Jack Puterbaugh, a stalwart DFL activist and advance man in Minnesota in the 1950s, could never have guessed that when he went to Dallas in November 1963 to make arrangements for President John F. Kennedy’s political trip to Texas, he would leave in shock and anguish.
Puterbaugh spent 10 days in Texas prior to President and First Lady Jackie Kennedy’s arrival on Nov. 21. That considerable assignment abruptly ended at Parkland Hospital the next day, when he saw the president’s lifeless body pulled from the open-top limousine. In a letter to his mother three days later, Puterbaugh wrote, “It was a part of our American history that I really didn’t want to be a part of.”
“What a big loss for Democrats like us,” former Vice President Walter Mondale wrote last week in an e-mail to his friend and fellow DFLer George Farr about Puterbaugh’s death from pneumonia on March 16. He was 89.
Puterbaugh had been molded by lessons from the Great Depression and his education in a one-room schoolhouse in Isanti County — which he proudly called the most Swedish county in the United States.
He began working for the Minnesota DFL Party in 1955, when Orville Freeman was governor. His daughter, Carrie Puterbaugh, said he was drawn to the party because of his commitment to social justice. “Dad had this strong sense of right and wrong. He was so passionate about doing what was best for his fellow man,” she said.
He advanced many political trips — making sure everything went smoothly for the party and the visitors, including former President Harry Truman and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Puterbaugh enjoyed telling a story about Truman coming to Minnesota to speak at a fundraising dinner in 1956. He picked up the former president at the train station in St. Paul and took him to the Nicollet Hotel in Minneapolis. Later — with only a few people left in the room — Truman took off his suit coat, sat down at the grand piano and played.
Puterbaugh, who at one point was DFL state executive secretary, joined with other party loyalists to organize the Hemenway Forum that became a noontime assembly of party elders with featured speakers. In more than 30 years, he hardly ever missed a meeting, Farr said.
He also taught high school in Grove City, Worthington and Braham, worked as a zoning administrator and was appointed state liquor control commissioner by Gov. Freeman. “He was a jack of all trades and master of all,” said Jeane Fullerton, his companion of 20 years after his wife, Marvelle, died in 1993.
In 1961, Puterbaugh joined Freeman in Washington. The former Minnesota governor had been appointed secretary of agriculture by the new president.
In October 1963, Puterbaugh advanced Kennedy’s trip to Duluth, where the president was the main speaker at a conference sponsored by the USDA.
The next month, he was sent to Texas to help find the best place for the Nov. 22 luncheon — the Trade Mart or a building on the State Fairgrounds. Along with a Secret Service agent, Puterbaugh drove both routes from Love Field, where Air Force One was going to land.
“They [the White House] wanted the motorcade to go through downtown Dallas,” he told the Star Tribune in November 2013 on the 50th anniversary of the assassination.
While scouting the two routes, he recalled seeing the Texas School Book Depository, where days later Lee Harvey Oswald would fire shots at the motorcade. “I made a rather cynical remark, ‘That must be where they burn books in Dallas.’ ”
He was well aware of the right-wing political climate in Dallas, but he said there was no indication that there would be any trouble. On that fateful Friday, Puterbaugh was in the pilot car — a Dallas police car — five or six blocks ahead of the presidential limousine. He watched the large, friendly crowds — including nuns with schoolchildren — who lined the streets as the president’s convertible drove by.
The pilot car had just pulled onto the Stemmons Freeway on its way to the Trade Mart when shots were fired at the motorcade as it was leaving downtown. A police call came over the radio. Quickly, a second call came alerting Parkland Hospital of an emergency. “My initial reaction was someone had thrown an egg or something at Kennedy,” he said.
Puterbaugh’s pilot car pulled behind the Secret Service vehicle racing to the hospital. “We pulled into Parkland along with the other units. I was there when they came and got the president and took him into the hospital.”
He saw Kennedy’s lifeless body and he realized the awful truth. “I didn’t even want to think about it. … I was just in shock.”
In addition to his daughter and companion, Puterbaugh is survived by his sons, Steve of Springfield, Va., and Greg of Hanover, Pa., and three grandchildren. A brother, Karl, of Eagan, died March 22.
Services will be held at 10 a.m. on May 1 at the Stanchfield Baptist Church in Stanchfield, Minn.