November 22, 1963, Martin County: Looking back at JFK’s assassination

President John F. Kennedy (Source: Library of Congress)

A historical vignette by Martin County preservationists and historians, Alice and Greg Luckhardt: Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, began as a normal day in Martin County, the end of the work week for most, with pleasant weather conditions, winds around 10-15 mph and temperatures ranging from a low of about 72 to a high around 80. The primary elections for the city of Stuart would be held in only a few days, on Tuesday Nov. 26, and people were preparing for Thanksgiving. School was in session and students looked forward to a pep rally, the football game Friday evening at Lake Worth and, of course, two days off for the holiday, the Nov. 28 and 29.

However, by about 2 p.m. EST that afternoon, word had spread of an attempted assassination of the president in Dallas, where in Dealey Plaza shots had been fired at John F. Kennedy, riding in an open limousine while traveling in a motorcade on Elm Street, accompanied by wife, Jacqueline, Gov. John and Nellie Connally. Gov. Connally was also wounded.

Rushed to Parkland Hospital, Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1 p.m. CST (2 p.m. EST), but an obviously emotional CBS newsman, Walter Cronkite, “officially” announced the confirmed report to the nation at 2:38 p.m. EST; regular TV programing would be disrupted for several days.

Martin County mourns

Martin County school children were released early, the football game and other public events were postponed or canceled. Most people, in shock or disbelief, rushed home to turn on the television to view news coverage of the still unfolding tragic event and continued to watch almost continuously for the next three days.

Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as the 36th U.S. president by Judge Sarah T. Hughes at 2:38 p.m. CST aboard Air Force One in Dallas; Jackie Kennedy was still dressed in the pink, blood-stained outfit, refusing to change clothes, as the plane prepared to transport JFK’s body and passengers to Washington, D.C.

Oswald and Ruby

Suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, 24, was apprehended on that Friday afternoon and questioned. Interrogation  continued Saturday. Kennedy’s body had been examined at Bethesda Naval Hospital, then taken to the White House at 4:30 a.m. Saturday to lay in repose for 24 hours.

Sunday morning, the flag draped mahogany coffin was moved to the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where throughout the day saddened, grief-stricken citizens waited in a continuously moving line to file past and view the casket, a total estimated at more than 250,000.

Complicating the tragedy and assassination investigation, Jack Rubenstein (Ruby), 52, an outraged night club owner, fatally shot Lee Harvey Oswald in the abdomen with  a .38 caliber snub nose on that Sunday, Nov. 24, at about 11:30 a.m. (CST) as the prisoner was being transferred from the city to the county jail, shown as it actually happened via live broadcast.

John F. Kennedy’s televised funeral procession with caisson and burial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, attended by world leaders and dignitaries, was held Monday, Nov. 25, designated a National Day of Mourning. Local banks, businesses and schools closed in respect for the slain president. Oswald was also buried that day in a secretive, private ceremony in Fort Worth.

Stuart goes on

Stuart’s primary elections were held as scheduled on Tuesday, with a record turn out of voters. The Martin County Commission declared a 30-day mourning period with flags to fly at half-mast and also authorized a letter of condolence be sent to the Kennedy family on behalf of the people of the community.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 27, 1963, a memorial service was held at the high school’s Long Field, with principal James Woodall introducing the program. Invocation was given by Kitty Kindred. The MCHS band played the Star Spangled Banner and during the service, “Anchors Aweigh” and “Hail to the Chief” had been chosen as two other musical selections. “America the Beautiful” “America” and “God Bless America” were sung by the assemblage.

Billy Martin, in his own words, told of “The Kind of Man He Was” and teacher Betty McClure spoke of “Privileges and Responsibilities” followed by student Betsy Nourse reciting “Sail On, O Ship of State” by Longfellow. JoAnne Andrews recited an original poem entitled “May We Never Forget,” and student council President Lon Tyson Jr. talked of “Our Challenge” as American citizens. The  solemn program ended with a “Thanksgiving Prayer” written by John Kennedy and recited by Steve Swain.

That Wednesday evening the scheduled football game, Tigers versus Riviera Beach, was held at Long Field with half time ceremonies featuring the senior and junior high bands playing patriotic music and hymns. Unfortunately MCHS lost its ninth game in a row, the score 33-20. (The  football game, postponed from Nov. 22, was played at Lake Worth on Friday, Dec. 6, but the Fightin’ Tigers were defeated, 42-19, losing all 10 games of the regular season.)

RFK at Witham Field

In Stuart, less than a week after the assassination, on the moonlit evening of Thursday, Nov. 28, a white with blue trim aircraft, ID N240K visible on the tail and the name “Caroline” written near the nose of the craft, landed then taxied to the hangar at Witham Field. Aboard the plane were JFK’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, wife Ethel, White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger and a few other associates, who all quickly emerged and proceeded to waiting cars, the destination being the home of a friend on Jupiter Island, where Robert could rest and  recuperate.

The Kennedy family-owned plane, Caroline, with a Pratt & Whitney twin-engine Convair 240-440, had been used by JFK in the presidential campaign. Few people, however, knew of the flight on that quiet, warm November night. The Stuart airport was probably chosen for secrecy, privacy and proximity to the island. Kennedy made no statement, no questions were asked nor did cameras record the event.

After the holiday, the town and the nation slowly returned to normal activities. On Friday, Nov. 29, President Johnson announced the renaming of the missile launching center to John F. Kennedy Space Center; the former Cape Canaveral would be called Cape Kennedy.

Kennedys in Florida

The Kennedys were well known in Florida, the family having an estate on Palm Beach since 1933, making frequent, sometimes publicized visits to the Sunshine State, of which the citizens of Martin County were no doubt aware. There was a certain pride in the youthful, handsome president’s association with the area.

Forty-six-year-old John Kennedy had been very busy with activities and campaigning the week before the assassination. He flew to Palm Beach International Airport on Friday, Nov. 15, 1963,  staying at the Palm Beach residence, and on Nov. 16 would begin a whirlwind schedule of appearances in Florida with Sen. George Smathers, inspecting Cape Canaveral and watching a test launch of a Polaris missile. Ironically, in little more than a week, the Cape would be named in Kennedy’s honor.

Returning to Palm Beach on Sunday, Nov. 17, he attended Mass at St. Ann’s Church, worked on speeches and viewed a private screening of the movie “Tom Jones.” On Monday, President Kennedy flew to Tampa on Air Force One for a motorcade parade and speaking engagements. Late that afternoon he was in Miami for an airport pep rally appearance, then a helicopter trip to Miami Beach to the Americana Hotel in Bal Harbour, where a roast beef dinner was served, sponsored by the Inter-American Press Association; the speech that evening would be Kennedy’s last Florida address.

That night he boarded Air Force One for the fight back to the White House in Washington, D.C., never to return to Palm Beach and the family home on Ocean Boulevard. He remained at the White House Nov. 19-20, attending several meetings. On Thursday, Nov. 21, the charismatic President Kennedy and attractive 34-year-old First Lady flew to Texas to tour that state in preparation for the 1964 presidential election. 

On the 22nd, John and Jackie arrived in Dallas where the events of that day would soon change the course of history.

First assassination attempt

Although practically anyone alive at that time vividly remembers the details of learning of the assassination of John F. Kennedy that fateful Friday, probably few know there was a previous assassination attempt in 1960, which wasn’t widely publicized. After Kennedy won the election Nov. 8, 1960, soon to be the first Catholic president, he and the family “vacationed” in the warm weather of sunny Florida at the residential compound, 1095 North Ocean Blvd. in Palm Beach, to rest and prepare for the inauguration.

Not everyone in the country, however, was pleased with the election results. A retired U. S. postal worker, Richard Paul Pavlick, of Belmont, N.H., was exceedingly outspoken with negative or derogatory comments made both before and especially after the election, even writing threatening letters to government officials and the president-elect. The eccentric Pavlick wanted to make sure Kennedy never served as president and began to initiate a plan to kill JFK in Palm Beach.

Pavlick donated the small cottage and property where he lived in New Hampshire to a local youth camp and gave away or sold most possessions. He  packed a 1950 Buick station wagon with explosives, sticks of dynamite, detonators, blasting caps and four large cans of gasoline, then drove south. He arrived in Palm Beach County on Dec. 8, 1960, and stayed in an inexpensive motel room in West Palm Beach, across the Intercoastal Waterway from the island of Palm Beach.

The U.S. Secret Service had been previously notified by Belmont’s local postmaster, Thomas Murphy, who had been suspicious of Pavlick’s recent actions and by coincidence were lodged at a nearby West Palm motel. Investigators had interviewed people concerning Pavlick’s activities and were aware of the purchases of dynamite and blasting caps. Palm Beach County police and sheriff departments would soon be informed of Pavlick and issue a BOLO. A description of his car and license tag, B1 606, would be posted.

Palm Beach target

Kennedy and family had flown to Palm Beach International Airport, also arriving on Friday, Dec. 8, at about 7:30 p.m. Pavlick was one member of an immense crowd who had gathered to greet the president-elect. Richard Pavlick was contemplating how he could do away with Kennedy right then, but realized there might be a better opportunity later.

He knew Kennedy would be attending services at St. Edward Catholic Church on Sunday, Dec. 11, and had surveyed the church inside and out. Pavlick’s plan of action was to wait until Kennedy left the residence and had gotten into the limousine, whereupon he would ram the dynamite-loaded station wagon into the vehicle, triggering an explosion on impact.

As expected, on the 11th, John F. Kennedy exited the residence around 10 a.m., but Jackie and daughter Caroline suddenly appeared to say goodbye. Jackie was holding the 16-day-old baby, John Jr., born Nov. 25. Having seen Jacqueline and children, especially the baby, was reason for Richard to immediately abandon the plan. Pavlick wanted John Kennedy dead, but did not wish to harm or injure Jackie and the youngsters.

A backup plan

Pavlick, however, had already formulated another backup plan with a potential opportunity to implement it on Sunday, Dec. 18. The idea was to conceal sticks of dynamite in his clothing rigged to detonate with a simple hand-held switch, which he would activate while in St. Edward Catholic Church, when Kennedy was attending services. The blast would no doubt destroy the church, killing its congregation, including John Kennedy, but Pavlick was evidently not concerned about suicide or the other loss of lives, due to an extreme dislike of Catholics.

In the days prior to Dec. 18, Pavlick continued surveillance of the Kennedy Palm Beach residence at least five different times, yet was never stopped or questioned by any authorities.

Timely traffic stop

On Thursday, Dec. 15, 1960, at about 9 p.m., Pavlick was driving in an easterly direction on the Flagler Memorial Bridge leading to Royal Poinciana Avenue and Palm Beach, when the vehicle noticeably crossed over the white center line. Police Officer Lester Free, who observed the traffic violation, immediately pulled Pavlick over to question him, as would be standard policy. Officer Free noticed the vehicle matched the description that the Secret Service had issued, radioed for backup patrol cars and Pavlick was soon surrounded.

Ten sticks of dynamite were found inside the Buick, enough explosives to cause considerable damage. Richard Pavlick, 73, was arrested and held in Palm Beach County jail. The formal charge was planning the assassination of President-Elect Kennedy and the bail was set at $100,000, one of the highest at that time in Palm Beach County. Discovered in the motel room, among other items, was an autobiography he had written which included an explanation and justification for his actions.

Pavlick, however, was never tried for any charges, but instead  held in several mental institutions and eventually released Dec. 13, 1966.

Interestingly, decades earlier Pavlick had been a recruit during the Great War and in December. 1917, stationed at Fort Slocum, near New Rochelle, N.Y. He was instrumental in collecting donations from the recruits for a memorial to the generous efforts of the citizens of that city in caring for the soldiers. Five hundred dollars was raised for a bronze tablet; Pavlick even organized a parade and spoke to the crowds. The tablet is located in the City Hall Rotunda.

Richard Paul Pavlick died Nov. 11, 1975. It might be wondered why the assassination attempt and information about Pavlick, the human bomb, were not generally publicized. Even in the vast assortment of Kennedy papers and biographies, little or no mention was made of the incident.

As would be expected, at that time investigations by authorities and media coverage of events were handled differently from similar current situations. It was preferred not to play up the news story for fear of a future copycat occurrence. When Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, all was forgotten of that earlier attempt.

Perhaps 54 years later, some may reflect on those times of yesterdays so long ago, remembering a youthful, witty, intelligent president with vigor and innovative ideas whose life tragically ended abruptly with a gunshot, in a unique bygone era to which Jackie sometimes referred as Camelot.

Alice L. Luckhardt is a freelance historical researcher and writer,  member of the Board of Directors for the Stuart Heritage Museum and researcher for the Elliott and House of Refuge. Greg Luckhardt, a native of Stuart and 1967 MCHS grad, is a former science teacher, retired businessman and member of Stuart Heritage Museum.

They can be contacted at:

Related posts:

Comments are closed.