Dennis Mielke was a 19-year-old sanitarium worker when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Even today, nearly 50 years later, it’s a profoundly emotional memory for the Wind Lakes, Wis. resident.
“Well, I remember that day because I was off work, watching TV in the late morning when it happened,” said Mielke. And then he pauses, fighting back tears, his head bowed low. “You’ll remember it for the rest of your life. ... It’s just the whole saga, what could have been, didn’t happen. I guess we’ll never know what the results would have been.”
Mielke is one of an estimated 250,000 people who will visit this week’s Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Event in Scottsdale, Ariz., where the 1964 Miller-Meteor Cadillac hearse that carried Kennedy’s body from Parkland Memorial Hospital to Love Field for the flight to Washington, D.C. will be sold.
Of the more than 1,300 cars up for sale at Barrett-Jackson, none carries the historical gravitas that Kennedy’s hearse does. Crowds of onlookers circle the hearse at Barrett-Jackson, slowly and carefully reading the displays detailing the car’s history. Many are transfixed by what they see and read. Others are overwhelmed.
“I’m sorry, I’m an emotional person,” said Nebraska resident Rick Onken, who like Mielke, teared up when asked about the hearse.
“It affected everybody’s lives at the time,” said Onken, who was in high school on the fateful day of Kennedy’s death. “A lot of things changed. It’s a part of history. I don’t know how you could put a value on something like that.”
But on Saturday, someone will indeed put a value on it when they purchase it. Like all but a handful of cars at Barrett-Jackson, the Kennedy hearse will be sold at no reserve to the highest bidder, regardless of final gavel price.
And unlike the controversial 1963 Pontiac ambulance sold here in 2010, the Kennedy hearse carries an ironclad provenance, with no questions whatsoever about its authenticity.
The white hearse was first delivered to Dallas in October 1963 for the National Funeral Directors Association Convention and was the display vehicle for the 1964 model year, carrying the serial number 64001. It was purchased by the O’Neal Funeral Home located in Dallas when the convention ended.
On Feb. 18, 1963, the funeral home had purchased a bronze, 400-pound Elgin Brittania casket at a wholesale cost of $1,031. On the day Kennedy was assassinated, Secret Service agent Roy Kellerman called the funeral home and told the operators to prepare the finest casket they had.
The funeral home had two hearses on site at the time and had planned to use a black one, but First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy objected and asked that her slain husband’s body be loaded into the white hearse for the drive to the Love Field Airport.
It was one of the most dramatic and emotional days in modern United States history.
And everyone who was alive then remembers where he or she was when it happened.
“The high school coach was teaching history class and he was crying,” said South Dakota resident Marge Ellis. “We as high school junior students had never seen an adult breakdown and cry. As they made the announcement over the intercom the coach was crying.”
Ellis has a special interest in the Kennedy hearse.
“I’m married to a funeral director and have been in the funeral business all my life,” she said. “It is emotional because of who it was and I remember who it was and how important he was, but I’ve seen so many hearses that doesn’t affect me as much because I’ve lived around it.”
Mielke still shakes his head in disbelief at the memory.
“It was just an unbelievable time the whole week after that, there was the shooting of (Lee Harvey) Oswald and (by) Jack Ruby,” he said. “It was like a saga. It just went on and on, and it was like some kind of book you were reading. Every day and every hour it would change. Unbelievable.”