Dallas residents Bill and Gayle Newman went about everyday life like thousands of others in Texas until that fateful day of Nov. 22, 1963. That afternoon they witnessed, up close, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dealey Plaza.
From that day until today, they are sought after to interview about the horrifying experience, which they did for me on May 3 in their Texas home.
Bill met Gayle while working at a frozen custard shop when in high school. She and some friends stopped in and before long they began dating, then married in 1958 and raised two children, Billy and Clayton. The four of them can be seen in many photos taken in the aftermath of the assassination.
In 1963 Dallas was a conservative city, not particularly Kennedy country, but the President wanted a trip to Texas to mend some political fences. After stops in San Antonio and Fort Worth, Air Force One landed at Love Field for a parade through the city, then lunch at the Trade Mart, then on to Austin to close out Nov. 22.
Some were worried about the Dallas stop. Posters had been going around that said “JFK: Wanted for Treason” and some newspaper articles were negative as well.
On Nov. 22, Bill was working as an electrician and had the day off to work on a paper for his masters’ license. “I was off from work and that’s how we ended up at Love Field, then later on at the (Dealey) Plaza, to get a view of the President.
The reason we went to see the President is we had two small children (Clayton age 2 and Billy age 4) and, you know, it’s not every day the President of the United States comes to your city. So we just wanted our children to be able to say they saw President Kennedy,” Bill said.
The Newmans got in their car and off they went to the airfield. They arrived in time to see the President’s blue and white jet land and watched as they left in the motorcade, with Bill getting a closer look than Gayle who was behind him. Then they raced off to Dealey Plaza, parked and looked for an area where the crowd had thinned out. “We just walked down the north side of Elm Street toward the triple underpass and about halfway we stopped along the curb. We had been there less than five minutes and you could hear the parade coming down Main Street, hear the people cheering and I recall seeing the President’s car turn right onto Houston Street,” Bill said.
Gayle’s uncle, Steve Ellis, was a motorcycle Dallas Police Department officer and in the motorcade ahead of the presidential limo. As he passed by they acknowledged each other.
“As he came towards us, about 100 plus feet away from us the first shot rang out, like a boom, boom, about like that. I thought to myself that’s a pretty poor joke, somebody throwing firecrackers beside the car. I remember seeing his arms go up like he was trying to protect his face. As the car got closer to us you could tell something was wrong. You could even see the protruding eyes of Governor Connally and the blood on his shirt,” Bill told me.
“And just as the car passed in front of us the third shot rang out and I remember seeing the side of President Kennedy’s head blow off. At the time I thought his ear blew off. It was just a ball of white going up and you could see the red and he fell over into Mrs. Kennedy’s arms more or less.”
I asked Bill if he heard anything said from inside the car. “I heard Mrs. Kennedy say ‘Oh my God, no, they’ve shot Jack.’ That’s what I believe I heard at the time.”
Bill turned to Gayle and said hit the ground, which they did as can be seen in the photos. “The reason I responded like that was because the ground behind us was a higher elevation and I had the sensation that the third shot came from over the top of our heads, which would have meant we were in the line of gunfire.”
Moments later Jerry Haines and Jay Watson of WFAA – TV asked if they’d interview back at the television station, so off they went. At the station the talk was that Kennedy had been shot in the back.
The Newmans knew better. They were just feet away when the head shot occurred.
They were put on the air, interviewed and then went to the Sheriff’s Department to write out an affidavit.
That evening they finally returned home. “That night we kept the kids in our room,” said Bill. He feared he may have seen someone he might later have to testify against in court. “So I laid an old 20 gauge shotgun down by my bed that night and for the next two or three nights after that.” Looking back on it he said the thought was silly. If someone could shoot the President they could certainly get to Bill Newman.
On Sunday, Nov. 24, FBI agents came to their home to review their statements to see if they were accurate or needed clarification. “They were very polite,” Newman said of the agents.
Also on Sunday, Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. “We were in church when it happened. I was surprised anyone had access to him (Oswald),” said Bill. He then added an afterthought about the shooting saying, “that is a whole other chapter by itself.”
Life went on and in September 1964, the Warren Report was issued. It did not include any testimony by the Newmans. He said he was told by Vincent Bugliosi that was probably because others with similar testimony had given their statements to the Commission.
I asked Bill what he thought happened on Nov. 22, 1963. He was hesitant to answer at first, saying he shares what he saw, not what he thinks. But later Bill said, “A thought that goes through my mind is when you talk conspiracy, multiple shooters, to me if Lee Harvey Oswald was the shooter and in fact he was the only shooter, there very well could have been other people in the background. That’s always been a curiosity to me.” Later in the interview Bill added another thought. If it was just Oswald alone, why are documents still being withheld or heavily redacted 55 years later?
In 1967 New Orleans District attorney Jim Garrison stunned the world with the announcement he had solved the Kennedy assassination. In doing so he charged Clay Shaw. The Newmans were subpoenaed to testify. Bill was ill with the flu when the time came so Gayle went first, on her own, to New Orleans. Bill followed the next day. He said the courtroom was jammed with media and others and that he was questioned by Garrison, who asked what he saw and where he was, that was all.
Remember that with Bill and Gayle were their two little boys. I asked if either has any recollection of the event. Bill said Clayton doesn’t, but Billy later asked Gayle why someone shot that man and “did you see all that blood”. “So he actually saw the head shot,” Bill said.
As a family, in later years, do they talk about the assassination as a family, I asked. “Very little. We’ve moved on with our lives,” Bill replied.
About the October 2017, release of thousands of previously classified JFK assassination documents, Bill said he was disappointed because many are blacked out. “What does the FBI or Secret Service have to fear if there’s nothing to it in terms of national security. To me, that’s what keeps the assassination of President Kennedy such an active event. It makes me wonder more today than it ever has before because, if it’s what the Warren Report says, then what does our government have to fear?”
Bill opened up about his thoughts. He said he believes Oswald was in the sixth floor window, but he also believes someone else was involved, maybe not at the scene, but behind the scenes.
I asked him about the theory that Oswald was trying to kill Connally, not the President. “That’s possible, but the reason I would question that is he could have gotten the governor nearly any day of the week somewhere around Austin when he was in the Capitol. The governor is much more accessible than the President of the United States. I think President Kennedy was the primary target and Governor Connally just happened to take a bullet.”
Next week: Gayle’s memories of Nov. 22, 1963.