On Friday morning, North Carolina native Jim Warlick will step out of the old Hotel Texas in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, and cross the sidewalk to his white 1963 Lincoln Continental convertible.
It will be parked in front, just where it was on another Friday 50 years ago.
On that morning, Nov. 22, 1963, the sky was clearing as a smiling President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie Kennedy, radiant in a pink wool suit and matching pillbox hat, strode out of the hotel and slipped into the same white convertible.
Squeezing into a red leather seat alongside Gov. John Connally, they joined a motorcade that wound through streets lined with cheering crowds to Carswell Air Force Base.
There they boarded Air Force One for the fateful, 13-minute trip to Dallas.
The Lincoln convertible will return to the hotel this Friday with Warlick, its new owner.
The Morganton native bought the car at auction last month for $318,000. He also paid $210,000 for a black 1960 Lincoln that was in Kennedy’s White House motor pool. Neither was the car Kennedy was riding in Dallas.
The cars were part of a trove of Kennedy items he bought, including two rotary-dial phones from the president’s Fort Worth hotel room, the pen he used to sign the 1961 Peace Corps Act and a bathing suit that belonged to Jackie.
The purchases certified Warlick as one of the nation’s leading collectors of Kennedy memorabilia. They also underscore the continued fascination with the life and death of the 35th president.
“He’s become a kind of mythological figure,” says Robert Dallek, author of “Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House.” “You can write anything on the slate you want because it was an unfinished presidency.”
A Gallup poll in 2010 found Kennedy with an 85 percent approval rating, far higher than any of the nine presidents who followed.
“The key thing about Jack Kennedy is that we lost him young,” says Chris Matthews, an MSNBC host and author of a 2011 book on Kennedy. “He was our youngest (elected) president, and he was taken away from us at the height of his influence.”
Warlick has made a career of presidential artifacts such as the white Lincoln.
“It’s a responsibility,” he says. “It’s a part of American history. It doesn’t need to be locked up in a garage somewhere. It needs to be shared with people.”
The ‘name sells’
Fifty years after his death, Kennedy has become a cottage industry.
More than 40,000 books about him have been published. This year alone, there have been at least 50 that spin conspiracy theories about his killing.
“The Kennedy name sells,” says Harvey Goldberg, director of the Kennedy Political Items Collectors association. “For many of us it’s a reminder of younger days, and of course the question of ‘What if?’ and ‘What might have been?’”
The collectors group counts about 350 active members, he says. And there’s seemingly no end to what Kennedy collectors collect.
There are buttons, bumper stickers, photos, magazine covers, White House Christmas cards, stamps from around the world and articles of presidential clothing.
“Anything that they could put a message or image on for the campaign they did,” Goldberg says.
The assassination has its own collectors.
Last month, someone paid $108,000 for the gold wedding band that Lee Harvey Oswald left in a cup on a night table before heading to the Texas School Book Depository, the building from where he shot JFK. The ring is engraved with a tiny hammer and sickle.
Another reason for all the fascination is that Kennedy’s death came into people’s living rooms. While he wasn’t the first president to die in office, he was the first to die in the television age.
“Never before in the history of the world had there been such a massively shared event,” said Sheldon Stern, retired historian for the Kennedy Library. “Combine that with Kennedy’s youth and promise and the circumstances of his death, (and) it was that sense of loss … that was so disturbing to so many people.”
From obsession to business
Warlick’s interest in Kennedy, like his obsession in politics, started early.
The son of a Burke County Democratic activist, he always expected to run for public office or work on campaigns. He was in sixth grade in November 1963 and for four days he stayed glued to television. Politics would continue to interrupt his life.
After high school he enrolled at a community college but dropped out to work on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. Then he entered Appalachian State, only to leave for another campaign. Then it was N.C. State, where he left for still another one.
In 1979 he became an aide to U.S. Rep. Lamar Gudger of Asheville. But a year later during the 1980 presidential election, he decided to try his hand at campaign buttons. He made a handful of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan buttons and sold them at party conventions and rallies. He was hooked.
“I did better than I did in a year with Congressman Gudger,” he says.
His avocation turned into a business.
Warlick, 61, now owns two White House Gifts stores in Washington and a new one called Presidential Gallery. He also owns “The American Presidential Experience,” a 30,000-square-foot exhibit of presidential artifacts he brought to Charlotte for last year’s Democratic NationalConvention.
Friday morning, Warlick will be at what’s now known as the Hilton Fort Worth for a chamber of commerce breakfast commemorating the event Kennedy attended 50 years ago.
He’ll join two men who were with Kennedy that day who will be honored on the anniversary: then-U.S. Rep. Jim Wright and Clint Hill, the Secret Service agent who jumped onto the back of the president’s limousine seconds after the fatal shots.
After the breakfast, he’ll take the white Lincoln convertible to the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Dallas’ Love Field. There it will join an exhibit with his 47-foot replica of Air Force One, a Boeing 707 fuselage he refurbished to mirror Kennedy’s plane in 1963.
One compartment will feature the audio of Lyndon Johnson’s call to Kennedy’s mother, Rose.
“I wish to God there was something that I could do,” Johnson told her. “And I wanted to tell you that we are grieving with you.”
“Thank you very much,” she responded. “Thank you very much. I know you loved Jack. And he loved you.”
Warlick says he’s excited to be part of the anniversary.
“Growing up in the rural area of Burke County,” he says, “you would never dream that.”
‘No faint hearts’
Wright, the former congressman who went on to become speaker of the U.S. House, remembers the day that began with rainy skies in Fort Worth.
Shortly before 9 a.m., Wright knocked on the door of Suite 850.
“I went by to pick him up at his room,” recalls Wright, 90. “The sun had come out and people were joyously standing out there waiting on the president. I thought, the luck of the Irish.”
After speaking to a crowd of 5,000 outside (“There are no faint hearts in Fort Worth,” Kennedy said from a makeshift stage), the president returned to the hotel’s Crystal Ballroom where 2,000 people heard what would be his last speech, about national defense and U.S. leadership in the world.
Then it was into the Lincoln convertible for the motorcade. At the air base, Kennedy shook hands with onlookers and waved from the steps of Air Force One.
Aboard, he summoned Wright and Connally to explain the rivalry between Fort Worth and Dallas. Wright says they hadn’t finished the conversation when the plane landed at Love Field.
“The president looked at the two of us and said, ‘We must continue this conversation this afternoon,’” Wright recalls. “That haunted both of us. It certainly haunted me.”
Researcher Maria David contributed.
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