While today is primarily remembered for the tragedy which unfolded in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, it also marks the 50th anniversary of several firsts which have not occurred since.
Only feet away from our new terminal here at Love Field, a simple orange square spray-painted onto the concrete marks the exact location where the only presidential inauguration west of the Mississippi took place; the first oath of office by a female was administered; and the first and only inauguration aboard an aircraft occurred.
Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson had joined President and Mrs. Kennedy the previous day for various fundraising and speaking engagements in Texas (Johnson’s home state), which he previously represented in various Congressional capacities for more than two decades, including Senate Majority Leader. The trip included a first stop in Fort Worth, followed by a 13-minute flight aboard Air Force Two over to Love Field, and a planned trip later in the day down to Austin. The Vice President and Lady Bird Johnson followed two cars behind the Kennedys in the motorcade, with the planned destination being the Dallas Trade Mart. Following the announcement of the President’s demise, the Secret Service quickly returned the Johnsons back to Love Field under heavy guard, this time to the aircraft the Kennedys had arrived on. A sense of uncertainty arose over the scale of the attack, and those protecting the Vice President feared that additional attacks might be possible. The Secret Service wanted to depart immediately for Washington, but the acting President insisted on not leaving without the Kennedys. In the interest of demonstrating the continuity of our government (and possibly to pay tribute to his home state of Texas,) Johnson insisted on taking the oath of office prior to takeoff.
Needing to determine the exact Constitutional requirements, Johnson called the Attorney General seeking advice on what needed to occur. Unfortunately, this call also required Johnson to share the news with Robert Kennedy of his brother’s passing. Attorney General Kennedy directed his office to provide Johnson’s staff with the oath, while Judge Sarah Hughes (a Texas judge appointed by President Kennedy) was located in order to administer it. Preparations were hastily made aboard the aircraft, and shortly after the remains of the former leader were brought aboard, a small group of reporters and staff were summoned to an area onboard the plane about the size of a one-car garage to witness history. Following his official assumption of the Presidency, Johnson said, “Now, let’s get airborne,” and the return to Washington was under way.
Although we have all seen the iconic images of Air Force One landing on runway 31R at Love Field, and the adoring crowd greeting the Kennedys following their arrival, there have always been questions regarding exactly where the events of that fateful day took place. Recently, images from that day were used along with modern GPS technology to identify the precise location over which President Johnson stood when he became President. Dallas historian and renowned Kennedy assassination expert Farris Rookstool III has taken on the task of paying tribute to this historic location. Working with local airport officials, he commissioned a plaque (at his own expense) commemorating the timeline of the day’s event.
Although visiting the exact location will not be an option, plans are underway for Rookstool’s plaque to replace the nondescript orange square on the ramp at the conclusion of the Love Field Modernization Program next year. The best location within the terminal for viewing the historic site is at Love Landing, just past the pedestrian walkway entrance on the second floor. Next time you are taxing away for departure, you may also catch a glimpse just south of gates 5 and 3. It serves as an important reminder of our nation’s resolve to for a peaceful transition of power, and the location of what I consider the most historic single location at our home here at Love Field.