Gene Gordon, 83, was in Fort Worth when President John F. Kennedy came to visit almost 50 years ago. A newspaper photographer, he was tasked with covering Kennedy’s visit before the president departed for Dallas.
The photos he took that day reflect a joyous occasion that isn’t often seen. One photo, taken from behind Kennedy, shows a smiling crowd of people eagerly reaching for his hand.
Another candid photo shows a smiling Jackie Kennedy sharing an adoring glance with her husband at a breakfast at the Hotel Texas, now the Hilton Fort Worth. And another photo shows one of the last few moments that the president and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson would share.
“The expression on their faces tells a lot,” said Gordon, a retiree who lives in Denton.
Just the emotion captured in Gordon’s photos tells a story that could make the viewer believe that the day the president visited on Nov. 22, 1963, had a happier ending.
“It was impossible to know what would happen,” Gordon said. “We were all there to see the president and everyone was excited to see him. I was just focused on trying to make sure I captured the emotion of that day.”
After submitting his photos of the president’s visit for the afternoon edition of the Fort Worth Press, Gordon decided to get lunch. By this time, Kennedy was already making his rounds in Dallas.
Gordon was at the corner of Main and Seventh streets. He had just sat down to eat at a popular sandwich shop in the basement of a corner building.
There, in the heart of downtown Fort Worth, the president’s visit was fresh on the locals’ minds as they continued to chat about his visit, but no one could’ve imagined what happened next.
“Everybody in town knew what happened in a few minutes,” Gordon said. “You don’t forget things like that. It stays with you forever.”
Kennedy was hardly past his first thousand days in office when he was killed by an assassin’s bullets as his motorcade traveled through Dallas. Kennedy was the youngest man elected president, and he was also the youngest to die as president.
Gordon was dispatched to Dallas to cover the assassination, but by the time he arrived, most of the scene had been cleared.
The images Gordon took that day became some of his most prized possessions, but that didn’t hit him until a few days after the assassination.
“I didn’t think about [the photos] too much,” he said. “We were all in shock and caught up in the emotion of the assassination.”
According to a federal report on Kennedy’s assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald killed the president. And days later, Oswald was shot and killed.
Gordon photographed the Oswald burial, too.
Through the years, Gordon’s images have become some of the most recognized photos from that day.
They’ve been reprinted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, placed in museums such as the Dallas Museum of Art and the Amon Carter Museum and shown on the National Geographic Channel.
Gordon said the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, which takes place next month, has sparked more interest in his photos than ever before.
“This will probably be the last big anniversary. That’s why people are so interested in it,” he said.
The United States mourned Kennedy’s death for a long time, Gordon said.
In 2011, President Barack Obama gave a speech on the influence Kennedy had when he was alive and how that influence still lives on because of Kennedy’s determination to make the world a better place.
“The world is very different now than it was in 1961,” Obama said. “But we cannot forget, we are the heirs of this president, who showed us what is possible. Because of his vision, more people prospered, more people served and our union was made more perfect.”
Several of Gordon’s images from Nov. 22, 1963, hang in a room nestled in the corner of his home.
He says they’re some of his most prized and favorite images from his career. They’re joined by other breaking news photos that also hang on the walls and several awards recognizing Gordon for his ability to tell a story through a single photograph.
“This guy here was named Cool Old Johnny,” he says while pointing to a portrait of a man dressed in tattered clothes and smoking a cigarette. “He was a hobo who traveled east and west twice a year, and he wrote poems for the newspaper to get them published.”
Though he has photos hanging in the room of various events throughout his career, there are more photos displayed of the day Kennedy was assassinated than any other event.
“This was probably the biggest story I’ve ever worked on, and I love having the photos here to recall the events,” Gordon said.
Those photos from early on Nov. 22, 1963, show a sharp contrast to the images that define that day 50 years ago, and Gordon said it shows how much many people admired the president.
JOHN D. HARDEN can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @Jdharden.