A Kentucky photographer captured Kennedy in Dallas

Steve Mitchell, former state photograher, was in Dallas on November 22, 1963 and photographed John F. Kennedy moments before he was assassinated. Photo provided
Steve Mitchell, former state photograher, was in Dallas on November 22, 1963 and photographed John F. Kennedy moments before he was assassinated. Photo provided

Steve Mitchell, then 23, peered into his Miranda D camera with its 105 mm lens, eagerly waiting for the motorcade to pass him with the young, popular president.

The big presidential limousine, a midnight blue 1961 Lincoln, took a winding 11-mile route through Dallas on the warm November Friday with President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, in the back seat, greeting the throng.

"CLICK" went Mitchell's camera as the motorcade, about 40 to 50 feet away and traveling about 35 mph, drove past.

The Kentuckian's photo captured a relaxed president with tousled hair and a slight smile, and a first lady demurely waving her gloved left hand as confetti rained down.

Texas Gov. John Connally, riding in the front with his wife, Nellie, is looking up, perhaps, Mitchell thinks, looking at the photographer and his young cousin, who wore a JFK mask to honor the president.

About 30 seconds later, Mitchell figures, the motorcade reached Dealy Plaza and the history books.

It passed the Texas School Book Depository Building, where Lee Harvey Oswald perched on the sixth floor with a rifle that mortally wounded the president.

"When Nov. 22 rolls around, you can't help but think about that day in 1963," Mitchell said Monday at his home in rural Shelby County near Waddy.

"It's been 47 years since the Kennedy assassination. People used to ask where you were on that day. Now they ask if you were alive that day. I was, and I'll never forget it."

Mitchell is 70. He retired in 2000 as a state employee who photographed the administrations of eight Kentucky governors, their families and famous people who visited them.

His portfolio includes more than 10,000 photos from the days of the Gov. Louie Nunn in 1968 to Gov. Paul Patton in 2000.

But Mitchell's most historic photo was taken that day in Dallas.

Raised in Green County in south-central Kentucky, Mitchell, an only child, had come to Dallas with his mother, Ruth, for a Thanksgiving visit with his aunt and uncle, Wilma and Horace Goodrich, and their 12-year-old son, Timothy. Mitchell's father, Paul, stayed at home in Kentucky to run the family hardware and appliance store in Greensburg.

Horace Goodrich was an attorney with an office in downtown Dallas. On the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, he informed his visitors the president was going to be in town and wondered aloud if they wanted to see him.

"Being a country boy from Kentucky, I said sure," said Mitchell. "I wanted to see the president and maybe get a picture of him. I was what you would call a budding photographer."

Mitchell and his family drove to Goodrich's law office and parked in a nearby lot.

"My uncle's office was on the first floor of a bank building," Mitchell said. "He had gotten permission to go to his office, as he did practically every day, and none of us were checked by anyone."

A window in the office fronted the street where the presidential motorcade would pass. Mitchell and his cousin climbed on a ladder to an outside ledge above the window so they could stand and see over the heads of the well-wishers.

"People wanted to touch the president. It was Camelot. After I got the picture, we went back inside the office, and then I took a picture of my uncle," Mitchell said.

"We didn't know what was going on. My mother always claimed she heard the shots, but I don't know about that."

When the family members got back to the parking lot, they saw an attendant crying.

"He said, 'The president's been shot. He's been shot three times, and they've taken him to Parkland Hospital. That's the first we had heard about it."

His uncle's car radio informed Mitchell and his family that the 35th president of the United States had died at the age of 46 of gunshot wounds.

"For the rest of the weekend, we watched TV and listened to the radio. Nobody wanted to do anything."

Thanksgiving fell on Nov. 28 that year. On the following Monday, Mitchell and his mother drove back to Kentucky.

He couldn't wait to develop his film at a home lab.

"I was relieved and disappointed at the same time when I first saw the photo," Mitchell said.

"I was relieved that I got a photo of the president but disappointed that Kennedy's face was not razor sharp. It's slightly out of focus, but I was young, and the motorcade was speeding along."

The photo was first published in his student newspaper at Campbellsville College. A few weeks later, the Campbellsville News Journal used it.

No historian or police official ever asked him about it.

Mitchell acknowledges it's still emotional for him to look at the photo.

He sees it today and thinks about how promising the future looked for him and the nation.

Every day at home, Mitchell passes an 11-by-14 print of the photo he has hanging in a hallway.

"We all were so young then," he said.