- Published on Friday, 22 November 2013 15:37
By Daniel Perez
UTEP News Service
Texas Western College alumnus Curtis Spier was a third-year anesthesiology resident on loan from Parkland Memorial Hospital on Nov. 22, 1963, when coincidence made him a witness to a watershed moment in U.S. history.
Spier, who earned his bachelor’s in biology from TWC (now The University of Texas at El Paso) in 1956, had scheduled a meeting that afternoon with his boss at the Dallas hospital. He arrived a few minutes after President John F. Kennedy had been rushed into Trauma Room I.
A nurse he knew got him past security and into the cramped emergency room setting where he was “a proverbial fly on the wall” as medical personnel tried in vain to save the nation’s young, vibrant leader who had been mortally wounded by an assassin’s bullet. He watched as the medical team followed protocols for people who suffered such wounds, but no one wanted to stop the procedures because the patient was the president.
Spier shared his recollections of the events 50 years ago with students and others who attended an Oct. 17 presentation in the University Library’s Blumberg Auditorium that was part of a course about the causes and effects of the Kennedy presidency taught by Greg Rocha, Ph.D., associate professor of political science.
The president was in Dallas as part of a two-day, five-city swing through Texas meant to shore up Democratic support before the 1964 presidential election. Some of the plans had been finalized during a meeting of state party leaders at the Hotel Cortez in downtown El Paso.
The 78-year-old physician said it was clear that Kennedy was dead well before he even arrived at the hospital. Spier described how one bullet pierced the back of the president’s neck, which went on to injure Texas Gov. John Connelly, who was seated in front of Kennedy, while another entered the back of the president’s head and “shot out” its right side.
“(Kennedy) suffered wounds that were incompatible with life,” he said. “That was it.”
For many, that day signaled the start of a loss of faith in U.S. politics. It included conspiracy theories and flawed methods of the Warren Report that concluded the accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Within the next 10 years the country experienced civil unrest, additional high profile assassinations, a controversial war and Watergate.
The assassination was a horrific moment for everyone who lived through it, Rocha said. The incident had a global impact as memorials were conducted around the world and numerous heads of state or their high-ranking representatives flew to Washington, D.C., to honor the fallen U.S. leader.
“There was nothing like it before,” Rocha said. “He was America’s martyr.”
One of the people who experienced the international grief was John Haddox, Ph.D., professor emeritus of philosophy, who was in Chihuahua City, Mexico, that day with several TWC colleagues to research innovations in Mexican education. He said his team visited a school in a remote village and students with black armbands had set out photos and posters of the dead president as a tribute. Several students shared their thoughts with the American visitors of what John Kennedy meant to them as Mexicans and what he meant to Mexico.
“It was very moving; very beautiful,” Haddox said. The professors intended to return to El Paso that day, but the border bridges were closed due to the U.S. Immigration Departure Control Law that stopped U.S. citizens and others from leaving the country. Law enforcement agencies wanted the borders closed until the president’s assassin was captured. The order was lifted after 6 p.m. that evening. The TWC professors spent the night in a Chihuahua City hotel and were offered numerous condolences.
“We were very impressed with how the people in Mexico responded and the sorrow they expressed and their admiration for John Kennedy,” Haddox said.
While in the Dallas suburb of Richardson, St. Paul Catholic School student Robert Webking sat transfixed with his seventh grade classmates when the school’s public address system began to air a local radio station announcing unconfirmed reports of shots fired on the presidential motorcade. The broadcast continued uninterrupted until the newscaster confirmed that the nation’s 35th president had been killed.
Webking, Ph.D., professor of political science, recalled the tremendous pride in town because Kennedy, the nation’s first Catholic president, was visiting nearby. By the end of the day, he remembered people walking into the adjacent church kneeling in prayer; some of them crying.
“Everyone was in shock,” he said of his time listening to the radio. “We just sat there stunned. We were trying to process what had happened.”
Back at the Oct. 17 presentation, Spier remembered that although Dallas was a GOP hotbed, thousands of people lined the streets of downtown Dallas to see the president. He told his audience that he initially was reluctant to discuss his minor role in the assassination story – to include being in the Parkland emergency room to help treat Oswald Nov. 24 after he had been mortally wounded in the basement of the Dallas police station while being transferred to the county jail.
While initially “shocked and sickened” by the assassination, Spier said the ensuing years have left him feeling numb to it.
“But there’s still a lot of interest,” he said.