For 13-year-old Ray Wilkinson, Nov. 22, 1963, was shaping up to be a red-letter day. The weather had cleared up in his Oak Cliff, Texas, neighborhood, so his mother’s plan to drive him and his sister downtown to see President Kennedy’s motorcade got a thumbs up.
Not only was he going to get to see the president – whom his family had long admired – he’d get a half-day off from school.
“Our family loved the Kennedys,” said Wilkinson, who now lives in Albuquerque.
“During the 1960 (presidential) campaign, we went to a shopping center in Oak Cliff where LBJ made a speech. I got some Kennedy bumper stickers and was all gung ho about Kennedy. I stuck one of them on the driver’s side of our car.”
Wilkinson said his parents grew up during the Depression and were lifelong Democrats. So when it was announced that Kennedy would be in Dallas, it was a given that the Wilkinsons would go see him.
The whole family was excited on the Friday morning of the president’s visit, but Ray’s father, an accountant, couldn’t get the day off.
“My mom picked up my sister at her elementary school then picked me up at Boude Storey (Junior High) and we went downtown,” Wilkinson said Thursday at his Northeast Heights home. “Oak Cliff wasn’t very far from downtown.”
The mood was nearly festive as Ray, 13, his sister, Diane, 9, and their mother cruised the family’s 1954 Ford toward downtown Dallas, where the presidential motorcade would soon arrive en route from Love Field to the Dallas Trade Mart for a political event.
After parking on the fifth floor of a downtown department’s store’s parking garage, the Wilkinsons made their way to Main Street and picked out a vantage point about two blocks from Dealey Plaza.
“It was a beautiful, sunny day and thousands of people had turned out,” Wilkinson said.
Though it took only seconds for the motorcade to pass, if left an indelible memory.
“I still remember seeing the president, the first lady and Gov. (John) Connally and his wife,” as their long black limousine passed, he said.
“When the motorcade got to Houston Street, it turned right and that’s where we lost sight of it,” he said.
The family then walked back to the parking garage and took the elevator to the fifth floor.
“While we were in the elevator, we were talking about how quickly the motorcade had passed,” Wilkinson recalled.
When the elevator doors opened and they began walking toward their car, they heard what seemed like hundreds of police sirens.
“It seemed like every siren in Dallas was going off. I remember wondering what the hell was going on,” he said.
As soon as they got to the car, they turned on the radio – KLIF -AM 1190 – “and all we heard was that the President had been shot.”
“My sister started bawling; I was crying. My mother was crying inconsolably. I don’t think she, or any of us knew what to do,” Wilkinson recalled.
“I remember her driving fast to get me back to school. We got there right about 12:30. I went into the office and everyone there was freaked out. They told me to go back to class, but not to say anything. They were adamant about that,” he said.
“I went back to algebra class and everyone was asking me what was going on because they knew I had gone to see the president and why I had been out of class. I’m sure I was ashen-faced.”
“Just about 1 p.m. they went on the school’s PA system and announced that the president was dead,” Wilkinson said. After a long pause, he added, “I was in shock pretty much the rest of the day.”
Wilkinson said he doesn’t remember whether school was dismissed early. His memory picks up about three hours later when he was waiting for The Dallas Times Herald delivery truck to drop off the papers for his evening route.
“My bundle was late. I think I got it about 4 and finished my route by about 6. It was November, so it was dark by the time I finished,” he said.
Many subscribers on his route met him at the curb that day, eager to get the latest news on the assassination that will forever be linked to Dallas and Oak Cliff, the then-fashionable enclave where Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit on East 10th Street about 45 minutes after Kennedy was shot.
Oswald briefly holed up in the Texas Theatre on West Jefferson Boulevard – a movie theater Wilkinson and his family frequented.
In the following days – especially after Oswald was shot to death on live TV by nightclub owner Jack Ruby – the whole country seemed to be in shock, he said.
“It was just after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the speculation over the next few days was just crazy,” he said.
Fifty years removed from that day, Wilkinson still has vivid memories of parts of that day: others have faded entirely.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. Some of it is crystal clear,” he said. “It’s still fascinating to me, but after 50 years, I still don’t think we’ll ever know the real story.”
But he’s certain of one thing. Dallas, Oak Cliff and America were changed that day.
“It shaped our history from that time forward,” he said. “It was the day we lost our innocence.”