Tribune Print Share Text

The day JFK died: The White House curator remembers

Created date

June 23rd, 2010
Ketchum-JFK Jr
Ketchum-JFK Jr

White House Curator James Ketchum had the holy grail of museum jobs. From 1963 to 1969, he served three presidents and managed a priceless collection of artifacts that told the story of the world s best-known house and the families that lived there. But of all the memories he made during his tenure in the Executive Mansion, the saddest one remains most vivid in his mind today. November 22, 1963, ' was an ordinary Friday ' for Ketchum. He arrived at the White House around 8 a.m., checked his mail, and then went about tackling the day s schedule. Normally, this included a meeting with either the president or the first lady, but today both were in Texas to shore up Democratic support and test the political waters in a region with rough currents. Still, with defeat in the next election always a possibility, Kennedy decided to get a head start on plans for his presidential library, which would house a replica of the Oval Office during his administration. That morning, Ketchum ' met with consultants from the Smithsonian to discuss a reproduction of the president s Resolute desk the centerpiece of this display. After I met with the folks from the Smithsonian, I went back to my office across from the Diplomatic Reception Room to do some paperwork, he recalls. A little after 1 o clock, a White House policeman poked his head in the doorway and said that there had been some kind of accident in Dallas. Ketchum and his staff ' quickly scrambled for the nearest television in one of the third-floor guest rooms, where they ' tuned into CBS just ' 10 minutes into a live broadcast of As the World Turns. ' Speaking on camera was ' a primly dressed woman holding a coffee cup with a dainty, two-fingered pinch. ". . . I thought about it, and I gave it a great deal of thought, Grandpa . . . Suddenly, the familiar baritone of Walter Cronkite s voice cut her off mid sentence. Here is a bulletin from CBS News, he announced over a black screen with CBS NEWS BULLETIN in bold typeface. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade . . . More details just arrived . . . President Kennedy shot today just as his motorcade left downtown Dallas . . . United Press says that the wounds for President Kennedy perhaps could be fatal. Repeating, a bulletin from CBS News, President Kennedy has been shot . . . Cronkite s report blazed over the airwaves and left Americans watching in living rooms, appliance stores, and the guest quarters of the White House in complete disbelief. The rest of the afternoon ' was a blur for Ketchum, who says his next memory is of standing on the South Lawn at dusk looking up at a line of helicopters silhouetted like dragonflies against the Washington sky. They all hovered over the capital, waiting to land on the White House grounds and discharge their passengers, he remembers. It had the same eerie sense of foreboding as a scene from Apocalypse Now. Soon after, the first lady sent word giving Ketchum grim instructions that no White House curator ever wants to hear. The president s body would lay in repose in the East Room, ' and she wanted ' it decorated just as it ' had been ' for Abraham Lincoln, who fell to an assassin s bullet 98 years before. Ketchum and his team set to work, consulting books and prints in search of any information they could gather on the East Room s appearance during the Lincoln mourning period. Mrs. Kennedy finally returned to the White House around 2 a.m. still dressed in the pink Chanel suit she wore in Dallas. Before retiring to the private residence, she stopped by the East Room to check on Ketchum and his colleagues as they busily draped the room s windows and chandeliers in black. In fact, Ketchum didn t get home to his Arlington, Va., apartment until Sunday afternoon, when the terrible 48-hour stretch ended in much the same way that ' it began. I remember my wife asking what she could fix me to eat, and all I wanted was soup, he recalls. After I ate, I went into our bedroom, turned on the television, and Jack Ruby comes out of the shadows and kills Oswald." He pauses in reflection. There are ' so many stories from my days in the White House. I wish this wasn t one of them.

Editor s note:

To see Ward Warren s original footage,click here.

Comments