STEUBENVILLE -Carla Bezak started crying when retired Secret Service Agent Clint Hill began to recite the details about the final hours of the life of President John F. Kennedy.
"I can remember sitting in my eighth-grade class and the shooting was announced over the public address system. I cried then and tonight brought it all back to me as I listened to Mr. Hill describe those moments in Dallas. I can clearly remember going home and sitting with my parents while we watched everything on TV for the next four days," said the Steubenville woman.
Hill and journalist Lisa McCubbin were joined by nearly 1,000 people Wednesday night for the inaugural lecture in the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce Lecture and Concert Series for a discussion on Hill's four- year assignment to protect first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
SHARING MEMORIES — Retired U.S. Marshal John Chernenko of Wellsburg shared memories of working for the Kennedy administration in the early 1960s with retired Secret Service Agent Clint Hill. Hill and journalist Lisa McCubbin spoke Wednesday evening at Steubenville High School during the initial lecture of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce Lecture and Concert Series. -- Dave Gossett
The event, which was held in the Steubenville High School auditorium, was sponsored by the chamber; the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times; Eastern Gateway Community College; and the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Also supporting the event were Bayberry Bed and Breakfast, Apollo Pro Cleaning, Piergallini Catering, Steubenville City Schools, Thrifty Car Rental, D'Anniballe and Co. CPAs and McCauslen's Florist.
The lecture featured McCubbin asking Hill questions and Hill vividly recalling details of the Kennedy family that were at times funny, moving and, finally, very sad.
Hill described his initial reluctance to accept the assignment to provide protection for the first lady.
"I had worked on President Eisenhower's detail and remembered Mrs. Eisenhower going to tea parties and fashion shows. When Mrs. Kennedy returned to her home in Georgetown following the 1960 election, I went to meet her. She didn't want me there because she didn't want someone looking over her shoulder and I didn't want to be there. But eventually we became very close friends," related Hill.
He went on to discuss Mrs. Kennedy's decision to rent a farm in Virginia where she could go horseback riding with her children, Caroline and John.
"Do you see that white building? Those were the stables. The horses were on the first floor and the agents were on the second floor," he chuckled.
The talk was interspersed with black-and-white photos and videos including a short clip of Hill walking on the beach with young John Kennedy.
"But, he soon wanted to go back to the boat to see his mom and dad. That was my day ... taking the kids to the boat and back to the shore and back to the beach. It was every day when the Kennedys were vacationing," he said.
Hill also discussed Mrs. Kennedy's frequent overseas trips including a 10-day visit to India and Pakistan.
"The president of Pakistan wanted to present her with a horse, and you can see the smile on her face. But all I was thinking about was how was I going to get the horse and two tiger cubs from India back to the United States. We then went to visit the Khyber Pass but had to pass through an area controlled by tribal chiefs who wanted to pay tribute to the first lady. And they wanted to sacrifice a lamb in her honor. I told them to take the lamb behind the tent and do whatever they wanted to do with it, but don't do it in front of Mrs. Kennedy," recalled Hill.
As he continued to share stories of his job and the Kennedys' life the mood in the room became more somber.
"She decided to help her husband's bid for re-election in 1964. And as you can see in these photos everywhere they went the crowds would be in the streets and hanging out of nearby building windows. Everyone wanted to touch the president and be near him as he traveled through a city in an open car. That was typical wherever we went," Hill explained.
"We started planning the campaign trip to Texas that included five cities. On Nov. 21, we arrived in San Antonio and then to Houston for a fundraiser for a congressman. We then flew to Fort Worth to spend the night. At 8 a.m. the next day the president gave a speech in a light rain outside of the hotel and in the photo you can see approximately 5,000 people gathered in the street and open windows in nearby buildings. You have to remember this was before air conditioning was common and windows were often opened for fresh air," Hill said.
"We then flew to Dallas and put the president and first lady in the limousine with (then-Texas Gov. and Mrs.) John Connally. The crowds along the streets began to build and build until they were actually standing in the street," he continued.
"The cars made the sharp left turn onto Elm Street to approach the underpass. We had gone about 100 feet when I heard a loud explosive noise. My vision went toward the noise behind me and that's when I saw the president grab his throat. I ran toward his car and never heard the second shot. I then saw him fall over into Mrs. Kennedy's lap," stated Hill.
"When we got to Parkland Hospital, Mrs. Kennedy wouldn't let us take the president of the car. Then I realized she didn't want anyone to see the condition he was in. So I took off my suit coat and covered his head and back and she let us take him out of the car and put him on a gurney," recited Hill to a silent audience.
"I was asked to call the White House to tell them what was happening. I was talking to my supervisor when the operator broke in to say the attorney general wanted to speak to me. That's when the president's brother, Robert Kennedy, came on the line and asked what had happened. I couldn't tell him his brother was dead so I simply said it is as bad as it can be," explained Hill.
Hill said the funeral procession to Arlington National Cemetery was completely silent. Normally the motorcade would have cheering crowds and flags waving. But the only sound that day was the drums and the clop, clop, clop of the horses pulling the wagon carrying the casket. The entire world stopped for those four days in November."
Hill would serve on the protective detail for another year before being assigned to other duties.
"But she remained my friend," he said to a standing applause from the audience.
Ann Koon, director of public information at Eastern Gateway Community College, thanked Hill for writing the book, 'Mrs. Kennedy and Me', "because he caught a piece of history."
"I thought tonight was wonderful because we have his perspective on that part of history. His memory is still very remarkable and we were fortunate to have Agent Hill share his story with us. You could feel the pulse in the room when he started talking about Texas. You know what is coming and I think everyone dreaded hearing about that day. But it was unique hearing about the day from his perspective," said Koon.
"I thought it was good to hear from someone who was there. We have read about President Kennedy and the assassination in class but he was there and talked about it," noted Steubenville High School senior Ryan Ledakis.
"I thought our first lecture was fantastic. Tonight was touching and sad. And at times we literally held our breath," said Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce President Sue Hershey. People are already asking who our next speaker will be in the spring."
(Gossett can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)