DALLAS — For a moment Friday, it was as if time had stopped.
Fifty years to the minute after President John F. Kennedy was shot to death while his motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza, thousands of people gathered at that very spot fell silent as gray skies loomed and a steady drizzle fell.
Some bowed their heads.
Others, eyes closed, tilted their heads heavenward.
And some cautiously turned their eyes toward the Texas School Book Depository, where government officials say the shots came from.
Then church bells tolled.
“A new era dawned and another waned half a century ago, when hope and hatred collided right here in Dallas,” Mayor Mike Rawlings said of the assassination, which left the city facing national scrutiny — and negativity — for decades. “In our front yard, our president had been taken from us.
“It seems that we all grew up that day,” he said. “Our collective hearts were broken.”
But Friday was a new day, perhaps opening a new chapter in this city’s history, and a time to honor Kennedy and his many contributions to the nation.
“We stand in awe of a dreamer,” Rawlings said during the first formal event held in the city to honor the life and legacy of the 35th president.
He called Kennedy an “idealist without illusions who helped build a more just and equal world.”
No matter what, Rawlings said, Kennedy and Dallas “will forever be linked.”
Thousands of people who won tickets to Friday’s high-security memorial gathered in downtown Dallas — standing on the grassy knoll and sitting in white wooden folding chairs — for prayers, speeches, musical tributes and readings of Kennedy’s own words.
“I think it was very respectful — somber but respectful,” aid Sandra Howell, 47, an Arlington history teacher. “I think it was a very nice tribute to his life and legacy.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Cold and rainy weather forced organizers to cut two planned features from Friday’s tribute — a performance by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra before the ceremony and a flyover at the end.
But those gathered say they didn’t miss a thing.
“I thought it was very dignified,” said Andrea Canafax, 27, of Dallas. “It is a good representation of the legacy.”
Canafax and Howell were among 5,000 people who won the ticket lottery — and were vetted by Dallas police, who looked for violent criminal histories — to attend the high-security event.
Bishop Kevin J. Farrell of the Catholic Diocese of Dallas offered prayers for Kennedy, Dallas and all those affected by the assassination.
“You, Lord, have lifted us up from the horrible tragedy enacted in this place,” he said, adding that the “place that was a disgrace” has been made better.
“You turned our sorrow into a firm commitment to move forward,” Farrell said. “May you always inspire us (as you did Kennedy) to dream of a world that never was and say, ‘Why not?’”
Presidential historian David McCullough spoke of JFK and his desire to make the world a better place — a drive that made the 1960s an “exciting time.”
He read part of the speech that Kennedy never got to give on Nov. 22, 1963.
The last paragraph is now inscribed on a memorial plaque in Dealey Plaza that was unveiled during the ceremony.
“We, in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than by choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men.’ That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: ‘Except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain.’”
The 73-member U.S. Naval Academy Men’s Glee Club sang. Pastor Emeritus Zan W. Holmes Jr. of Dallas offered additional prayers.
Former President George W. Bush, who lives in Dallas, released a statement remembering Kennedy.
“Today we remember a dark episode in our Nation’s history, and we remember the leader whose life was cut short 50 years ago,” Bush said. “John F. Kennedy dedicated himself to public service, and his example moved Americans to do more for our country.
“He believed in the greatness of the United States and the righteousness of liberty, and he defended them. On this solemn anniversary, Laura and I join our fellow citizens in honoring our 35th President.”
Fifty years ago
On the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy woke up at the old Hotel Texas in Fort Worth — now the site of the Hilton Fort Worth hotel.
He spoke to a large cheering crowd outside the hotel, talked to civic leaders gathered at a Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce breakfast and then went to the former Carswell Air Force Base and boarded Air Force One for a short flight to Dallas.
He and his wife, Jacqueline, along with Gov. John Connally and Connally’s wife, Nellie, rode in a presidential motorcade that was expected to take them to the Dallas Trade Mart for a luncheon with Dallas business and civic leaders.
Instead — around 12:30 p.m. — as the motorcade passed by the grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza on the west end of downtown Dallas, shots rang out, hitting Kennedy and Connally.
Kennedy was taken to Parkland Hospital and was later declared dead. Connally survived.
Less than a year later, the Warren Commission, a federal panel appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the assassination, concluded in an 888-page report that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, shot Kennedy from the sixth floor of the nearby Texas School Book Depository.
“It’s kind of eerie being here, kind of emotional,” Cheryl Gilmore, a 55-year-old Dallas woman said after Friday’s ceremony. “I’m right where it happened.
“I’m part of history.”
Nov. 22, 2013
Longtime Dallas civic leader Ruth Altshuler headed up the committee that raised money for, and planned, this free event. Those behind the event said they wanted to find a respectful way to remember the president’s last moments in Dallas on Nov. 23, 1963.
As the tribute wrapped up, bagpipes played about 1 p.m. — roughly the same time the world learned that Kennedy had died.
Wendell Pichon said he was glad to be a witness to history in Dallas on Friday.
“This is something that has been on my mind since it occurred,” said Pichon, a 55-year-old Fort Worth man and Lockheed engineer. “It has been a long time since we did something big to remember him.
“This is long overdue.”
Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610 Twitter: @annatinsley