‘Dad and JFK: Crisis and Tragedy’
Editor’s note: Below is the third of a three-part series in which local attorney Lee Stockdale shares stories of his father’s friendship and professional association with President John F. Kennedy. The first two parts ran in the Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 11 and 12 editions of the Bulletin.
President Kennedy was a speed-reader and read everything in sight. Once while spending the night with us he read a bunch of Moms poems in the guest room and was favorably impressed. &bsp;
When Dad got back from his trip out west with JFK, he told Mom that the president said he wanted her to write a book of poetry for Ireland. So Mom started her book To Ireland, with Love.
President Kennedy learned that Russia was stationing missiles in Cuba, 90 miles from the United States, precipitating the Cuban Missile Crisis. The two great superpowers were on the brink of nuclear war.
During those 13 days in October, the president called Dad at home one night and told Dad he wanted him to go down, that very moment, to Homestead Air Force Base, and report back to him what was going on. Jack told Dad he wanted to confirm whether bombs were being loaded onto the B-52s. He told Dad, I want you to put your hands on the bombs.
Dad and my big brother, Grant Jr., then 16, got in the car and went down to Homestead. Grant told me the military appeared to expect Dad, and he was waved through all the checkpoints.&bsp; Dad walked the tarmac of the flight line and literally put his hands on one of the bombs being loaded, as the president directed.&bsp; Dad came back and immediately called the president and told him that, yes, the bombs were being loaded. Ultimately, JFK defused the Cuban Missile Crisis through diplomacy. &bsp;
On January 1st, 1963, a happy President Kennedy joined Dad and other Florida politicians to watch Alabama beat Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl (17-0), and Dad saw the Chief in Washington or Palm Beach throughout 1963.&bsp; Dad told Mom, after one visit to Palm Beach, that he and the Chief walked out to the ocean and the president was given a prototype military rifle to test-fire into the Atlantic. Jack fired the rifle and handed it to Dad to take a turn. Dad laughed and declined. He said he didnt feel too comfortable standing next to the president of the United States with a gun in his hand and all these Secret Service around. &bsp;
It could have been on that occasion that the president asked Dad, How do you think theyll get me, Stock? Dad told Mom that Jack made this comment to him more than once. Dad would tell the President something to the effect: Dont talk like that, its not going to happen.
The president once asked Dad to bring $50,000 cash to him in Palm Beach next week.&bsp; The Chief assumed Dad would raise the money from friends and political supporters, but made it clear that he, the president, would never be able to acknowledge receipt of these funds.
Mom was livid that Jack, a millionaire, would come to Dad and ask him for this money free and clear. But Dad raised the money and took it up to Palm Beach, as was later confirmed by the friend of Dads who went with him. &bsp;
When Dad visited the president in Washington, John Jr., was sometimes with them. The president would tell Dad to pretend he was crying. On cue, Dad would cover his face with his big hands and make believe he was crying and John-John would tell Dad, I sorry. Dont cry. Dont cry.&bsp; Then Dad would burst into a big smile and laugh and all three of them would laugh like crazy. &bsp;
November 22, 1963. Dad came home from the office as soon as he heard about the assassination of the president.
He repeated, They shot him down like a dog.
We watched the “Huntley-Brinkley Report” all afternoon and all night. A telegram came from Bobby Kennedy inviting Dad to the White House the next day, Saturday, to view the presidents body. Dad flew up to the White House, met with Bobby and Teddy, flew home, and then went back the next day for the funeral.
JFK was buried on Monday, November 25. My father would be dead the following Monday. &bsp;
In those intervening seven days, Dad told my Mother he was being followed, he thought, by FBI agents. Two days before he died, Dad told a close friend that FBI agents came to his office and asked him, among other things, what Dad had been doing in New Orleans (New Orleans was where Lee Harvey Oswald had been living and handing out Fair Play for Cuba leaflets on street corners. Little else was known about Oswald those first few days.)
Dad, astonished by the agents inquiries, told them he was in New Orleans attending a Professional Golf Association (PGA) event. Mom told us that the night before Dad died, he put his head in her lap and, crying, told her people were out to get him.
December 2, 1963. The principal of Coral Gables Elementary came to my sixth grade class and asked me to come to his office. Suzie, my younger sister, was already there. We both knew something was wrong.
A neighbor drove us home. He said only, Your father had an accident.
There were cars up and down the block. The house was filled with people. We went right upstairs.
Mom sat us on her lap and said, Daddy couldnt live without the president. Thats all she told us.
I said, He was the greatest man who ever lived.
A neighborhood family took Suzie and me out to dinner, but stopped to buy shoes for one of their children. I slipped out of the store to buy a newspaper to find out how Dad died. I thought, He was a prominent citizen, it has to be in the papers.
I stopped in front of the newspaper rack. The headline read: Ex-Envoy Stockdale Plunges 13 Stories to Death.
My brother and sisters came home for Dads funeral: Grant from Sewanee Military Academy, Sally from New York, and Ann from Londons Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
For Christmas, we went down to the Keys and stayed with Moms sister in Islamorada, Fla. We went to see the Hitchcock movie, “Psycho,” which seemed appropriate for the kind of Christmas it was.
Sally and Grant left after New Years Day. Just a few days later, our house was broken into. Ann was asleep downstairs. At about 3 a.m., Ann was awakened by the sound of the shutters being jimmied inside her room. This meant somebody was inside. &bsp;
She quickly flicked on and off the light. A man was sticking his hand through the window. She dashed upstairs.&bsp; Mom called the police, who arrived immediately.
We were terrified. We walked through the house with the police. Whoever was at Anns window had already been inside the house. The intruder had carefully pried open the dining room window, set the screen to the side, and walked around in the house. There, on the dining room table, the intruder positioned a machete. Four or five knives were arranged on the kitchen counter. Nothing was taken. There was cash in plain view, for the housekeeper coming the next day. None of it was touched. &bsp;
Finally, the police left, assuring us we were safe. We huddled at the bottom of the stairs, retracing what just happened.
Minutes after the police left, the phone rang. Mom answered.&bsp; A mans voice said, I hear youve had some trouble tonight.
Mom thought it was some official. She said, Yes, the police just left.
The man repeated, flatly, I hear youve had some trouble tonight.
Mom said, Who is this? &bsp;
The man said, Im going to get your daughter. And he hung up.
The police came back to the house. Mom gave a report of the phone call. Annie was hurriedly put on a plane the next day. Mom changed all the locks and put dead bolts everywhere. Mom, Suzie and I changed our sleeping arrangements and began using just two bedrooms that shared a walk-through closet.
Within a week, Mom found a big, strapping University of Miami fellow to rent a room to.
Over the coming months, Mom completed her book of poetry, To Ireland, with Love. On the back were kind words from Bing Crosby, Ted Kennedy and Sean T. OKelly (the president who believed in leprechauns).&bsp; She dedicated it: For Grant with whom, hand in hand, I walked through Phoenix Park… and who will always walk with me.
And that is the story of Dad and JFK.
The central question for the family has always been whether Dad committed suicide or whether someone killed him. When Dad told Mom he was being followed by FBI agents, was he being followed?
When Dad told Mom people were out to get him, were people out to get him? Did they get him? Or was Dad so despondent that he took his own life?
But why was our house broken into? Who threatened us? Why? If someone did kill Dad, who did it? Why? &bsp;
Over the years, the family has been contacted by a number of people journalists, researchers whose investigation into the assassination has led them to conclude that Dads death was not a suicide.
One researcher, in particular, provided the family with volumes of information, articles, photographs, analyses, and videotapes. There are too many details to relate here, but they certainly raise doubts about how Dad died.
For my family, our fathers death will ever remain the great mystery of our lives.