Witness to history: Minnesotan in Dallas motorcade

6:28 PM, Nov 21, 2013   |    comments
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MINNEAPOLIS - The passing of half a century has not dimmed the memory of a Minnesota man who was a witness to history in Dallas. He was an advance man for the presidential visit to Texas in November, 1963.

Jack Puterbaugh, 88, of Minneapolis was a 38-year-old DFL activist who often planned John F. Kennedy's appearances in Minnesota. He began a series of contacts with the ill-fated leader in 1960, when then Senator Kennedy was campaigning for President.

"Back in those days," explained Puterbaugh, "the candidate did not have Secret Service protection."

It fell to Puterbaugh to schedule security for the 1960 visit that began with a DFL "beanfeed" in Minneapolis. Puterbaugh often rode in the same car with the Senator.

"The next morning, he got up and went to Mass at St. Olaf's in downtown Minneapolis and then he stopped off at the Saint Paul Hotel," recalled Puterbaugh. "Finally, we flew up to Duluth...and Kennedy spotted a farm. It was off the road and he said 'what a beautiful place!' and a local driver said 'That is the County Poor Farm.' I always meant that Kennedy never had any real feeling with the County Poor Farm because of his privileged kind of background."

When President Kennedy visited the state again in September of 1963, Puterbaugh was tapped to plan the visit. He found himself in a room at the Duluth Hotel with the President, Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman and Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall.

"The Soviet Union that year had had a bad wheat harvest," explained Puterbaugh. "They wanted to buy wheat from us. We did not care how it got shipped to the Soviet Union, but (Senator) Karl Mundt, who was one of the early Tea Party (type) people from South Dakota got himself involved in that and insisted that it be shipped in what was called American Bottoms ships. Kennedy and the two secretaries were discussing how they could finesse Karl Mundt on the issue of how the wheat got shipped. That is the way policy gets made, rather informally."

His effectiveness in the September trip resulted in Puterbaugh being invited to help in the advance work for the Dallas visit. "I spent 10 days down there before that fateful day in November," said Puterbaugh.

He recalled flying to Texas in a government plane the day after Veterans Day with a Secret Service Agent named Winn Larson. "He and I shared a hotel room together," said Puterbaugh.

On the morning of November 22nd, Puterbaugh recalled nothing was out of the ordinary. "I remember having breakfast at the Sheraton Hotel and that was when the President was in Fort Worth," Puterbaugh added. Puterbaugh was at Love Field in Dallas.

"The crowd was friendly. Air Force One landed and the President and Mrs. Kennedy got off, " he said. Puterbaugh watched the famous pair work the "rope line", shaking hands and signing autographs.

"Then the motorcade started out and I did not have a way to go to the (Dallas) Trade Mart (where Kennedy was to speak). So, Lawson said 'Why don't you ride in the advance car?' So, that is where I ended up. The crowd along the parade was friendly. I remember we went past a parochial school and the sisters let the kids out or the students out to watch the motorcade go by. I was in a car that was about four or five blocks ahead of the main motorcade and people were very friendly."

Puterbaugh recalled that Dallas was a city with a reputation for not being friendly to Democrats, but he saw none of that along the parade route. He recalled the car making the slow turns onto Elm Street in front of the Texas School Book Depository, just below where Lee Harvey Oswald waited above with his rifle.

The route was to take the motorcade through Dealey Plaza then onto a freeway for the drive to the Trade Mart. They passed under a triple underpass at the end of the Plaza. 

"We had barely gotten out on the freeway and I was in a Dallas police car and Chief Curry came on and wanted to send all the available police officers to the triple underpass area. Almost immediately, I thought someone had thrown an egg or a tomato or something like that," said Puterbaugh. "Then, he came on and wanted to alert the trauma facilities at the Parkland Hospital." 

The limousine with the wounded president sped by them. They followed to the hospital. "We pulled right behind the Secret Service follow up car. We pulled in there and had a chance to see them take the President out of the bubble top (the top was not used) and you could see that he was really, very seriously injured."

Eventually, Puterbaugh made it back to his hotel and, after several flight delays, back to Minnesota and his job as zoning administrator for Isanti County.

"I was never interviewed by the Warren Commission (the group that published the official investigation into Kennedy's death)," said Puterbaugh. "I have never seen that document. I was interviewed by the House Select Committee on the assassination."

Puterbaugh does not subscribe to any of the assassination conspiracy theories. He believes that Oswald was the lone gunman, based on the Zapruder film, taken by a bystander that day.

"You know, the conspiracy thing gets muddled up by the CIA, the fact that Oswald had spent time in the Soviet Union...and it gave impetus to people who were looking for a conspiracy to find one."

Puterbaugh is retired now and living in a senior complex in Minneapolis.

(Copyright 2013 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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