JFK's Chapel Hill visits remembered on assassination anniversary
Ray Farris was senior class president at UNC-Chapel Hill when he and other students helped lead President John F. Kennedy into Kenan Stadium.
It was a beautiful day, Oct. 12, 1961. Kennedy received an honorary degree and met with then-Governor Terry Sanford. Kennedy’s mother was in the crowd as he spoke of the history of Carolina and its academic freedoms during University Day.
“He was in a very good mood, he had a nice smile about him,” said Farris, now 73 years old and a Charlotte attorney. “He was a confident speaker.”
Farris was in his graduate student dorm room in Avery Hall more than two years after the University Day ceremony when he heard of Kennedy being shot.
Fifty years have passed since John F. Kennedy, the nation’s youngest, was assassinated along his motorcade route in Dallas, when an entire nation fell into mourning.
“I was pretty well-dumbfounded,” Farris said. “No one knew quite how he was assassinated at that time. No one knew that Jack Ruby was going to kill the reported assassin. There were many, many questions at that time that were unanswered.”
Tom Lambeth, 78-year-old senior fellow at the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, was 24 when he became part of Gov. Terry Sanford’s campaign team. When Kennedy and Sanford joined forces, Lambeth met the presidential candidate, then later he got to visit the White House.
Lambeth, who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1957, started on the Sanford campaign two years after graduation. He remembers meeting Rose Kennedy, JFK’s mother, and driving her around Chapel Hill for the day.
Rose stayed at the Carolina Inn, asked Lambeth if there were any forested parks in town to go on a walk, and she attended Mass at Saint Thomas More Catholic Church, where she helped sweep the front steps before service.
In the fall of that year, 1960, Lambeth hopped on a bus with Kennedy, which was taking the presidential candidate from a rally at N.C. State’s Reynolds Stadium to the airport.
“President Kennedy moved around the bus, sitting down with each one of us for a few minutes so we could have a conversation with him,” he said. “Somebody had told him about my day with his mother and taking her into Chapel Hill.”
Kennedy said to him, “Tom, my mother said you were right about Chapel Hill.”
During the rally, Lambeth said he remembers the crowd of thousands responding to Kennedy’s charisma.
“All the people wanted to reach out and touch him,” he said. “He was a war hero, he had a lot of quality to him and was sort of electric, in a way. You sort of had that sense when you walked behind him in a crowd.”
In 1963, Kennedy had planned to attend the Carolina-Duke game Nov. 23 -- his administrative assistant was a Duke graduate, who told the president about the intense school rivalry, according to the Carolina Alumni Review.
JFK instead traveled to Dallas that weekend, where he was assassinated.
Churches in downtown Raleigh held memorial services. Football games across the country were canceled. Lambeth said it was a shock to everyone.
Thirteen years later, he helped with a joint investigation into Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Kennedy’s assassinations, when attorneys and police investigators interviewed witnesses and examined evidence gathered from both incidents. The team helped find the original recording of Lee Harvey Oswald’s fatal shot among the Dallas procession.
Regarding the 50-year anniversary, Lambeth recollected that Kennedy, if he was alive today, would be 96.
“It’s hard for me to believe it’s been that long,” he said.