorcycle police radio allowed him to hear that Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit had been shot in Oak Cliff at about 1:15 p.m.
The murders of JFK and of the policeman had to be connected, Aynesworth figured.
He rode with a Channel 8 crew to the Oak Cliff murder scene, where shaken witnesses told him what they had observed of the police officer’s death.
When Oswald was spotted near the Texas Theater, Aynesworth overheard that information and made it to the theater shortly after the first police car had arrived.
The capture of Oswald in the theater resembled a cartoon dust-up, Aynesworth says.
“It was almost like a comic-strip deal where you have a leg going this way and a leg going that way,” he says. “They got Oswald quickly.”
Aynesworth spent the rest of the afternoon visiting area residences of Oswald—who was arraigned that evening for the murder of Officer Tippit.
Aynesworth returned to the newsroom to write the fruits of his reporting. Reporters forwarded the news they had gathered to a central writer, Paul Crume, a legendary columnist.
Later that evening, an editor assigned Aynesworth to write about fallen Officer Tippit and his grieving family. Having “fed” all his other reporting to Crume, the Tippit story was the only one on which Aynesworth’s byline appeared—with his name misspelled, he says with a laugh.
Early on Nov. 23, 1963, Oswald was arraigned for JFK’s murder.
Aynesworth embarked with a colleague on a minute-by-minute reconstruction of Oswald’s escape route from the book depository. Aynesworth was intrigued by Oswald’s ability to escape his sniper pit, make it to Oak Cliff and kill a policeman in less than an hour.
The painstakingly detailed story ran five days later and remains among Aynesworth’s most satisfying reporting contributions of the first days after the assassination.
On Sunday morning, Nov. 24, 1963, Aynesworth learned that officials had not yet transferred Oswald from the city jail to the county jail. Aynesworth left his home without having breakfast or shaving to race to the city jail at Dallas City Hall.
Reporters from all over the world had arrived in Dallas, creating a circus of commotion.
“It was just total chaos,” Aynesworth says. “Then I heard this ‘pop’ as Oswald came out. It sounded like a pop-gun.”
It was 11:21 a.m. when Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner and inveterate busybody, fatally shot Oswald two days after JFK’s death.
“It was non-stop all weekend,” Aynesworth says. “It’s not that fresh now. It’s not constant.
But sounds and sights do bring it back, when I’m at the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza and hear recordings of some of the reporting from those days.”
In addition to his journalistic leadership positions, books and projects, Aynesworth has covered and dismantled many conspiracy theories about the assassination.
He says that conspiracy theorists’ evidence so far has failed to prove that anyone other than Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated JFK.
Aynesworth, a four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, says that the conspiracy theories gained followers because of people’s resistance to the notion that Oswald and Ruby acted without some sort of organized effort abetting them.
“Who wanted to admit that two nothings, two nobodies, could change the course of history?” Aynesworth says. “I’ve had five people confess to me that they were involved. I’ve run down dozens of conspiracies. They all made it up.”
Some of the most familiar conspiracy theories proposed that JFK’s assassination was the work of: Communists in conjunction with Oswald, based on his apparent affinities for Soviet and Cuban ideologies; the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover; Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson; the U.S. Secret Service; anti-Castro Cubans; right-wing extremists; organized crime, or the CIA. Other theories link the assassination to the KGB or UFOs.
Ursuline Academy history teacher Michele Santosuosso, who teaches an elective class called “Beyond JFK: The World’s Greatest Conspiracy Theories,” said that conspiracy theories resonate with people after profound tragedies.
“They help people cope with a tragedy, especially a catastrophic tragedy,” she said. “People want somebody out there that they can blame. It’s kind of become part of American culture for people to ask, ‘Is something being covered up? What are the unanswered questions?’ ”
A question that no one can answer recurs as Aynesworth reflects on the past 50 years.
“I think about what it would have been like if Mr. Kennedy had lived,” Aynesworth says. “Our country would have been a different nation, I’m not sure how, but it would have been different.”