Baton Rougean Richard Lipsey part of D.C. hierarchy to handle JFK burial
Fifty years ago, Lt. Richard Lipsey may have had the best job of any junior officer in the U.S. Army. His duties included briefing president John F. Kennedy on foreign officials visiting the White House.
“I got to see the president fairly often,” said Lipsey, 73, a Baton Rougean since he was 4 years old. “I got to be very friendly with him, a good relationship.”
A relationship that lasted, literally, to Kennedy’s grave.
When America’s 35th president was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, Lipsey was at the epicenter of the nation’s mourning over the next several days. He helped handle the body and was an official witness to JFK’s autopsy. He briefly babysat 3-year-old John Kennedy Jr. as Jacqueline Kennedy visited the body lying in state. And, he marched near the front of the funeral parades.
Lipsey was aide to Maj. Gen. Philip C. Wehle, commanding general of the Military District of Washington. Wehle oversaw much of the ceremony and protocol of national government. Lipsey would bring briefing books to Kennedy before he was to meet foreign leaders.
“He was a speed reader,” Lipsey said. “He had perfect memory. He just absorbed everything he read in a short period of time. He could take something 50, 60 pages long and in just a minute and a half, two minutes, he knew everything in it.”
When Yugoslavian leader Josip Tito visited on Oct. 17, 1963, Lipsey had brought a camera with him that day. He was stopped by the White House guard and told he couldn’t enter with it. Press Secretary Pierre Salinger interceded and told the guard to let Lipsey through.
After briefing JFK, Lipsey mentioned what happened.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry about that. You can take pictures. When you come out, you stand in front of the press corps,’” Lipsey said.
To the press corps’ chagrin, he did.
“I started snapping pictures and everybody’s looking at me,” Lipsey said. “They start the ceremony, so I walk right in front of the press corps. I could feel the arrows going through my back, and I take pictures of the president.”
The time for taking Kennedy’s picture was growing short.
On Friday, Nov. 22, Lipsey was waiting outside Wehle’s quarters at Fort Myer, Va., during their lunch break when the radio aired news that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Lipsey ran toward Wehle’s back door, and the general exited when Lipsey got there, having also heard the news.
They jumped into the car and the car phone line from the White House rang almost right away. The president’s secretary told Wehle to come to the White House immediately.
“The traffic was just all at a dead (stop),” Lipsey said. “As soon as we left Arlington and down the hill to get on Memorial Bridge, it was just a total traffic jam. Cars were pulled over. People were sitting there, standing. We’d jump up on the sidewalk, that wide sidewalk, blowing the born, lights flashing. We had a driver named Sgt. Humphrey. He was great.”
Kennedy died while they were en route. Wehle was now responsible for the state funeral and handling Kennedy’s body when it arrived at Andrews Air Force Base that night. The body was taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital, and Lipsey was assigned to observe the autopsy.
He helped put the body onto the stainless steel table.
“I had never seen a dead man before,” Lipsey said. “It was amazing. He didn’t have an ounce of fat on him. Very muscular, very trim.”
Lipsey had to sign a statement that he would not discuss what he saw for 15 years. His work didn’t end with the autopsy.
After a quick trip to Fort Myer to change clothes, Wehle and Lipsey returned to Bethesda with the driver, who had picked up clothes Jackie Kennedy had selected for her husband. The funeral home prepared the body, and Lipsey helped them dress him. He also called the Marine Barracks to get an honor guard present when the body arrived at the White House at 4:30 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 23.
On Sunday afternoon, a procession from the White House to the Capitol took place in which Lipsey marched behind Wehle near the front, as hundreds of thousands lined the streets. Kennedy lay in state in the Rotunda until the next day.
The funeral procession led first to St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The Joint Chiefs of Staff would march in the procession. Gen. Curtis LeMay of the Air Force called Lipsey over.
“He said, ‘Do you realize that none of us has marched anywhere in over 30 years?’” Lipsey recalled. “I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘Well, you march us and count cadence.’ Here I am calling the whole Joint Chiefs to attention. ‘Sirs, attention. Sirs, left face. Sirs, forward march. Hup, two, three, four,’ the whole way from the Capitol to St. Matthews Church.”
Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
After the funeral, Lipsey returned with Wehle when significant foreign visitors, such as Princess Grace of Monaco, paid their respects. One of Lipsey’s aunts saw him in a wire service photo from that occasion.
Lipsey never had any more contact with the Kennedys. Decades later, his admiration for JFK is undimmed.
“He was a very smart man, great vision, great leadership,” Lipsey said. “He knew where the country should be going, not (just) where it had been. He had a vision for our country.”