By Edward Rivera
Fort Worth District
FORT WORTH, Texas - There have been moments throughout history that generations can point to and say “I remember exactly what I was doing at that moment.” Our generation has the tragic events of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The “Greatest Generation” the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 6, 1941. And for many in between those events there is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Nov. 22, 1963.
Sharing his recollections of that fateful day almost 50 years ago, Jimmy Baggett, assistant chief, Engineering and Construction Division, was a Fort Worth District team member working in the Specifications Section that day.
Baggett, considered the elder statesman and the unofficial historian of the district, makes himself available to answer questions and share his 57 years of experiences with the corps. But still, 50 years removed, and many interviews later about the Kennedy Assassination, there is still a hint of sadness in his voice, a touch of sorrow in his eyes recounting that day.
Having moved to Fort Worth from Vernon, Texas, in 1942, Baggett said there had been many events that occurred during Kennedy’s presidency, but at that time of his visit to Texas in November of 1963, the country seemed to be doing well. Everyone was excited about the 35th president of the United States visit to their city.
On Nov. 21 at 11:07 p.m., Air Force One landed at Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth. President and Mrs. Kennedy disembark Air Force One and are taken to the Texas Hotel in downtown Fort Worth via motorcade. After greeting the crowd, they settle in for the night in Suite 8050.
The following morning, Nov. 22, prior to 8:45 a.m., President Kennedy prepares to deliver a speech at a Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce Breakfast in the hotel. Meanwhile, Baggett is having breakfast with his family discussing the schedule for the day and contemplating his 4-year old daughter’s birthday, which was right around the corner.
“My wife and I were sitting at the breakfast table planning events for my daughter’s birthday. We thought about going on a golf trip to Hawaii to see some sights and celebrate her fourth birthday,” said Baggett. He went on to say typically he and his wife would discuss his workday and that perhaps they would go bowling that evening.
At 8:45 a.m., President Kennedy greets a crowd outside of the hotel and delivers an impromptu speech to those who could not attend the formal breakfast address. Upon arriving to work at the District Office on 100 West Vickery Blvd., Baggett recalled there was a great deal of excitement in the air.
“There was a lot of excitement because we knew there was a celebrity in town,” said Baggett. “The president of the United States and his wife, and that it was going to be quite an event.”
Baggett, who had been a member of the corps for seven years, at the time recalled many of his coworkers walked the quarter-mile distance to the hotel to get a glimpse of, or perhaps even get to shake hands and greet the president and Mrs. Kennedy.
Back at the district, it was still business as usual. According to Baggett, at the time of the presidential visit to Fort Worth, the district had a robust workload. Projects included a great deal of civil works projects, which included San Antonio Floodway work, flood improvement projects in the Dallas-Fort Worth “metroplex” along with multi-purpose lake and hydropower plants as well as supporting several military installations.
“We also had some of the Camp Gary work, which was a military conversion into a Job Corps facility in San Marcos,” said Baggett.
Work continued as deadlines were approaching and the daily work still had to be completed as well, but radios were tuned into the local news broadcasting the president’s and first lady’s moves.
After his comments outside, President Kennedy speaks at the Chamber of Commerce breakfast where he is joined by his wife.
The president ends his speech saying, "I am confident, as I look to the future, that our chances for security, our chances for peace, are better than they have been in the past. And the reason is because we're stronger. And with that strength is a determination to not only maintain the peace, but also the vital interests of the United States. To that great cause, Texas and the United States are committed," It would be his last speech.
President Kennedy and his wife return to Carswell AFB by motorcade and board Air Force One for a 13-minute flight into Love Field in Dallas. President and Mrs. Kennedy bypass scheduled plans and approach welcoming crowds that gather at the Love Field fence line. At 11:52 a.m. the motorcade leaves Love Field heading for a speech he is to deliver to the Dallas Citizens Council at the Trade Mart. More than 150,000 people line the 10-mile route, at 12:27 p.m. the motorcade passes the Adolphus Hotel on Main Street.
At 12:30 p.m. three shots ring out, President Kennedy and Texas Governor John B. Connolly, Jr., are shot!
“There was excitement in the radio announcer’s voice when he said ‘shots have been fired,’” said Baggett. “He indicated that there were at least two maybe three shots, he was unsure as to the number. It was certainly an indication that something bad and unusual had taken place during the motorcade as it went through the City of Dallas,” said Baggett.
AT 12:31 p.m. the presidential limousine races up Stemmons Freeway to Parkland Memorial Hospital. The 57-year corps employee recalled there was a great feeling of concern for the president.
“We knew he had been shot, we knew it was one of those situations of life and death, hanging in the balance not knowing exactly what the outcome might be,” said Baggett.
For Baggett and the rest of the nation the fate of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, president, would come very soon. At 1 p.m., doctors pronounce President Kennedy dead while a crowd gathers outside the hospital awaiting news.
“When the word came that he was officially pronounced dead, at that moment a great deal of uncertainty came over me, what does this mean for us? what is going to happen now?” Baggett recalled. “We knew that Vice President Lyndon Johnson would be sworn in because that was the succession.”
With heavy hearts and a somewhat uncertain future, Baggett and the rest of the district still had to finish the work of the day, meet deadlines for the work that was to be done and the other projects the district was engaged in.
“We did have some deadlines to meet. We continued to listen to the radio but we also continued to complete plans and specifications to advertize for construction work that was to occur on Camp Gary,” said Baggett.
Later that evening back at his home with his family, Baggett caught up with the rest of the day’s reports on the assassination.
There was a new president and there were still questions he was pondering. Recalling his history and the killing of President Abraham Lincoln, Baggett thought about the impact to the country then.
“We watched the events replayed on the television, it was now a question of what will this do for our country and how will the effects of changing in the middle of a presidency affect us,” remembered Baggett. “We reflected on the changes after the events of the President Lincoln’s assassination.”
The Baggetts would retire that night with questions and uncertainty, and the following days would continue to be unsure. He expected there would be follow up for the civilian workforce, security changes at the district. According to Baggett, they didn’t know if it was a singular incident, or if it was fallout from the recent events with Cuba that led to the shooting.
“I was in the Army Reserve at the time. I didn’t know if we might be given an assignment and called to active duty,” said Baggett who was a captain assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as his Reserve commitment. “There were a lot of questions, a lot of uncertainties and unknowns.”
Although Baggett and the Fort Worth District had no direct involvement supporting the president’s visit that day, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers responded with lightning speed to ensure the First Lady’s wish for her husband to be remembered eternally. And with the lighting of the Eternal Flame at the National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., the corps would be, if only, a small part of the legacy of 35th president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.