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Nov. 20, 2013

Douglas B. Roberts: A Son's Remembrance

Nov. 20, 2013

Douglas B. Roberts is the director of MSU's Institute for Public Policy and Social Research and an expert in state and national elections and politics; the economy; tax policy; K-12 and higher education financing; and political strategy. Previously, Roberts served as State of Michigan treasurer, director of the Senate Fiscal Agency, deputy superintendent of the Michigan Department of Education and deputy director of the state Department of Management and Budget.

Nov. 22, 2013, commemorates the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

It is appropriate that those of us with a personal connection to that awful day in Dallas share what we can remember.

The day the president was shot, I was 16 years old and an 11th grader at Wheaton High School, in Montgomery County, Md.

People didn’t have cell phones or the Internet then so it was possible for school authorities to withhold the desperate news until they were ready to release it. School leaders knew that as soon as they announced the events in Dallas that there would be pandemonium.

It was the beginning of sixth period, chemistry class for me and the last class of the day, when the high school principal made the announcement that jolted me out of my seat: President Kennedy had been killed. Texas Gov. John Connally had been wounded. A U.S. Secret Service agent had been killed.

I was on my feet and out of the classroom as soon as I heard those words. I raced down the hall to the nearest pay telephone and dialed my mother. “Is Dad okay?” I asked.

My mother never hesitated. “He’s fine,” she told me. “Your father is fine.”

Emory RobertsMy father, who died nearly 10 years to the month after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, was Secret Service Agent Emory P. Roberts, shift leader on the presidential detail that day in 1963.

I would not know until later that it was Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit who had been killed, and not a Secret Service agent.

I would not know until later that day just how close my father was to the President. My father was in Dallas with the president, riding in the car directly behind the presidential limousine. He was riding in the front passenger seat, operating radio communications with other agents.

Kenneth O’Donnell, the president’s appointments secretary, was seated behind my father, in the left jump seat. Presidential aide David Powers was in the right jump seat. Two more Secret Service agents were seated in the car. Four stood on the running boards.

Agent Clint Hill was among the four, riding on the car’s front left running board. America will never forget the sight of Clint Hill desperately climbing on to the trunk of the presidential limousine as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy reached toward him.

My father flew home to Washington, D.C. from Dallas that evening on the backup plane to Air Force One. My mother and younger brother Steve drove from our Wheaton, Md. home to the White House to meet Dad and bring him home. I stayed behind to answer incoming calls to the household from friends and family.

In our one-car family, it wasn’t unusual for my mom to meet Dad from wherever his assignments took him. During his years as a Secret Service agent, he protected five presidents.

When he arrived home, he went straight downstairs. With no room in the rest of our small house, my family kept a desk fit with an upright Underwood typewriter in the basement. This was back in the days of carbon paper and typewriter ribbons. My father sat down and typed his report on the events in Dallas.

He let me read it. He probably shouldn’t have given it to me. His written account was that two or three shots were fired. I asked my father why he didn’t know if two or three shots had been fired. I’ll never forget his answer. He looked at me and said “because the brain is not a tape recorder, son.”

On Nov. 25, 1963, President Kennedy’s funeral took place. My father worked. My mother, my brother and I would travel to the White House again, this time to view the funeral procession from inside the White House grounds. We stood very close to the north portico entrance to the White House, alongside the half-circle driveway, which enters the White House from Pennsylvania Avenue.

I clearly remember seeing the First Lady, Robert Kennedy, Edward Kennedy, the horse-drawn caisson and the riderless horse carrying boots backward in the stirrups. I recognized French President Charles de Gaulle and Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia, among the world leaders who paid their respects.

On the way home that evening, I sat in the back seat of our car. I remember looking out of the rear window. I clearly saw Air Force One dip its wings over President Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

When we arrived home, I had questions for my mother. I asked her how she knew that Dad was okay when I called her from school. She responded that that she did not know how she knew that. I asked another question: what if he had not been okay? “We would have dealt with it at that time,” she said.

Fifty years have passed and I still remember.