Philip Merry was nine years old and riding his bike home from Patrick Henry Elementary School in Tulsa when the rain started pouring down.
He stopped at a phone booth and placed a call to his mother. The answer that came across the other line was a series of barely coherent sobs from which he was able to derive that the "President had been shot."
The day was Nov. 22, 1963.
"It was like the world stood still. I bet you the keys to my house that anyone my age, from about 54 on up, could tell you where they were," Merry told The City Wire in a recent interview.
More than 49 years have passed, but now Merry and the Christmas Honors program he helped to launch in 2009 will welcome a central figure from that day to Fort Smith.
Clint Hill was the Secret Service agent for then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. He was also the man in frame 371 of the Abraham Zapruder film, which captures in graphic detail the assassination of an American President.
In an excerpt from the historic footage, Kennedy can be seen slumping in the back seat of a 1961 Lincoln Continental. Mrs. Kennedy notices and leans in to check on her husband.
Suddenly, a gunshot strikes Kennedy in the head. The First Lady panics and crawls on to the back of the car presumably to gather a piece of her husband's skull.
In the left of the frame, Hill leaps onto the back of the car in an effort to shield Mrs. Kennedy from further gunfire.
For close to half a century Hill has agonized over the memory, but author Lisa McCubbin convinced Hill, as the last surviving member of that detail, to share his story in Mrs. Kennedy and Me, a memoir which was published in April 2012.
Hill and McCubbin will address attendees at the Fort Smith Convention Center (FSCC) on Dec. 7 as part of the fourth annual Christmas Honors.
Merry said the hourlong presentation would consist of stories involving Hill and his memories of Mrs. Kennedy. "The last 20 minutes will cover that day in Dallas."
CHRISTMAS HONORS PLANNING
When asked how Christmas Honors was able to pick up Hill for 2012, Merry said, "They sought us out," after a chance encounter on Facebook.
Merry was updating his social media profile when he noticed another Philip Merry from Australia. The two conducted a short conversation over the similarity and shared a bit about what they did.
The other Merry is a motivational speaker, who schedules engagements through Premiere Speakers Bureau (PSB), an organization that handles scheduling for famous personalities, such as media professional Neil Cavuto, former Arkansas governor and presidential primary candidate Mike Huckabee and actress Patricia Heaton (The Middle, Everybody Loves Raymond).
Merry shared that he was involved in his community, but left it at that and thought nothing more of the talk until receiving a contact from PSB some time later.
The organization was complimentary of the Christmas Honors program "judging from what they'd seen on the website," Merry said, and then revealed that they had a speaker in mind that would be a good fit.
"They said, 'Normally the fee is this, but he'd be willing to do it for that,'" Merry said. From there, Merry – still not knowing the identity of the speaker – was able to raise the $7,500 fee from a Florida family, who wished to remain anonymous, Forsgren, Inc. and Smith Chevrolet.
The Christmas Honors program seeks to place a wreath on the grave site of each of the 15,876 soldiers buried at the Fort Smith National Cemetery. Festivities for 2012 will begin at 8 a.m. on Dec. 7 with a Wreath Assembly Workshop at the Convention Center. That will last until 3 p.m.
After Hill's presentation later that evening, the event will continue Saturday (Dec. 8) and feature family distribution of wreaths from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m., followed by public distribution at 9:30 a.m.
The following Monday (Dec. 10) will witness a Candlelight Vigil from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. and on Saturday (Dec. 15), the festivities will conclude with the Wreaths Across America Commemorative Ceremony at 11 a.m.
All events outside of the ones at FSCC on Dec. 7 will take place at the Fort Smith National Cemetery.
Close to one month later on Jan. 5, 2013, collection of wreaths will begin at 8:30 a.m. and last until completed.
Baldor Electric will keep the wreaths in storage until the 2013 program next December.
HONORS PROGRAM HISTORY
Merry spearheaded the Christmas Honors effort when he visited the Arlington National Cemetery website and noticed that “not all the graves had wreaths on them.”
“It seemed to me like it should be all or none, and not a matter of who gets one and who doesn’t,” he added.
From there, “it was a grassroots kind of thing.”
Merry was able to rally support for the idea and raise $65,000 in three weeks for the first event, admitting that “most of the support came from hundreds and hundreds of $20 and $40 checks.”
Merry, an insurance broker at Gallagher Merry Insurance in Fort Smith and a Fort Smith City Director, was also encouraged at the level of community involvement and business support the event has drawn.
“When you see a person in a wheelchair with no legs come in from Sallisaw to see what they can do to help, it’s just a very moving thing,” Merry said.