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A member of John F. Kennedy’s communications team, now in Corvallis, recalls his boss — and the last day he saw him
It’s been a long time, but Theron Burgess remembers.
He remembers how nervous he was, looking at the pattern on the carpet in front of the Oval Office, waiting to meet his new boss, President John F. Kennedy, in February 1962.
Then the tall, good-looking president strode out, hand extended.
“He was really personable,” said Burgess, 74, who lives about a mile east of Corvallis in Linn County. “He always remembered everyone’s name. It was always, ‘Hello, Mr. Burgess.’”
Burgess was recruited out of the Army at Fort Gordon, Ga., to join the elite White House Communications Agency about a year into Kennedy’s term in office. It was an honor for the young man from Great Falls, Mont., who underwent extensive background checks before he was hired. That was because the communications group worked and traveled closely with the president and his family.
“We had to either be ahead of the president or with him,” Burgess said.
He would help to set up transmitters the size of an old-style 25-inch television at remote locations where the president was to appear. It was his job to ensure that every telephone, two-way radio or other device the president or his men picked up was working — even when Kennedy was in a car.
For instance, Burgess was in charge of setting up communications in the fleet of Mercurys and Lincolns (some of them limos) in which the president and his staff rode — including the one in which Kennedy took his final ride on Nov. 22, 1963.
Burgess also worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the Secret Service. Sometimes literally.
Once during a tour of the Redstone Test Center in Huntsville, Ala., Kennedy plunged past the roped-off area, into the surging crowd to shake hands.
A Secret Service agent, seeing the tall Burgess nearby, barked “You get on one shoulder, I’ll get on the other, and we’ll push him through this crowd.”
Weeks later, Burgess was in the Rose Garden when he heard “Mr. Burgess,” and turned to see Kennedy.
“He asked me if I had played football,” Burgess recalled. “I allowed I had played some in Great Falls.”
“Well, down there in Alabama, you sure still had a shoulder on you.”
Burgess accompanied the Kennedy family on vacations, including a trip to West Palm Beach, Fla. Long after “The Boss” was in for the night, Burgess and other staffers staying in a nearby trailer heard a knock on the door.
“It was the president and the first lady,” he said. “They had brought us a plate of cookies and some fresh fruit.”
In November of 1963, Burgess flew to Texas two or three days ahead of Kennedy to set up communications.
It was raining in Fort Worth the morning of Nov. 22, where Kennedy had started his day. But by the time Air Force One landed in nearby Dallas, the sun was out. Burgess helped to prepare the limo in which the president and his wife, Jacqueline, would ride with Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife. As usual, crowds were lining the streets, hoping for a glimpse.
“We’d had the bubble top on the limo before, but the sun had come out, so we took it off. I went over to the limo and said, ‘It’s going to be a beautiful day, Mr. President.’”
Burgess struggled for composure.
“Those were the last words I ever said to him.”
Less than half an hour later, at 12:31 p.m. CST, John F. Kennedy was fatally shot as his motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza. Gov. Connally was seriously wounded.
Burgess was ordered to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where Kennedy had been taken, to secure all open telephone lines so nobody (especially the press) could access them and speculate about the president’s condition.
Burgess recalled walking past an open door, and glancing in at a horror.
“The body of the president was on a metal table,” he said. The first lady was standing beside him, holding his hand.
Burgess said that he also saw the limousine, still covered in gore. It bothers him to this day that instead of being secured as a crime scene, the limousine was hosed down. That is one of the reason why Burgess said that he still has many unanswered questions about the official version of the assassination.
His final task on that day was helping to load Kennedy’s casket onto Air Force One. He appears in several of the famous photos depicting this sad task.
A newlywed at the time, he and his wife, Barbara, saw the casket again when it lay in state in the Capitol rotunda that weekend; the state funeral was Monday.
The couple remained in Washington into early 1964, working for Lyndon Johnson, but Burgess said he didn’t feel the same about the crude-spoken Texan as he had for “The Boss.”
The couple moved back to Montana, where Burgess for many years was a radio announcer and later a business owner. They raised a family and moved to the mid-valley 14 years ago. Now a property manager, he engages in charity work through his LDS church. He recalls the assassination as the day that started to divide the nation, and that makes him sad.
“We should re-evaluate ourselves as a society,” he said. “We shouldn’t put ourselves into so many categories. We should leave this world better than we found it.”