On Nov. 21, 1963, President John F. Kennedy drove through San Antonio and waved at students and teachers from Cambridge Elementary School in Alamo Heights. They had gathered outside to greet the 35th president of the United States.
Twenty-four hours later, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald while riding in a motorcade through downtown Dallas.
On Thursday morning, 56 years after Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, visited San Antonio, a group of history lovers is set to unveil a monument marking that visit. The monument on the corner of Ogden Lane and Broadway will feature an image of a photograph of the Kennedys in a convertible as elementary school students wave at the president and first lady.
Lawyer Frank Ruttenberg was a fourth grader at Cambridge Elementary in 1963 and remembers the Kennedys’ visit to the San Antonio area. He doesn’t remember every detail of the day, but the moment the couple drove by the school is ingrained in his mind.
“It was exciting,” Ruttenberg said. “The president was coming to town. This doesn’t happen very often and my parents were big Kennedy supporters. In fourth grade, my parents put a Kennedy-Johnson bumper sticker on my blue notebook and sent me to school with it.
“I think in my mind, it was a terrific event that I was getting to see the Kennedys. Back in those days, President Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, were bigger than life.”
The photo featured in the monument includes Ruttenberg, who is pictured among dozens of other school children lined up on Ogden Lane. The photo is the focal point of the new monument outside the school.
Ruttenberg provided a copy of it to Jim Berg, who spearheaded the monument’s installation. Berg, a retired digital media company owner and former military base newspaper owner, first put a slightly cropped version of that photograph into official Alamo Heights history when he had a copy framed and hung at City Hall in 2015. The photograph was taken by Maj. W. M. Kardegg, whose daughter Linda was a student at Cambridge.
Ruttenberg surmised the cropped picture was a result of someone cutting out the portion of the photograph where his mother had circled his face. Kardegg had offered students and their families the opportunity to buy prints of the photograph he took, so his mother obtained a copy, Ruttenberg said.
“I think maybe … they cropped the picture on the left where my mother had written my name,” Ruttenberg said.
Ruttenberg also contributed funds to help build the monument, which cost $25,000, and Overland Partners architect and founding partner Tim Blonkvist designed it free of charge.
The steel structure stands about 6 feet tall and 12 feet wide and pairs a plaque with the recreation of the photograph.
“[Kennedy] was so happy and waving, and all the kids were standing out in front of him in San Antonio,” Blonkvist said. “And I thought, what a remarkably happy moment in his life that was as he was heading into the presidential election next year. And 24 hours later, he was dead in Dallas. I thought, what a contrast between the two cities in a 24-hour period in his life.”
Blonkvist designed the monument with a gap between the plaque and the bronze image of the photograph to represent that 24-hour window between happiness and despair.
“This is a monument to celebrate the time he was in San Antonio, but also you can’t think about the fact that shortly thereafter he was going to be dead,” Blonkvist said. “Although it’s not a tombstone in any way, [it is] in a way that I think that people bring flowers and set flowers next to the description of the life and death of a person.”
To the left of the photograph and plaque stands a bouquet of a dozen “flowers,” also crafted from steel. They each bear a different colored center, which Blonkvist said represented the fullness of Kennedy’s life.
Blonkvist lived in Midland at the time of Kennedy’s death, but he remembers the president’s impact even as a child.
“I remember as a small child watching him on TV, saying we would go to the moon in this generation,” Blonkvist said. “And we did.”
Ruttenberg recalled that Kennedy continued on to Brooks Air Force Base for the dedication ceremony of the Aerospace Medical Health Center. The president spoke about the nation’s space program that day.
“There will be, as there always are, pressures in this country to do less in this area as in so many others, and temptations to do something else that is perhaps easier,” Kennedy said in his speech. “But this research here must go on, this space effort must go on, the conquest of space must and will go on ahead. That much we know. That much we can say with confidence and conviction.”
Berg was a freshman at the University of Arizona when Kennedy was killed.
“For those of us alive during JFK, that was a poignant moment that no one ever forgets where they were – along with Pearl Harbor for those who were alive for that, and those that were alive for 9/11,” he said.
While Berg first conceived the idea of commemorating the Kennedys’ visit with a monument in 2015, it took him only a few months in the summer to raise funds for the project. It’s a significant moment of Alamo Heights history, and Berg said he wanted to make sure people knew about it.
“I like history, and I don’t think good pictures that depict history in our town should be thrown away or put in a closet and forgotten,” Berg said.