On Nov. 22, 1963, more than half of John F. Kennedy’s Cabinet was on board a Boeing 707 over the Pacific Ocean when a news bulletin reported that three shots had been fired at the president’s motorcade in Dallas. Among those on the plane, headed to Japan on a goodwill trip, was U.S. Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman, who had served three terms as Minnesota governor, and his wife, Jane.
Secretary of State Dean Rusk, the delegation’s highest-ranking diplomat, soon announced the awful news: “Ladies and gentleman, it is official. We have had official word — the president has died. God save our nation.”
“Everybody was emotional, most of us shed tears,” said Jane Freeman, now 92, during a recent interview in her apartment at Walker Place in Minneapolis, as her son, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, sat nearby. “Most of us tried to gulp it down, and say a lot of prayers, and talk quietly to each other.”
Fifty years later, all of Kennedy’s original Cabinet members are gone, and Jane Freeman and Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, are the only surviving spouses. Orville Freeman died in 2003 at 84.
The memories of Minnesota’s former first lady are succinct and vivid. The Freemans and their 15-year-old son, Mike, would mourn the passing of the nation’s 35th president at four historic events that November weekend.
‘Dead silence – tears – mostly stunned ...’
On board the Cabinet plane, the news, at first, was incomplete. When word came that Kennedy had been shot in the head, Jane said the group tried to stay optimistic. After all, Orville, who fought as a Marine in World War II, had recovered from a head wound. “My reaction was, ‘Oh, dear Lord,’ and the same as Orv’s was, really,” she said. “Orv had been shot in the head, and he is still here and alive. There’s hope, but it’s going to be terrible.”
After learning that JFK had died, the secretary of state made the decision to turn the plane around and head for Dallas. It landed in Honolulu for refueling, where Orville Freeman wrote in his diary: “Dead silence — tears — mostly stunned. Gloom … deep affection I hold — tragedy. As Jane said the sense of firm progress and direction of last 3 years mean so much … what a crime … My thought: What a diff. place the W.H. will be … What an incredible unbelievable tragedy.”
But instead of Dallas, the delegation — which included Walter Heller, the president’s chief economic adviser and later head of the University of Minnesota’s Economics Department — returned to Andrews Air Force Base in the middle of the night, several hours after Air Force One had landed with newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson, Jackie Kennedy, the casket, the Secret Service, and the Kennedy and Johnson entourages.
Like so many baby boomers, Mike, a sophomore at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland, learned about the assassination in school. “They announced it over the loudspeaker,” he said. “It was shocking and kind of hard to process.” After school, the young Freeman went to talk to a Lutheran pastor.
“He was a wonderful and dear man, and he helped me and a couple of my friends sort through things,” Mike said.
The next day, Orville and Jane were invited with other Cabinet members to the East Room of the White House to pay their respects. After a Kennedy family mass, the Cabinet and Kennedy staff solemnly filed past the closed coffin. “It was very, very quiet. We assembled in the Red Room and went in two by two,” Jane said.
On Sunday, Orville and Mike joined the new president, other Cabinet members, and members of Congress and the Supreme Court in the Capitol rotunda for a service. The slain president’s casket lay on the catafalque constructed for Abraham Lincoln’s coffin. Jackie Kennedy and daughter Caroline knelt to kiss the American flag on the casket, and President Johnson laid a wreath of red and white carnations.
Jane had decided to send her son, who greatly admired Kennedy, to the historic ceremony rather than go herself. “I stayed home to cook a dinner to help us recover,” she said. While she was home, riveted to the TV like the rest of the nation, she watched in shock as the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was shot dead at the Dallas police station.
On Monday, the three Freemans headed to the funeral at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. At the church door, they were told there was no room for Mike. “I wasn’t going to get in,” he said. “So when they told Dad that, he said, ‘OK, young man, you stand right over there, and if anyone tries to move you, you tell them to come and see me.’ ”
So throughout the long service, young Mike stood quietly outside in an alcove at the top of the cathedral’s stairs. “I don’t remember if the door was open so we could hear, but it was cold, remember, Mother? It was November, but it was surprisingly cold for Washington.” He watched “everybody come out, I saw the casket come out. I saw Mrs. Kennedy, I saw Caroline and John.”
The burial at Arlington National Cemetery was a security and logistical nightmare. After the service, the Freemans, starting back to their car, spotted French President Charles de Gaulle. The secretary of agriculture began to worry about De Gaulle’s safety. “We’re walking on the grass, and we see General de Gaulle, great big tall De Gaulle, walking and talking with [Anastas] Mikoyan, the Soviet foreign minister at the time,” Jane Freeman recalled. “Orv looked up at the sky and trees and said, “Oh, my God. What a shot.” As a Marine who had fought in the jungles, he was worried about the possibility of another assassination.
Life went on
Orville Freeman, who had nominated Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention in 1960, had grown close to the president in the nearly three years of his administration. He grieved deeply, but channeled that grief into keeping government working. He went on to serve in Johnson’s Cabinet until 1969, the end of LBJ’s presidency.
“Dad played football, and it’s a team concept and we had a new coach … Dad, I think, worked very hard to bring those who were closest to Kennedy into an understanding that Johnson is now president, and this is our president. And we have a job to do,” Mike Freeman said.
Then, the son remembered his father’s favorite phrase. “In the Marine Corps, the concept is you carry on your mission. My father never said goodbye to me. At the end of every conversation, my father said, ‘Carry on,’ ” Mike Freeman said, his voice breaking.
“Carry on,” Jane added softly.