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November 17, 2013

The other tragedy, 50 years ago

GREENVILLE — This week, people around the world are pausing to remember a tragedy which occurred 50 years ago, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Shortly after Kennedy’s death on Nov. 22, 1963, the same man who allegedly killed Kennedy also murdered Dallas Police Department Officer JD Tippitt.

Tippitt’s widow, Marie, spoke before the Greenville Kiwanis Club last week, recalling her late husband and the fateful events of that day five decades ago.

“With God’s help, you get through one day at a time,” she said.

Marie is a member of the Gasway family of Greenville, who have a long history of service in local law enforcement. Her father, C.W. Gasway, at the time of the shooting was a captain with the Greenville Police Department and two brothers, Dwight and N.L. Gasway, also were officers with the department.

“I was the product of a family of police officers,” Marie recalled.

She and JD met in Clarksville and married in 1946. JD — which was his name and not just initials — was offered a job working for the Dallas Police Department, but Marie asked him not to take it.

“Because I thought it would be a dangerous job,” Marie said.

The couple had three children, ages 5 to 13, at the time of JD’s death.

“I wanted to spend all our lives, but I only had 17 years with him,” Marie said. “Eleven of those years he was working for the police department.”

Marie said JD was working 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. that day.

“He came home for lunch that afternoon,” Marie said, noting how unusual it was for JD to do that. “I fried a few potatoes and fixed him a sandwich.”

He couldn’t stay for very long.

“The president being in town required everyone to be on the job,” Marie said. “Little did I know that would be the last time I saw him.”

Tippitt was on patrol in Oak Cliff and heard the radio reports giving a description of the suspect wanted in Kennedy’s assassination. Tippitt spotted Lee Harvey Oswald, who matched the description, walking along a sidewalk and pulled up alongside him. Witnesses said Tippitt got out of his car and began to walk to the front of vehicle, where he was shot several times by Oswald.

“He was killed by the killer of the president,” Marie said.

She learned JD had been murdered when she called the police department to check on her husband.

“They told me on the phone that J had been killed, which is something they never do,” she recalled. “Nothing was right that day. The love of my life had been killed.”

Most of the physical evidence pointed to Oswald as the man who committed the crime. Although charged in the murder, Oswald himself was felled by a bullet fired by Jack Ruby only 48 hours later.

At the time of Tippitt’s murder, there were no death benefits for the widows of fallen officers.

“His death called attention to it,” Marie said. “There were scholarships created because of his death. God used it for good.”

Marie remembered all of the calls and letters of condolence which she received in the days following JD’s death, including a call from Jackie Kennedy, who told Marie she was lighting an eternal flame for the president.

“And she would consider that it burned for my husband too,” Marie said.

Robert Kennedy called the day after the assassination. Marie said he was angry and bitter, claiming that if his brother had not gone to Dallas, both men would still be alive.

“I told him, ‘You’ve got to remember, they both were doing their jobs,’” Marie said.

She received 1,000 paper cranes, made by the students in a school in Japan.

“They were wishing me 1 million years of happiness,” Marie said. A police officer in Germany sent her a handmade gingerbread house. “There’s a lot of love shown when people do that. It does mean a lot to that person who sees that.”

Marie recently participated in a documentary about the 50th anniversary of the deaths, produced by The History Channel.

“It is very accurate,” Marie said.

Over the years, Marie has met with the wives and widows of other law enforcement officers and shared her experiences.

“That is the only way you make it through,” Marie said. “It has been a long 50 years. The memories just don’t go away.”

And there is the inevitable question of whether she believes Oswald really was the sole assassin who killed Kennedy. Marie said she has spoken over the years with the officers and detectives involved in the investigation.

“From all the evidence they’ve got ... I think it is totally false,” Marie said of the various conspiracy theories. “I think he acted alone and by himself. I guess that it is hard for people to accept that one man could be that evil.”

And now, 50 years later, Marie believes her husband’s tragic murder was what led to Oswald’s capture.

“If he hadn’t killed JD, he would have gotten away,” she said.

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