Gulf Coast connection to JFK assassination anniversary

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MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — It’s the story that shook the nation, the assassination of an American President, and this Friday will mark the 56th anniversary. President Kennedy died at 1pm central standard time on November 22nd, 1963. Lee Harvey Oswald had a view from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, when he pulled the trigger of his Italian Mannlicher Carcano rifle, and ended the president’s life. WKRG’s Bill Riales uncovered the local connections on the 50th anniversary in 2013.

The building is now a museum. The exhibits tell the story of the events of that fateful day in Dallas and preserve the scene. But months before Oswald was here, he was on the campus of Spring Hill College in Mobile. In July 1963, Oswald was invited to speak to Jesuit students at Spring Hill

In 2013 Bill Riales traveled to Dallas to meet with a man who may be the last living person to be in that meeting, Father John Payne. “The image stayed with me of his eyes,” said Payne, “I don’t think I have ever in my life seen the face of anybody so full of despair.”  Father Payne at the time was a Jesuit scholastic, or priest in training. Payne said it was a small, informal gathering of perhaps 40 scholastics, “And we went down, and quickly you knew, number one, Lee Harvey Oswald was bright, with a certain kind of intelligence but he didn’t have a well- trained mind. It was pretty clear he was not a very well-educated person although he was bright enough.”

 Oswald was invited to speak at Spring Hill by a cousin who was also a Jesuit scholastic, Gene Murrett. The soon to be assassin was already on the radar of some in the U.S. for moving to the Soviet Union and becoming a communist. He spoke to the group about life in the Soviet Union. Oswald came to Spring Hill College in July, before the assassination of President Kennedy in November. He spoke in a building called Assumption Hall. That building is no longer here. It has been replaced with a residence hall. It was an informal affair.

But it wasn’t Oswald alone who visited. His wife Marina, the woman he had married in the Soviet Union, was also with him. She wasn’t allowed in the meeting because that part of Assumption Hall was off limits to women. So there were a couple of young scholastics who were studying Russian “and they thought, well, what we’ll do as a courtesy of hosting her, the scholastics who are studying Russian can go out and you know, learn what they can about Russian with talking with his wife,” said Payne in 2013.

 The event was unremarkable. But months later, the Jesuits would be shocked to learn they had come face to face with the man who killed Kennedy. “We were in amazement, absolute amazement that we had been in touch with this figure who was the assassin,” said Payne.  That revelation however, led to an interesting decision by leaders at Spring Hill, that ended up coming back to haunt them. “Well, the last thing in the world the Jesuits wanted was to be associated with the assassination of President John Kennedy,” said Payne.  So, a decision was made to not speak with the FBI and the agency may have never heard about Oswald’s visit, except for one thing. The Jesuits who had gone out to speak with marina, had begun to write her letters, because they wanted to practice their Russian with her. During the investigation following the shooting, the FBI found those letters. They found these letters from Jesuits in the room of the president’s assassin. 

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