John F. Kennedy strolled through his brief life as a charismatic dreamer who persuaded fellow believers to join him in peeking around the bend. He looked at the moon and promised Americans would walk there. He stretched our nation's sense of what was possible, in sunshine and in sorrow. He was about the promise of tomorrow until a still-mysterious day in Dallas ended his tomorrows.
On June 5, 1963, this stupendously glamorous president descended from a clear Colorado Springs sky to speak at Air Force Academy's graduation. And we're talking literally about the descent.
At 9:45 a.m., a crowd of 45,000 watched a Marine One VH-3A helicopter carry the nation's 35th president to the north edge of Falcon Stadium. He climbed out of the copter and stepped into a Lincoln convertible, a model that in a few months would become infamous. He stood in the back seat, waving as his driver took two slow circular routes around the field.
Steve Dotson from Maryland graduated from Air Force that day.
"He came off as a very cool guy," Dotson says. "Very well dressed with that ruddy complexion and that reddish-brown hair of his. He looked every bit the young, powerful man."
Kennedy opened by reading a plea from cadet Marvin B. Hopkins. Hopkins, a 1964 graduate, asked the president for pardons from punishment - marching "tours" and dorm confinement - for academy offenses.
"The President," Hopkins wrote, "is our only hope for salvation. By granting amnesty to our oppressed brethren, he could end our anguish and oppression."
Kennedy, his hair rising in the strong breeze, stopped for dramatic effect.
"I take great pleasure in granting amnesty to all those who not only deserve it, but need it," he said.
Laughter engulfed the stadium. At that instant, Kennedy seized the crowd. He had been raised among servants and riches, a child of extreme privilege. His father, Joseph, earned a fortune in movies and liquor but wanted his sons to pursue politics, not cash. John, Bobby and Teddy all served as senators.
Despite his immense blessings, John had a touch. He could mingle, making friends with even the largest audience. He could create the illusion of talking privately to each individual.
Randy Reynolds from Alabama laughed along with his fellow graduates.
"When President Kennedy showed up at our place, he put the feeling out to everybody that he was really interested in the graduates and the people who were there," Reynolds says. "It was just a real comfortable, exciting thing."
Kennedy spoke, glancing freely at his notes, for nearly 18 minutes. He thanked the graduates for making him an honorary member of their class. "An instant graduate," he said.
He ended by stressing the value, and the price, of freedom. At his inauguration, Kennedy proclaimed the United States would "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
He offered a variation on his inaugural theme to the 1963 graduates. He vowed America would "maintain the freedom, the security and the peace" for countries under threat of Communism.
"This is the role which history and our own determination has placed upon a country," Kennedy said at Falcon Stadium." I think that this is a burden which we accept willingly, recognizing that if this country does not accept it, no people will. This is a role which we are proud to accept."
On June 5, 1963, 16,000 American military personnel worked in Southeast Asia. Later, this involvement would define and haunt a generation, but Vietnam barely made American news that week.
British Secretary of State John Profumo resigned after a sex scandal with a showgirl named Catherine Keeler. "Moslem mobs," according to a Gazette story, demanded the overthrow of the American-supported Shah of Iran. The mobs set fire to Tehran's downtown bazaar, and 1,000 suffered injuries in riotous protests.
American riots, inspired by Vietnam, were only a few years away, but Kennedy's breezily confident words were met with applause.
Dotson, eager to defend freedom, was thrilled to hear his president announce Americans forces would stand wherever needed against Communists.
"A swelling final overture," Dotson thought at the time.
Al Fullerton, another 1963 grad, sat a few feet from Dotson. He listened intently to Kennedy, even while his mind roamed to a young lady watching from the stands named Kathleen Ann Doherty.
Kathleen, class of 1958 at Palmer High, grew up on Uintah Street. Doherty High School is named for her father, Thomas. She was wearing Al's engagement ring, but not for long.
Al and Kathleen would be married at 5 p.m.
"A busy day," Fullerton says.
The couple wanted to be married at AFA's futuristic Cadet Chapel, but the freshly built aluminum building leaked profusely. Thomas Doherty oversaw the wedding's move to Colorado College's Shove Chapel, a few blocks from the family home.
Fullerton was thrilled about his marriage. He also was eager to start flying, which led to brief comedy near the end of the ceremony. As he slipped a diamond over Kathleen's hand, he said, "With this wing. "
"I corrected myself," he says. "It's a pretty standard line."
After a reception at the academy officer's club, the couple drove to Pueblo for their first night of marriage. The honeymoon journey eventually took the Fullertons to Acapulco, the same city where Kennedy honeymooned a decade earlier with the former Jacqueline Bouvier.
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For Kennedy, June 5, 1963, was a long sprint across a huge chunk of America. At first light, Kennedy departed Andrews Air Force Base, a short drive from The White House, in a Boeing 707 on his way to Peterson Air Force Base.
After his graduation speech, Kennedy toured the academy for nine minutes before returning to his 707 for a flight to New Mexico, where he toured Holloman Air Force Base followed by a visit to nearby White Sands Missile Range.
He wasn't done.
Texas native Lyndon Baines Johnson, Kennedy's vice president, wanted to repair the president's frayed connection with voters in the conservative Lone Star State. He persuaded Kennedy to end his frantic day with a flight to El Paso. At the downtown El Cortez hotel, a few hundred yards from the Mexican border, Kennedy and Johnson met with Texas Gov. John Connally. The three men devised a plan for Kennedy to return to Texas in November. The president and first lady would ride in an open Lincoln convertible, waving at voters, winning hearts and securing a repeat election victory in 1964.
That was the plan.
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As noon approached on Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy was riding in the back seat of a Lincoln convertible, cruising the streets of Dallas. Jacqueline, wearing a pink Chanel suit and matching hat, sat at his side. Throngs of Dallas residents lined the streets, cheering and waving.
On the west side of downtown, in a sixth-story window overlooking Dealey Plaza, Lee Harvey Oswald waited with his $19.95 mail-order Carcano rifle.
The 1963 Air Force alums had scattered.
Fullerton and his wife moved to Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas, after their wondrous six-week honeymoon. West Texas winds produced dust, which led to Fullerton developing severe bronchial asthma. After being grounded from flight training, he spent the morning painting at the base.
Reynolds moved to Craig Air Force Base in Selma, Ala., where he flew Lockheed T-33s training jets. He spent the morning flying through Alabama skies. While Kennedy rode through the streets of Dallas, Randolph was walking back to his barracks.
Dotson had been assigned to Williams Air Force Base, 30 miles southeast of Phoenix. He flew a T-37 training jet that morning, soaring over Arizona farms and desert. A perfect day in the air, he remembers. He climbed out of the cockpit and walked to his base.
At 12:30 p.m. central time, Kennedy's open limousine entered Dealey Plaza and began a gentle descent down Elm Street.
Shots descended from the sixth-story window.
The president's head exploded.
America teetered and never fully recovered.
Fullerton heard an announcement blaring over the base loudspeaker. The president had been shot, a voice said. He rushed to a television set.
"At first you didn't know how serious it was," he says.
He soon found out. Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1 p.m.
"Pure shock," Fullerton says. "The man you had seen months before and you knew what a fabulous opportunity we all had with a young president leading our nation and it was all gone."
A few minutes after 12:30, Reynolds arrived at his barracks. An Iranian, sent to Alabama for flight training, offered a blunt message.
"Your president has been shot," the Iranian said.
The news reached Dotson as soon as he arrived at the base. He hurried to the base's small Catholic chapel.
"I wanted to pray a little bit," he says. "To pray for his family. I was hoping that somehow this shattering event could be made less painful than it really was."
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Fullerton's asthma forced him from the cockpit, ending his hope of flying for the Air Force. He left the service after two years and three months. He earned an MBA from Harvard and worked in sales and trading for 40 years in New York and Boston. He enjoys retirement in Cape Cod.
He often thinks of Kennedy.
"He was one of us," Fullerton says. "We made him a member of our class."
Fullerton embraced a precious lesson on Nov. 22, 1963. He was 22 when Oswald killed Kennedy.
"It made you realize that you've got to make the best of everything and go on," he says. "It made you realize that you are lucky for what you have, and you never know when it's going to end."
Kathleen Fullerton was crushed the day Kennedy died. She remembered a bright June day and the president's Air Force speech and the laughter at the stadium and the wedding that had to be moved because of a leaky roof.
Kathleen died of cancer in 1990.
"How quickly life can change," Fullerton says, the words coming slowly. "You just can't plan ahead."
Reynolds flew 53 missions during the Vietnam War. He started his Air Force career with enthusiasm. He was battling the rise of Communism while protecting freedom. That was his belief.
"Bearing any burden to make people free," Reynolds says. "That just kind of faded away, and we were just doing what the Pentagon was telling us to do."
Reynolds believed the North Vietnamese would grow weary of American bombardment. He thought opposing forces would say, "OK, we quit." He was wrong. The United States withdrew forces in 1975, retreating from a war that cost 58,220 American lives.
Reynolds has studied Kennedy's life and America's history during the 1950s and 1960s. Reynolds knows the results of President Johnson's struggles to understand the endlessly complex situation in Vietnam. He believes Kennedy would have prevented America from becoming "as embroiled" in the stalemate.
"I still admire the guy," Reynolds says. "I remember him as a motivator and a leader, and that's the way I like to keep it."
Dotson, retired in Columbus, Ohio, takes a different view. He flew 128 missions, mostly over Laos. He retired as a brigadier general from the Air Force Reserve in 1993.
On June 5, 1963, Dotson listened to Kennedy's promise to send Americans to any corner of the globe that needed military help. The president wanted to defend the entire world. So did Dotson.
Dotson has changed his view of Kennedy's idealistic graduation speech.
"It really doesn't fill me with great warmth because the Vietnam War was the tragedy of our generation," Dotson says. "There is no doubt about that. It was a war that never should have been fought. Vietnam was a great learning experience for our country. We found out that we couldn't do what JFK said."
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On the morning of June 5, 1963, a 707 carrying Kennedy approached the runway at Peterson. He was 46 years old, a war hero, a Pulitzer-Prize winning author, the father of two young children and the leader of the free world. In a few minutes, he would add "instant graduate" of the Air Force Academy to his dazzling resume.
As Kennedy prepared to land at Peterson, he saw a 76-by-120 foot welcome sign on a bluff on the outskirts of Colorado Springs. Today, the bluff is surrounded by houses a mile from Academy and Maizeland. In 1963, the bluff was on the edge of a lonely prairie.
The McPherson brothers - 12-year-old Stewart and 10-year-old James - constructed the mammoth sign under the guidance of their father, Raymond. The father outlined the letters, each 20 feet high, with rope, and the brothers filled in the outline with a chalk-like substance. Stewart now lives in Fort Collins, and James still resides in Colorado Springs. The sign, the brothers remember with pained laughs 55 years later, required two long afternoons of hard labor.
Kennedy, just about to land, could clearly read the words.
"Welcome Mr. President," the McPhersons' sign read.
It was a clear day, and only sunshine seemed ahead.