Forty-eight years ago, at the hopeful and ignorant age of twenty, JoAnn Roxbury was a young wife recently transplanted to Houston, Texas from her native Michigan. She worked for a company that made oil field equipment in their Accounts Payable Department, coding invoices for data entry by a co-worker. The office was in downtown Houston, although in one of the smaller high-rises there in the heart of the city. On her birthday, November 21, 1963, she was greatly excited because the President was coming to town and she would see him in person — something at the time that was rare for average citizens in the heartland and a special treat for a girl from a small town still getting used to urban life. The staff members in her office were notified by the management that they were closing the office early that day, due to the President’s visit. They were told that there had been a threat against the President’s life and extra security measures were being taken as a result. Previously, when parades had passed through downtown, the employees opened windows and threw confetti down on the participants below (like the Colt 45′s/Astros and other local teams/dignitaries); however, this time, they were informed that windows were to remain closed and everyone was prohibited from throwing anything out the windows. In the end, they closed the building altogether and the employees were forced to leave.
The motorcade itself passed in mid-afternoon (around 3:00pm), and it consisted of four or five cars. The Kennedys were in one car — a convertible (which Roxbury recalls as a Cadillac), and the Governor, Mayor, and other persons of note were in accompanying vehicles. There was a motorcycle escort from the Houston police and other officers and Secret Service members walked along with the cars. One of these was black and had darkened windows, which indicated it was a Secret Service vehicle. A large crowd packed both sides of the street, and this included people of all ages. In the heart of downtown, the faces were mostly white, but as the motorcade moved farther to the edges of downtown, it passed into a largely African-American part of the city. This is actually where young Roxbury (who is white) watched the President and First Lady pass. Although some of her co-workers stayed by their office and watched together, Roxbury’s husband fetched her in their Corvair and drove further out to try and avoid the worst of the crowd. Eventually, they were unable to continue on due to street closures, so they parked and got out to watch.
Roxbury was too young to vote in the 1960 election (when one had to be 21 to vote), but she liked the Kennedys very much. They were young and stylish, with a family. She saw them as a breath of fresh air in politics and admired them greatly. In particular, Jacqueline Kennedy seemed an elegant change from the dowdiness of Mamie Eisenhower, whom Roxbury did not particularly like. Houston was a Democratic bastion then and a port city, so there was quite a demographic mix there. It had a significant black population — as well as Hispanics and immigrants. The main of the town, then, was eager to see the President and his wife as they drove from the airport to wherever they were staying (which was never announced to the public). The Kennedys were to attend a fundraising dinner that night, Roxbury thought. She was very eager to catch a glimpse and was thrilled to find herself about fifteen yards from the Kennedys’ car as it passed. Being the only white people in the crowd at that part, Roxbury and her husband stood out — and she thought it was because of this that she caught the Kennedys’ attention. Looking over, Jackie Kennedy eyed her directly and waved, smiling brightly. Roxbury thought Mrs. Kennedy looked very elegant in her suit and hat. People around them were calling out to the President and First Lady, cheering, and talking excitedly. It was quite a treat for the young wife’s birthday, and she looked forward to telling her family back home about it later.
After this momentous and special birthday event, Roxbury reported to her office as usual the next day. She stayed in for lunch. Returning co-workers brought devastating news: going on to Dallas for a visit that morning, President Kennedy had been shot as his motorcade went through town there. Roxbury was stunned. But, she had just seen him the day before. He was so young and healthy-looking. She and her co-workers pressed their boss’ secretary to turn the radio on in his office (they didn’t have any TV’s there), and the woman finally relented. Initial news reports said that the Governor had been shot and killed, while Kennedy was rushed to the hospital with a bullet wound. About 1:30pm, they got the news that, instead, the President was dead.
The office fell strangely silent. The employees were shocked and stunned; some were crying. It seemed so unreal that they had just seen the President the day before, and the next, he had been brutally and shockingly assassinated. Again the office closed early for the day — and it remained closed for the next few days. In downtown Houston, people poured out of office buildings into the streets. Many stood around in a daze. This was America — not some unstable third world country. Roxbury thought: Aren’t we supposed to be better/more tolerant than this? Are we resorting to violence to settle our political disputes now? It was too much — and it would get worse as she watched the President’s assassin killed himself on live TV the following day. ”What have we become?” she asked, just a day after the joy of seeing the head of the great Republic and marking her entry into her second decade. It was all hope and tragedy, and she was starting out.
– Oral history with JoAnn Roxbury, 11/21/2011, Tulsa, OK
(Happy Birthday, Mom.)