On the scene of the JFK assassination: ‘It was chaos’

(Editor’s Note: This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. ECM Political Editor Howard Lestrud, an avid JFK item collector for more than 50 years, is writing a series of articles on Kennedy leading up to the assassination observance in November. The first in the series was on Mike Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, and his father, Orville Freeman, Secretary of Agriculture under Kennedy. In the second segment, Lestrud talked to former Dallas Police Detective James R. Leavelle, the man handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald when Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby. In the third segment, Lestrud discussed the upcoming special observances planned for Nov. 22 by the city of Dallas and by the Sixth Floor Museum. In this fourth installment, former Isanti County resident Jack Puterbaugh shares his story of being in the president’s motorcade, just blocks in front of Kennedy’s car when the shooting took place.) 

by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor

Where were you on Nov. 22, 1963, when the 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated?

On that date, 50 years ago, many recall where they were and what they were doing. The date and time of 12:30 CST is engraved in the memory banks of many.

Former Isanti County resident Jack Puterbaugh displays a photo of then Sen. John F. Kennedy campaigning at a bean feed in Minneapolis in September 1960. Puterbaugh did advance work on Kennedy's Minnesota visit and was part of the advance team for Kennedy's visit to Dallas, Texas on Nov. 22, 1963. (Photo by Howard Lestrud, ECM Publishers)

Former Isanti County resident Jack Puterbaugh displays a photo of then Sen. John F. Kennedy campaigning at a bean feed in Minneapolis in September 1960. Puterbaugh did advance work on Kennedy’s Minnesota visit and was part of the advance team for Kennedy’s visit to Dallas, Texas on Nov. 22, 1963. (Photo by Howard Lestrud, ECM Publishers)

Former Isanti County resident Jack Puterbaugh, a longtime DFL activist, vividly recalls being in Dallas on that fateful day and riding in a car only six vehicles ahead of the presidential limousine in President Kennedy’s motorcade. Puterbaugh was part of an advance team that made plans for the president’s trip to Dallas.

The advance team that included Puterbaugh was involved with selecting the site for the president’s planned speech in Dallas, the Trade Mart. Kennedy was gunned down minutes before he was to speak at the Trade Mart.

Puterbaugh was about five blocks away in a police vehicle on the Stemmons Freeway when one of the most shocking events in the nation’s history occurred. Kennedy and Gov. John Connally were both shot by an assassin who allegedly perched in a tall building, the Texas School Book Depository Building, on Elm Street. Kennedy was fatally wounded, but Connally survived.

For the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, Puterbaugh, 87, took time to share his connection with the events of Nov. 22, 1963.

Puterbaugh, now a resident in assisted living at Walker Place in Minneapolis, loves to tell stories from his personal history. Like a walking history book, he has a knack of pulling out experiences and dates without hesitation.

Puterbaugh has been a featured speaker in his living complex. He can talk for hours about his ties with the Minnesota DFL Party, his appointment as a state liquor commissioner, his work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, his early years as a classroom teacher and even his early years growing up in Isanti County.

From rural beginnings to politics

Puterbaugh’s grandparents immigrated to America from Sweden in 1882. The family bought a farm just west of Dalbo in Isanti County.

Recounting family history, Puterbaugh said his father met his mother when he was stationed at Fort Snelling during World War I. His mother worked at the American Linen Co. at the time. Puterbaugh and a younger brother, Karl, were educated in a one-room school with eight grades. The Sandy Knoll School was located 3 1/2 miles west of Isanti.

Laughing as he recalls his early years of moving from place to place, Puterbaugh said his parents “were like a bunch of Gypsies.” Puterbaugh and his family moved to Minneapolis in his seventh grade and returned to the one-room school in Isanti a year later when his family bought a farm near Cambridge.

Puterbaugh graduated from Cambridge High School in 1943. He enrolled at the University of Minnesota and then enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and served two years during World War II. He served state side and attended navigation school in Amarillo, Texas, to be a flight engineer. The war ended in 1945, and that also ended his schooling.

“I didn’t get my wings,” Puterbaugh said with disappointment.

Following the end of World War II, Puterbaugh married his high school classmate and sweetheart, a cadet nurse named Marvelle. He also went back to school at the University, graduating in 1948 with a degree in education.

Puterbaugh’s first teaching job was a half year in 1950 as a science and math teacher at Grove City, located between Willmar and Litchfield. His next teaching assignment came in Worthington as a teacher of biology, chemistry and physics. At that time, Marvelle and Jack raised two boys, Greg and Steve, and a daughter, Carrie.

From Worthington, the Puterbaugh family moved to Minneapolis, where he worked at Honeywell and at Electric Machinery in Minneapolis.

Then came his involvement in politics. His parents were active in politics, his father serving as secretary of the old Farmer Labor organization in Isanti, Puterbaugh recalled. At age 9, Puterbaugh was introduced to Gov. Floyd B. Olson in 1934 when he visited Isanti to dedicate paved streets.

“I shook hands with Gov. Olson,” Puterbaugh said with pride.

He said he had the opportunity to meet many congressional and state legislative people in the 1950s. He met former Gov. Orville Freeman, former Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, former Gov. Karl Rolvaag and former Gov. Elmer L. Andersen. Puterbaugh worked for Rolvaag in 1957 before he became governor.

Puterbaugh remembers Gov. Andersen passing legislation to reorganize the welfare department. Puterbaugh enjoyed lunch with him at the Purple Hawk Golf Club in Cambridge and talking about the Interstate 35E project, which became a campaign issue between Andersen and Rolvaag.

During his early entry into politics, Puterbaugh continued to work as an engineer for Honeywell and Electric Machinery. He then went to work for the Minnesota DFL serving as its executive secretary. He was appointed state liquor commissioner by Gov. Freeman in 1957 and served until 1961.

Preparing the way for the president

In June 1961, Puterbaugh’s career took a strange turn when Minneapolis Mayor Art Naftalin, a staunch DFLer, appointed Puterbaugh chief of police. He had no police experience. The appointment was controversial and was never approved.

Early in 1962 Puterbaugh met former Judge Miles Lord who suggested he find work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Puterbaugh became a civil service employee and worked as the assistant to the deputy of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Services. It was through this position that he became involved in advance planning for the president’s 1963 visit to Duluth.

Jack Puterbaugh is at the far left in this photo taken of then Sen. John F. Kennedy on a campaign visit to Minneapolis in September 1960. Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman is at right.

Jack Puterbaugh is at the far left in this photo taken of then Sen. John F. Kennedy on a campaign visit to Minneapolis in September 1960. Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman is at right.

Puterbaugh had actually been in charge of protective security for then Sen. Kennedy’s campaign appearance at a bean feed in Minneapolis in 1960. No Secret Service protection was given to presidential candidates at that time.

Puterbaugh met Kennedy at this event. He recalled traveling with Kennedy and his entourage to Duluth and to Hibbing. He rode a vehicle with Kennedy, Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Congressman John Blatnik, he said. As Kennedy’s car traveled amidst the beautiful fall colors, Kennedy remarked about the beauty of a farm in the distance. Puterbaugh said it was the old county poor farm.

“I don’t think he had any idea what it was,” Puterbaugh said.

Puterbaugh earned his stripes as an advance man for presidential visits by helping plan for Kennedy’s visit to Duluth in September 1963 for a Department of Agriculture-sponsored land and peoples conference. During that visit, Puterbaugh said, the president was working on a deal with key Minnesotans to provide wheat to the Soviet Union. Former Gov. Freeman, then Kennedy’s Secretary of Agriculture, helped with the project.

Taking it to Texas

“I have no idea,” Puterbaugh said in explaining why he was selected to be on the advance team for Kennedy’s visit to Dallas in November 1963. He said the reason he was chosen was due to a recommendation from Freeman’s executive assistant, Thomas Hughes.

Puterbaugh joined a contingency in Dallas on Nov. 12. The group included chief warrant officer Art Bales of the Army Signal Corps and Secret Service agent Win Lawson. The main task of this group was to determine whether Kennedy would speak at the Trade Mart or at the Citizens Womens Building at the Texas State Fairgrounds. The Trade Mart was finally selected.

The group also wrestled with determining how many tickets various groups would get. At that time, the DFL in Texas was in disarray with three groups fighting for leadership: First was Gov. John Connally, represented a conservative faction; second was Vice President Lyndon Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn representing the middle group; and third was Sen. Ralph Yarborough representing the so-called liberals.

Puterbaugh said he and his fellow advance people became peace makers in distributing tickets and in determining seating arrangements.

Many books and magazines have been published prior to the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The city of Dallas plans special events on Nov. 22 to observe the memory of Kennedy. (Photo by Howard Lestrud, ECM Publishers)

Many books and magazines have been published prior to the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The city of Dallas plans special events on Nov. 22 to observe the memory of Kennedy. (Photo by Howard Lestrud, ECM Publishers)

Puterbaugh stayed in Dallas through Nov. 22, the day of Kennedy’s visit. He started his day at Love Field in Dallas. Kennedy and his wife Jackie arrived at about 11:30 a.m. Puterbaugh remembers JFK and Jackie shaking a lot of hands before they departed in a motorcade.

Puterbaugh said he was amazed by the large crowds of people watching the motorcade as he rode in a police-driven pilot car about five blocks ahead of the presidential limousine. As Puterbaugh’s vehicle continued past the Texas School Book Depository and toward the freeway, history was forever changed when the police radio conveyed a message to send all available police officers to the Triple Underpass.

Another message came across alerting medical people to be prepared at Parkland Hospital. Puterbaugh said his vehicle pulled over to the side of the road on the freeway as Kennedy’s limousine sped by. Puterbaugh’s pilot car, carrying six people, then followed the Kennedy limousine and other backup cars to Parkland Hospital. “I saw them take President Kennedy out of the car,” Puterbaugh said. “We knew it was very bad,” he said.

Later, Puterbaugh was driven back to the Triple Underpass area. “It was chaos,” he said. From there, he headed to the Dallas airport to arrange a flight back to Minnesota. Flights were delayed, but he did manage a return flight.

Life after 1963

“The assassination of JFK resulted in a real change in the American Experiment,” Puterbaugh said. “The country has not been the same,” he said. Puterbaugh said he has not embraced any theories as to what happened on that day but emphasized that he hasn’t seen anything to believe the assassination was a conspiracy.

Puterbaugh stayed with the Department of Agriculture until 1972 when President Richard Nixon was re-elected. He came back to Minnesota and bought a 113-acre farm east of Stanchfield. He began work as an Isanti County zoning administrator in 1977. He retired in 1988.

Puterbaugh has enjoyed retirement and still follows politics.

“It’s too bad what our country is going through,” he said. He believes the U.S. is spending too much money on the military, more than all other nations put together. “Civilizations have flourished and gone under because of reliance on the military,” he said.

Politics have changed, and Puterbaugh has witnessed much of that change. Fifty years have passed since that fateful day on Nov. 22, 1963, a day that is forever etched in Puterbaugh’s memory.

 

Howard Lestrud can be reached at howard.lestrud@ecm-inc.com.

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