Friday, October 24, 2014

Brief encounter forever links girl, slain president

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 11/15/2013

The blue Continental sat in the carport of Parkland Hospital in Dallas.

A frightened but curious 12-year-old girl approached President John F. Kennedy’s empty convertible. She glanced from the bullet-pocked seats to the red puddle on the floorboard to a bouquet of roses dipped in blood.  

The blue Continental sat in the carport of Parkland Hospital in Dallas.

A frightened but curious 12-year-old girl approached President John F. Kennedy’s empty convertible. She glanced from the bullet-pocked seats to the red puddle on the floorboard to a bouquet of roses dipped in blood.  

“Get away from that car or you’re going to get hurt,” a Secret Service man shouted.

A wide-eyed Kathey Atkinson stepped back and moved away from the carport.

A priest came out of the hospital and surveyed the crowd huddled near the emergency entrance.

“The president is dead,” the priest said.

Atkinson began to cry.

“Oh, God. Please, no. No, God,” the girl said.

Eamon Kennedy, a Dallas Times Herald photographer, stepped forward and captured an image of the girl in the throes of misery.

The next day, Nov. 23, 1963, that photograph appeared on the front page of the Dallas Times Herald and subsequent newspapers around the world.

Kathey Atkinson, a grief-stricken Dallas schoolgirl in a tan tweed jumper, became the face of a grieving nation.

•••

Atkinson, who moved to Ottawa in 2007 to retire with her longtime sweetheart Gary Tweedy, recounted all the emotions she felt on that overcast day in Dallas 50 years ago in her book, “Grief of a Nation — Kathey’s Story,” published by Vantage Press in 1999.

A 60-year-old mother of four, Atkinson died of cancer in a Kansas City, Kan., hospital May 1, leaving behind a grieving family and a 116-page, first-person account of one of the darkest days in American history.

President Kennedy was fatally shot by a sniper while traveling with his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, and other dignitaries in a presidential motorcade at 12:30 p.m. Nov. 22, 1963, in Dealey Plaza, Dallas. Authorities arrested Lee Harvey Oswald for the murder. Investigators concluded that Oswald acted alone, but a 1998 CBS News poll showed 76 percent of Americans believed the president had been killed as a result of a conspiracy.

“Mom wasn’t a believer in a conspiracy theory,” Atkinson’s 30-year-old son, David Plough, Denver, said. “She didn’t believe there was another [shooter] on a grassy knoll. But she always impressed upon me how important that day was in our country’s history.”

•••

The drizzle stopped and the sun attempted to peak out of the clouds as Kathey Atkinson and her sister, Jan, accompanied their mother, Wilda Atkinson, to Love Field airport to watch JFK’s arrival in Dallas.

Kathey Atkinson crowded to the front row along a chain-link fence to watch the plane taxi to a stop, she wrote in her book.

The big stair ramp was placed at the door, it opened. I caught my breath and out in the break of the most beautiful sunshine stepped the president of the United States ... he was the most handsome man in the whole world to me. Then he turned and offered his hand to his wife, who stepped out to join him. The gorgeous Jacqueline Kennedy ... dressed in a beautiful pink suit with matching pillbox hat, she illuminated the whole airport with her presence.

Atkinson, standing at the fence, was terrified of being crushed by the surging crowd, she wrote.

I heard a voice with a Boston accent say to the crowd, “Let her through,” and then someone grasped my hand ... As I raised my head my eyes met his and his strong arm and gentle hand held me upright. I was staring into the face of my beloved president.

“Mom got to ditch school,” Plough said. “She told me she was real excited when she arrived at the airport with my grandma and aunt. She couldn’t believe that she got close enough to actually shake [the Kennedys’] hands.”

As Wilda Atkinson later drove out of Love Field, Kathey Atkinson wrote, a report came over the radio that the president had been shot.

As sketchy details came over the radio, I watched my mother go in and out of traffic like a race-car driver. It was only a few minutes later and she had pulled up to the hospital like she had been there a hundred times. She jumped out and we jumped out and followed her around the corner to the emergency entrance.

•••

After the paper came out the next day with her daughter’s photograph on the front page, Wilda Atkinson went to the Dallas Times Herald office to purchase more copies. That’s when the newspaper’s “women’s editor” Vivian Cantelberry learned the identity of the anonymous girl on the front page and turned Kathey Atkinson into a household name when her article appeared in the paper under the headline, “Tears of the Nation Fell With Kathey’s.”

 “I believe the effect [the worldwide attention] had on her at 12 years old set her aside from others — a kind of special-ness,” Tweedy, Atkinson’s partner for 17 years until her death, said. “But she never looked down on anybody else.”

 Atkinson used her new-found celebrity status to put on a talent show to raise money for the Kennedy Library, Plough and Tweedy said. Promoted by the Dallas paper and local TV stations, the show took place in the Southern Methodist University auditorium in Dallas and garnered donations from around the world. Atkinson, a seventh-grader at the time, and several of her friends performed a dance routine during the show. They were one of numerous acts to take the stage. All the performers that day were Dallas youths.

On the morning of the show, Atkinson wrote, she knelt to say a prayer.

Dear God, please help us make this a great show and raise a lot of money for President Kennedy’s library. Oh, and help me not to be too nervous and mess up. Amen.

After the show had ended and the crowd had filed out of the auditorium, Atkinson wrote that she walked onto the stage one last time.

I looked out into the empty audience and in my heart, at that very moment, I knew John Kennedy had liked his show and was smiling that beautiful smile.

Tweedy, who still lives in Ottawa, continues to miss Atkinson’s smile in the short months since her death, he said.

“The day the doctor told me she was going to die, I don’t even remember how I got home from the hospital,” Tweedy said. “I loved her, and I really, really miss her.”

•••

Tweedy described Atkinson as a very generous person, and Plough said he remembers as a youth that his mother often welcomed strangers into her home for dinner.

“When I was growing up, all of my friends called her, Mom,” Plough said. “She had over 1,000 friends on Facebook, and I bet half of them sent me condolences when she died.”

Atkinson’s attitudes and actions had a certain childlike innocence about them because she was so open with people, Tweedy said, which he found to be appealing qualities.

“She always had a positive attitude, no matter what,” Tweedy said.

A trip to see her father in a Texas hospital before he died inspired Atkinson to sit down and write her book, Tweedy said.

“He asked her if she had written her book yet regarding the assassination, and when she told him no, he said she should write it. She came back to Colorado [where she and Tweedy lived at the time], got out her typewriter and wrote the book.”

Atkinson wrote the book in a matter of months, Plough said.

“It took her 30 years to write the first page, and then nine months to finish the book,” Plough said, laughing. “I think she had been working on it for some time, because I have a lot of her handwritten [accounts] about it.”

In addition to her love of writing, Atkinson also had a passion for gardening, Tweedy said.

“We live across the street from the community garden [on Locust Street in Ottawa],” Tweedy said, “and she enjoyed that garden and met several people.”

She also enjoyed spending time with family, Tweedy and Plough said. In addition to her son, Atkinson had three daughters, Kimberly, Katrina and Tiffany, who live in Charlotte, N.C., San Antonio and Denver, respectively, Plough said.

Atkinson paid tribute to her four children and Tweedy in the acknowledgement pages of her book. She also paid tribute to a president she greatly admired.

The memories of that day and the ones thereafter are what I have to draw upon, since that day is still etched within my memory and still lives within my heart ... I am just another fellow American who loved and admired the president of the United States and all the good that he stood for. He challenged my generation to make a difference.

The night of the assassination, Atkinson wrote, she entered her room and thought about how just a few hours ago she had hoped with all her heart she would see the Kennedys at Love Field.

I flung on my bed and cried myself to sleep.

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