President John Kennedy’s visit to San Antonio remains one of my most vivid childhood memories. Any San Antonian who was old enough remembers where they were and what they were doing the day JFK came to SA. Here’s mine…
Flashback 59 years ago to the day. I was 9 years old, a 4th grader at St. Michael’s Catholic School on San Antonio’s south side, where the Tower of the Americas now stands. For 2 weeks my teacher, Sister Mary Dennis a strict Sister of Divine Providence had been preparing us for President Kennedy’s visit to San Antonio. She taught us about JFK’s beginnings, his Irish ancestry, his exploits on PT 109 and most of all being the first President of the Catholic faith.
The day before JFK’s visit Sister Dennis sternly stressed to the class that our uniforms should be nicely clean and pressed because we were all going to see the President of the United States. At home I made sure Mom followed instructions. I filled the sprinkle-bottle with water so Mom could iron with the old Westinghouse with no interruptions. As a finishing touch Mom let me iron my black clip on tie. I went to my Dad’s barbershop to shine my shoes and Dad decided to give me a haircut, I had just gotten one the week before.
The great day finally arrived. That morning at school to my surprise, all the nuns, who were mostly of Polish descent were wearing their best white cornettes and black habits. The 6 feet of black wooden and brass Rosary beads which hung from their sides were nice and shiny too. I had never seen them this well dressed before. Even Sister Dennis’ usually smudged glasses were clean. They too had prepared for the President’s visit.
The entire student body gathered on the parade route. We were a sea of blues and khakis, the girls in solid blue skirts, beanies and white blouses and the boys in their khaki uniforms and black ties. I had never seen so many people in my life, so many San Antonians along with servicemen and servicewomen from the Army & Air Force all in their best uniforms. This was bigger than Fiesta! Over one hundred and twenty-thousand San Antonians lined the streets.
We waited patiently for over an hour as the motorcade was late. I didn’t care if it was late, I was going to see the President!
The moment we were all waiting for came. Down the street was an escort of San Antonio Police motorcycles with their red and blue lights flashing and sirens blaring. The shiny dark blue Lincoln Continental limousine was approaching. President Kennedy was sitting in the limousine on our side of the street! The crowd went wild! President Kennedy’s reddish brown hair and golden tan was glowing in the sunshine. Jacqueline was beautiful! Jackie, in a white dress and long white gloves looked like a princess. Camelot was alive!
Somehow in all the excitement, I found myself at the front of the curve. The President looked at me briefly and smiled. That 2 second encounter seemed like an hour to me.
I glanced toward Sister Dennis as the President passed her and she was clasping her hands close to her chest and smiling compassionately at the President. The President waved at her. They had connected. I could feel the love Sister Dennis had for him, she was no longer this crusty old nun I thought she was, she had turned human on me.
Afterwards downtown San Antonio, was the most crowded and happiest I had ever seen. People smiling, complete strangers talking to each other, commenting on what we had all witnessed.
I distinctly remember catching a conversation, an older Mexican lady being escorted and held by the hand by her daughter on Houson St. As they were walking, the lady told her daughter, “El Presidente me saludó con su mano!” Her old wrinkly face was gleaming with joy.
In the packed standing room only eastside bound Nolan bus on the way home, ladies both black & white were unusally stitting together, they were all chattering about Jackie and complimenting her on her double breasted white two piece. Segregation had come to an end on this bus ride.
My city of San Antonio had become one big happy family that day. If I could re-live one day, this would be it; the day Camelot came to San Antonio.
Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot!
Rick Melendrez, is a native of San Antonio. Melendrez considers himself fortunate to have been born in San Antonio, just 3 blocks from the San Antonio de Valero mission (the Alamo) at the former Nix hospital on the riverwalk and to have attended Catholic grade school on the southside and on the riverwalk.
Catholic education is very close to his heart. Melendrez attended St. Michaels for five years (1960-65) and then attended St. Mary’s School on the riverwalk (1965-68) and onto Cathedral high school in El Paso, Texas.
He is the former publisher of the El Paso Citizen newspaper and former chairman of the El Paso County Democratic Party. He writes a page on Facebook titled “Sister Mary Ruler, Growing Up Catholic In San Antonio”. Everyone is invited to read about the San Antonio of the 1960’s.