Personal Reflections on JFK, Dallas and the Day that Forever Changed America

One Fenwick priest was there in Texas on November 22, 1963, when our country and a new Catholic high school in Dallas were brought to their knees.

By Father Richard LaPata, O.P., President Emeritus of Fenwick High School

Photo courtesy Los Angeles Times

There are some memories that are fleetingly dismissed as soon as they surface in our minds. They are recalled for a split second and then disappear, perhaps never to return again. Other experiences in our lives are sometimes deeply embedded, often return and impress themselves once more in all their detail.

A memory that I will never forget has never laid dormant for long. It visited me once again as I read of the recent release of documents concerning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

It was the summer of 1963. I was a young priest, happily engaged in my first teaching assignment at Fenwick. But Fr. Marr, our Provinicial, had other plans for me and eight other Dominicans. We were assigned to help found a new Catholic high school in Dallas, TX.

I was not particularly pleased to go to Texas, a place I had never been and knew very little about. But I found wonderful families down there who were welcoming, generous and delighted to have nine new priest-teachers in their community. At any rate, we opened the school in late August and shared an exciting time creating a new educational endeavor with eight Dominican Sisters who also were assigned to Bishop Lynch High School.

Then fall came and November came, and an American tragedy occurred. On November 23rd, President Kennedy and his wife came to Dallas. Riding in a motorcade on downtown Dallas streets lined with thousands of people, he was shot and killed, seconds before reaching his planned destination.

One Boy’s Lament at Bishop Lynch

Meanwhile, at school, our noontime classes were interrupted with the news that the President had been shot. All faculty and students were asked to “get down on our knees and pray the Rosary for the President’s recovery.” We did not get through all the decades of our prayer when we were informed that the President had died. The school day ended at that moment, and the students were instructed to return home.

(Bishop Lynch 1963 image courtesy Dallas Morning News)

As they filed out, one young lad, who was about 13 years old, approached me. He tugged at my sleeve with tears streaming down both cheeks and asked, “Father, you are not going to leave us now, are you?” He was referring to all the Dominicans who began the new school. I reassured him we definitely were not. Needless to say, I was very touched by his sensitivity to the tragedy occurring so close to him, and the love and respect and appreciation he had for his teachers.

Father LaPata is a 1950 graduate of Fenwick.

Looking back, I am so pleased that we Friars were there with our Dallas family during a very disturbing time, rendering some comfort and stability and reassurance to our students.

After a short few years at Bishop Lynch, I found myself back at Fenwick. One day about six years ago I received a phone call from that young man whose story so affected me that fateful day. He asked if I remembered him. I told him that not a week went by that I did not think of him and November 23, 1963. He shared that he was now 62! We have kept in touch all the years since then.

Read a Dallas Morning News article from 2013, marking the 50th year since the tragic day in American history. 

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