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Nov. 22, 1963: The Son Of a Secret Service Agent Remembers JFK Assassination

It's been 49 years since the assassination of President John F-Kennedy. Forty nine years since a 17-year-old boy was the first person to read the Secret Service account of what happened that day in Dallas. Doug Roberts of East Lansing was a high school student in Maryland on November 22, 1963. 

My father’s name was Emory Roberts. My father was a member of the United States Secret Service for about 28 years. Probably his most famous day was, of course, a day that we all remember, which is the day that President Kennedy was assassinated and my father was in Dallas that day. And he was in the front seat of the follow up car on the passenger side.

(archive audio of Walter Cronkite)“There has been an attempt, as perhaps you know now, on the life of President Kennedy. He was wounded in an automobile driving from Dallas airport… “

I was in the 11th grade, and it was the last hour of school that day. People didn’t have cell phones, so schools could hold news for awhile and know they could hold it. The school knew that as soon as they announced it, that there would be pandemonium. So, at the beginning of the last period, the principal came over the intercom and said the President had been assassinated, that Governor Connally had been wounded, and that a Secret Service agent had been killed. And that was incorrect, of course, but I didn’t know that at the time.

So I literally thought that I had lost, potentially, my father and my president on the same day.

I was up and out of my chair and out of the room almost as fast as I heard the news. I got to the phone. I called my mother immediately, and I said to my mother, “Is Dad OK?” It wasn’t, “Isn’t it awful news about the president? Is Dad OK?” It was very personal. And my mother didn’t hesitate a moment, and said, “He’s fine.” At that moment, I was correct about one thing – pandemonium is now taking place in the halls, and I was within walking distance of the school and I walked home.

Three days later, I asked my mother how she knew my father was OK, and she said. “I didn’t.” I said, “Suppose he wasn’t OK?” And she said we would have dealt with that at that time. That was a moment I will never forget because she was clearly in control no matter how serious the situation and, of course, a Secret Service agent was not killed. It was Officer Tippit, but the report was the report, and I believed the report.

(archive audio of Walter Cronkite)“From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time.”

My mother and my brother drove down to the White House to pick up my father that night. I stayed at home to answer the phones and stuff.

My father came home that night, went down our basement and we had an Underwood upright typewriter. We’re talking about with the carbon paper and everything else. And he typed his report of what happened that day, and I read it. He probably shouldn’t have given it to me, but I read it that night. So it’s as fresh as you can get.

The first thing that I remember reading it is, his testimony was two or three shots were fired. And I said it him after I had read it, “How come you don’t know whether it was two or three?” At that point, he probably knew that he had made a mistake, that this 11th grade kid shouldn’t probably have read this report this early. So be it. His answer – he looked me and said, “Because the brain is not a tape recorder.” So, it was very clinical. It was almost like Sergeant Friday – “Just the facts, ma’am.”

He never told me anything else about that particular day other than the things that were in his report that, again, he wrote that night.

(archive audio of Walter Cronkite)“Vice President Lyndon Johnson has left the hospital in Dallas, but we do not know to where he has proceeded. Presumably, he will be taking the oath of office shortly, and become the 36th president of the United States.”

It was my father and, yet, it was like that’s almost too close. This is something you read in history books. This is something that you study about. It’s not supposed to be the person that you have dinner with at the dinner table every night. So it’s like you’re just sort of observing something or you’re reading a book or something and, no, it’s part of your family.

Doug Roberts’ father, Emory Roberts, retired from the Secret Service a few years later at the age of 58, and died eight months later.

Doug Roberts is a former treasurer for the state of Michigan. He is currently the director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. He lives in East Lansing.

This piece was produced by Michigan Public Radio’s Rick Pluta.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.
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