Many people remember John Kennedy’s assassination and the mayhem that followed, but fewer got as close to the drama as retired Sonora physician Rich Behymer.
Behymer was a 16-year-old Dallas high school student at the time of the president’s visit to his hometown and remembers the excitement around the prestigious visit.
He saw the young president and his wife exiting Air Force One at Love Field the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963.
He was just hoping to catch a glimpse of the First Couple, so Behymer’s mother allowed him to skip school that day. She even drove him and his girlfriend to the small airport to watch.
People in town had worried the president’s large plane wouldn’t even fit in the field, Behymer recalled.
Behymer and his girlfriend stood about 75 yards from Air Force One as the Kennedys exited.
“They were right there. We were kind of surprised at the time at how close they were,” Behymer said. “I remember, he waved. Then they got into the car and left.”
Love Field was so crowded with onlookers hoping to see the Kennedys that Behymer, girlfriend and mother were still stuck in traffic when Kennedy was shot. They heard about it over the car radio.
An eerie, peculiar thing happened just before hearing the announcement.
“I have told very, very few people about this,” Behymer said. “I turned to my girlfriend and said, ‘You know, there might be a John Wilkes Booth here today.’”
“She looked at me like I was crazy. I don’t know where it came from. Obviously, when the announcement came over the radio, she looked at me again like I was nuts.”
Behymer recalled feeling devastated after hearing about the assassination.
An aside, he recalled his sister’s friend was the emergency room nurse at Parkland Hospital, when Kennedy was rushed to the hospital after the shooting.
About four months after the shooting, in March 1964, Behymer and his girlfriend again got permission to skip school to try to get in the courthouse to see some of Jack Ruby’s nine-day trial.
Ruby, a Dallas strip club owner, was arrested Nov. 24 after shooting and killing Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
Only about 40 members of the public were allowed into the courtroom, so Behymer and his girlfriend didn’t make it in the first day they tried. But that led to a chance encounter.
“There was a little old lady sitting on the bench outside. She was sitting by herself,” Behymer said.
Someone told them it was Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother, Marguerite, so they went over and started talking to her.
“She was convinced her son was either innocent or was set up. She was a sweet old lady. We got her autograph.” Behymer said.
Behymer and his girlfriend camped overnight outside the courthouse so they could get in to the trial the next day.
They were woken by a reporter’s flashbulb and were featured in the news as a young couple waiting to see the trial.
They sat in on the last day and heard closing arguments, some of which were delivered by famous defense attorney Melvin Belli, who, incidentally, was a Tuolumne County native.
Later that year, Behymer attended the World’s Fair in New York with his girlfriend’s family.
“We quickly learned to not say we were from Dallas. People would turn around and walk away, like it was partly your fault,” Behymer said.
“It’s one of those things — it’s like Sept. 11. I think everybody remembers what they were doing. They just stick in your mind.”