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The Day Kennedy Died

Dr. Robert McClelland held JFK’s head in his hands. He massaged Oswald’s heart. Forty-five years later, his students are still riveted by the surgeon’s tales.
Randal Ford

The story below first ran in the November 2008 issue of D Magazine. We are presenting the archive as it ran in the magazine. Dr. Robert McClelland died at the age of 89 in September 2019.

In crumpled white coats filled with folded papers and stethoscopes and the various tools of the third-year medical student, they file into a cramped office. The walls are lined with books. Andrew Jennings and Jeff Konnert sit at opposite ends of the leather couch while Scott Paulson takes the leather chair. They face a 79-year-old man in a crisp, bright white jacket. Dr. Robert Nelson McClelland, not a large man, has thick glasses and tufts of white hair that match his coat.

This is the students’ second meeting with the old doctor. He offers them soda and coffee. They are scheduled to talk about pancreatic surgery. Instead they will receive a lesson in living history. When they leave, one student will refer to this hour as the most fascinating conversation of his life.

As they get settled, ready to hear about surgical manipulation of the biliary tract, Jennings notices a magazine on the coffee table. From the cover, it appears the entire magazine is dedicated to conspiracy theories revolving around the John F. Kennedy assassination. Six floors and 44 years separate the place where they are sitting from that moment in November 1963 when the president of the United States was carted into the emergency room in a condition witnesses would later describe as “moribund.”

Andrew points to the magazine. “Were you here when they brought him in?” “Yeah, I helped put in the trache,” McClelland says matter-of-factly. The students gasp, as if the old East Texas doctor had put an ice-cold stethoscope to their chests. With no hesitation, McClelland continues, “So you’re here to talk about the pancreas—”

“Whoa! Whoa!” one of the three students interrupts.

“Is there any way you could tell us what happened?” asks another.

“We can read a book about pancreatic surgery, but this—”

“Well, I feel like a broken record,” McClelland says. “I’ve probably told this story 8,000 times.”

They plead with him.

He leans back in his chair, behind a desk covered with stacks of paper. He nods slowly. His eyes close for a moment as he transports himself back to that fall afternoon, just two days after his 34th birthday. The day that JFK died.

It was a little after “noontime,” he tells them. Everyone knew the president was in town that day. McClelland was in a second-floor conference room at Parkland Memorial Hospital, showing a film of an operation for a hiatal hernia to some of the residents and students.

He begins the narrative he’s told so many times. “I heard a little knock on the door,” McClelland says. At the door was Dr. Charles Crenshaw. He asked McClelland to step into the hall for a moment. When he returned, McClelland turned off the projector and left the students. The two doctors moved immediately to the elevator.

In the elevator, McClelland tried to reassure Crenshaw. He mentioned there had been a lot of alarming stories from the emergency room recently, and most cases turned out not to be too bad.

When the elevator doors opened, they turned right and saw a wall of dark suits and hats. (“Everyone wore hats in those days,” he tells the students. Their conceptions of that time come mostly from a film made in 1991.)

The open area at the center of the emergency room was called “the pit.” Neither doctor had ever seen the pit so jammed with people: Secret Service men, nurses, medical students, residents, reporters, photographers, and curious bystanders.

In the shuffle, the dark suits parted. About 50 feet away, McClelland could see Jackie Kennedy seated outside Trauma Room One. Her pink dress was covered in blood.

“This is really what they said it was,” he said quietly to Crenshaw.

McClelland thought for a moment that he might be the most senior faculty member on site. His boss, Dr. Tom Shires, chair of the department of surgery, was in Galveston at a meeting of the Western Surgical Association. Because it was near lunch, he worried the other doctors might be off the premises. (“The food was so bad at the hospital,” he tells the students, “we often went out to the hamburger place across the street.”)

His instincts were to move the other direction, but he forced himself to keep walking toward Trauma Room One, fighting through the crowd. A large woman named Doris Nelson stood in front of the doors, directing traffic, her voice bellowing above the bedlam. She was the nurse director of the emergency room. She told the Secret Service men who was allowed in and whom to keep out. When McClelland and Crenshaw arrived, she waved them in.

The first thing he saw was the president’s face, cyanotic—bluish-black, swollen, suffused with blood. The body was on a cart in the middle of the room, draped and surrounded by doctors and residents. Kennedy was completely motionless, a contrast to the commotion around him. McClelland was relieved there were so many other faculty members there.

Dr. James Carrico, a resident at the time, had inserted an endo-tracheal tube into the president’s trachea and secured an airway when the president first entered the emergency room. Many years later, Carrico would become the chief of surgery at Parkland. Dr. Malcolm Perry and Dr. Charles Baxter had arrived just before McClelland and had begun a tracheotomy, cutting into a quarter-size wound in the center of Kennedy’s throat. Dr. M.T. Jenkins, an anesthesiologist, was near the head of the cart, administering oxygen.

McClelland put on surgical gloves. None of the men in the room had changed clothes. At their wrists, the surgical gloves met business suits and pressed white shirt cuffs.

Jenkins had his hands full, but nodded down to Kennedy’s head. He said, “Bob, there’s a wound there.” The head was covered in blood and blood clots, tiny collections of dark red mass. McClelland thought he meant there was a wound at the president’s left temple. Later that gesture would cause some confusion.

McClelland moved to the head of the cart. “Bob, would you hold this retractor?” Perry asked. He handed McClelland an army-navy retractor, a straight metal bar with curves on each end to hold back tissue and allow visibility and access. McClelland leaned over the president’s blue face, over the gape in the back of his head, and took the tool.

For nearly 15 minutes, McClelland held the retractor as blood ran over its edges. As the other doctors labored on Kennedy’s throat and chest or milled around the room, McClelland stood staring at the leader of the free world. His face was 18 inches from the president’s head wound. Kennedy’s eyes bulged slightly from their sockets—the medical term is “protuberant”—common with massive head injuries and increased intracranial pressure. Blood oozed down his cheeks. Some of the hair at the front of his head was still combed.

McClelland looked into the head wound. Stray hairs at the back of the head covered parts of the hole, as did bits of bone, blood, and more blood clots. He watched as a piece of cerebellum slowly slipped from the back of the hole and dropped onto the cart.

(In the room with his students, Dr. McClelland softly touches the rear-right part of his own head. “Right back here,” he tells them. “About like this.” He puts his hands together to signify the size of the wound, about the size of a golf ball. “Clearer in my mind’s eye than maybe you are sitting in front of me right now.”)

Jenkins and McClelland would both testify later that the slimy chunk of tissue they saw plop on the cart was cerebellum. Jenkins, however, changed his mind and decided what he saw must have been cerebrum. It might seem like a minor nuance to casual observers, but no details of the biggest mystery in American history are minor. The difference between cerebellum and cerebrum could mean a difference in the location of the fatal head wound. It could mean a different bullet trajectory, which could indicate where the fatal shot originated.

For years the two would argue.

“You don’t remember, Bob,” Jenkins would say.

“Yes I do. You don’t remember. You were fiddling with the anesthesia machine. I was just standing there looking at it.”

President John F. Kennedy (C) speaking during final trip to Texas as Vice Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson (R) looks on. (Photo by Art Rickerby//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

As their fingers moved in and out of the president’s body, and through that afternoon, the doctors debated where the bullet came in and went out. Perry said he assumed the smaller hole in Kennedy’s neck was an entrance wound. They knew nothing of the events downtown, where some witnesses claimed a gunman by the infamous grassy knoll fired a shot from in front of the moving president. Lee Harvey Oswald fired from behind Kennedy as the limousine moved away from the book depository. At the time, the doctors hypothesized that perhaps a bullet entered at the front of the throat, ricocheted off the bony spinal column, and moved upward out the back of Kennedy’s head. At that point, the doctors were unaware of the wound in Kennedy’s back.

McClelland stared at the hole in the back of the president’s head. He looked at where the skull crumpled slightly around the edges. Knowing nothing else of the assassination at the time, he, too, assumed a bullet had come out of that opening.

He wouldn’t feel confident in his initial assessment until 11 and a half years later, when he and his wife watched an episode of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. As the couple got ready for bed, Carson introduced his guest, a young, ambitious television host named Geraldo Rivera. Rivera had with him footage of the assassination previously unseen by the public, footage known simply as “the Zapruder film.” Shot by Abraham Zapruder, an immigrant from the Ukraine, the 8-millimeter Kodachrome movie shows the motorcade through the duration of the assassination. As McClelland watched it for the first time, he saw the back of the president’s head blasted out. He saw the president swayed “back and to the left,” a phrase later repeated ad nauseum in Oliver Stone’s JFK. McClelland was convinced he had been standing over an exit wound.

At approximately 1 pm, Dr. Kemp Clark pronounced John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, dead. Everyone seemed to agree the cause was the massive brain injury, and Clark was the neurosurgeon, so Clark called the death. A blanket was put over the body, and the body was put into a wooden coffin and taken to the airport, a violation of Texas state law at the time.

The doctors were taken upstairs to fill out brief reports for the Secret Service. Each was instructed to write about a page describing what had happened. McClelland was the only doctor to mention a wound in the temple, the place he believed Jenkins was nodding at earlier. He would later clarify for the Warren Commission that he did not see such a wound. He would give his testimony to the assistant counsel of the President’s Commission, Arlen Specter, four months after the assassination. Before McClelland finished his report, Lyndon B. Johnson had been sworn in as president aboard Air Force One.

Years later, when Senator Arlen Specter ran for president himself, he stopped by Parkland for a photo-op with the doctors he questioned in March of 1964.

The rest of the day, doctors discussed the day’s events by the coffee pot. Surgeons drink coffee like cars drink gas. They looked at each other with solemn glances, many still wearing blood-splattered suits. “Did that just happen?” they asked one another. “Did the president just die in our hands?”

McClelland got home about 6 pm. His mother was visiting from East Texas. She met him at the door and hugged him.

After telling his tale, more than half the scheduled hour has passed. “Wow,” one of the students says. That’s all they can muster. Wow. And again, perhaps not noticing the amazement of the students, perhaps so used to it from telling the story over the years, McClelland drops a second bombshell.

“I worked on Oswald, too,” he says.

“You’re kidding.”

That Sunday, with McClelland’s mother still in town, the family decided to go out to lunch. As his wife was upstairs getting ready with their 2-year-old and infant, McClelland decided to watch television. As he switched on his Admiral, before the picture flickered to life, he heard an announcer: “He’s been shot. He’s been shot.”

When the picture came in, Lee Harvey Oswald was on the floor, a sheriff’s deputy leaning over him. The crowd had the gunman, Jack Ruby. McClelland called upstairs to his wife.

“They’ve shot Oswald!”

“Who’s that?” she called back.

“Don’t you remember? That’s the guy they said shot—”


“Well, I’ve gotta go.”

(Photo by Time Life Pictures/Warren Commission/National Archives/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

He headed for the hospital. Coming down Beverly Drive, just before Preston Road, McClelland began flashing his headlights. He saw the car of Shires, his boss, on his way home from Parkland after seeing his patient Governor Connally.

Shires stopped and stuck his head out the window. “Did you hear what I just—”

“I just saw it on television,” McClelland said.

“I just heard it on the radio.”

McClelland followed Shires to Parkland. When they arrived and changed clothes—something they didn’t take the time for with Kennedy—Oswald was just being wheeled in. When Kennedy arrived, every faculty member on site was called into the emergency room. With Oswald, there were only a few doctors working on him. Twenty-eight minutes after Jack Ruby’s shot, they were inside Oswald’s abdomen.

(“He was as white as this piece of paper,” McClelland tells the med students. “He had lost so much blood. If he hadn’t turned when he saw Ruby coming, he might have been all right.”)

When Oswald saw the gun in Ruby’s hand, he had cringed slightly, flinching. Because of this, the bullets went through his aorta and inferior vena cava, the two main blood vessels in the back of the abdominal cavity. There was enormous loss of blood. The medical team pumped pint after pint of untyped blood, 16 in all, through his body. Shires and Perry eventually got a vascular clamp to stop the bleeding, and the two set about clearing away intestines to get enough room to repair the damage.

They worked on Oswald for an hour when his heart arrested. The blood loss was just too much, and the brief but severe shock too damaging. Perry opened Oswald’s chest, and he and and McClelland, who was also assisting, took turns administering an open heart massage.

(“You pumped Oswald’s heart in your hands?” a student asks. “We took turns, each going until we got tired. We went for, oh, about 40 minutes.”)

The heart got flabbier and flabbier. They squeezed and pumped. The blood around his heart collected on their gloves. Then, no more. Almost two hours after being shot, Lee Harvey Oswald was pronounced dead. The first live homicide on public television was witnessed by 20 million viewers.

The entire emergency room was in a daze. First the president. Two days later, in the room next door, the president’s assassin. It was as if the community had tumbled into one of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone episodes.

For McClelland, it got stranger. One of the sheriff’s deputies who had been escorting Oswald during his public transfer—the taller deputy America saw in the Stetson hat—was waiting outside the trauma room to see how Oswald was doing. He told the doctors something odd had happened, even more odd than the public murder.

After the shot, the deputy explained to McClelland, when Oswald was on the ground, he got on his hands and knees and put his face right over Oswald’s.

“I said, ‘Son, you’re hurt real bad. Do you wanna say anything?’ ” the deputy said. “He looked at me for a second. He waited, like he was thinking. Then he shook his head back and forth just as wide as he could. Then he closed his eyes.”

They would never open again. Looking back, McClelland would wonder if Oswald was tempted to say something. If maybe he was worried he would regret it. He didn’t know he was going to die, McClelland thought.

The students begin to realize McClelland is not just a living portal to the history in their textbooks. He might also be the most credible conspiracy theorist alive. He explains that too many things don’t add up. Doctors at Parkland reported seeing the president’s body put into a coffin with a blanket over it. But that it somehow got into a body bag by the time it got to Washington. He says he’s from East Texas and has seen enough deer hunting to know a body moves in the direction of the bullet. That the president moved backward because he was shot from the front.

He mentions an odd phone call the operator at the emergency room got when Oswald was in surgery. Someone claiming to be from the White House inquired about Oswald’s condition. He talks about a British documentarian’s theory that three hitmen flew from Corsica to Marseille to Mexico City and drove across the border and up to Dallas to murder the president.

“Were you ever scared?” a student asks.

“No. Maybe I should have been. Maybe I was just too dumb to be scared.” His voice is soft, and he smiles.

There are other coincidences, he says. One extraordinary one, in fact.

“I’d actually met Kennedy before that,” he says.

“You what?”

Almost two years exactly before the assassination, McClelland was a resident at Parkland. His new wife was a nurse at Baylor hospital, across Dallas from Parkland. She asked him one day if he could pick up her paycheck. He took off work a little early and ventured to Baylor, where he hardly ever went.

He parked across the street from the hospital, got out and looked to his left, where a group of school children were running from an elementary school. As they ran in his direction, a pack of motorcycle police rounded the corner from Washington Avenue onto Gaston Avenue. Behind them was a limousine. He crossed the street toward the hospital’s side entrance. The children and the motorcade arrived at the same time he did.

Surrounded by children, a motorcycle cop got off his bike and gently nudged McClelland back and opened the car door. “How ’bout that,” McClelland thought to himself. “Hey, I know him. That’s the president of the United States.”

Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn had just been hospitalized with cancer at Baylor. A fellow Democrat, President Kennedy had come to pay Mr. Sam a final visit. That night, when he got home, McClelland told his wife, “You’ll never believe who I saw today.” News of the presidential visit made the front pages the next morning.

Two years later, as McClelland stared into the pale, swollen face of the same man, he thought back to that brief encounter.

Another coincidence: years after the Warren Commission’s report. After Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney, tried to have the only trial related to the assassination, bringing conspiracy charges against Claw Shaw. After interest in the mystery had waxed and waned several times. A surgeon friend of McClelland’s called and told him about a stomach cancer patient he had operated on earlier that day. The doctor explained the patient wasn’t doing well, and he thought he might have leaked one of his suture lines. He asked if McClelland might be at Presbyterian that day, and if he could scrub-in on the surgery. McClelland had patients to see there anyway, so he agreed.

He arrived at Presbyterian and found the surgery schedule: the patient’s name in black marker on a white board was A. Zapruder.

Dealey Plaza, the site of the assassination, often called “the grassy knoll”. Photo courtesy of Getty Images (Photo by Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

Zapruder recovered eventually, and the two talked periodically. For some reason, though, they never discussed their mutual involvement in the events of November 22, 1963. Neither ever brought it up.

This happens every so often, he tells the students. He goes for years without talking about that week. He goes weeks without thinking about the blood clots. The face. The hole in the head. Sometimes it seems to come up over and over. The event is woven into his life, wrapped around his white hair, tied to his surgeon fingers. He’s been married 50 years. His children have children. He is one of the most renowned surgery scholars in the country. He knows the history of virtually every operation, from how doctors performed it in the Civil War to new experimental processes. He pores over medical journals (as past editor of Selected Readings in General Surgery, which he originated).

But new debates begin, like a recent one when two books about the assassination were released at the same time. One has 1,600 pages worth of evidence declaring the Warren Commission’s conclusion spot on, the other claiming to have irrefutable evidence that there were multiple shooters. He can list the documentaries, the biographies, the first-hand accounts like a catalogue.

As the students walk out, they thank him profusely. They have unshaven faces and disheveled hair. Surgery rotation is notoriously difficult because of the lack of sleep. But they walk past McClelland’s secretary, stirred by the story. Once, everyone in America could remember where they were when they heard the news of JFK’s death. For a younger generation, the event was 30 years in the past when they learned about the book depository and the Texas Theatre. For some, it might as well be Ford’s Theatre and John Wilkes Booth.

Andrew Jennings pulls out his cell phone. “I’m going to tell my grandkids about this,” the 24-year-old says. “People will say, ‘I know a guy who knows the guy who worked on Kennedy and Oswald.’ ”

Once in a while, at home, McClelland pulls a box from his shelves. He passes the Lincoln bust he purchased at the Petersen House in Washington, D.C., where Abraham Lincoln died, and the epic volumes he has of all Lincoln’s writings, and the history books he’s amassed over the years.

His hands glide over the wooden box, painted blue. He opens it. Inside is a transparent zip-lock bag with what once was a white shirt pressing against the sides.

He thinks about a trip to Washington, where he visited the Armed Forces Pathology Museum. There, hanging in a display, was the shirt Lincoln was wearing when he was shot in 1865. Blood had poured from the left side of his head, down his arm, collecting at the cuff of the shirt.

McClelland opens the bag and pulls out the folded shirt.

The day after he worked on Kennedy, he took his suit to the cleaners. When he explained the blood-drenched clothing, they told him they didn’t want to clean it. It was part of history, they told him. “I only have two suits,” the young doctor said. “You have to clean it.”

But he folded the shirt he had been wearing and put it in a bag. He eventually got a nice box to keep it in. As he unfolds the shirt and holds it up, there, on the left sleeve, mostly around the cuff, is a brown stain. Because he had a suit on, much of the shirt is clean. But as with the Lincoln shirt, a pool of blood had collected on the left side. Like the event itself, the blood started at his hands and worked its way up, onto him.

He thinks about the tragic event. Things that seem disparate, but somehow come together. “Jungian synchronicity” he calls it. Meaningful coincidences.

Rarely, he takes the shirt out for someone. For his daughter, a school teacher in nearby Plano, and her class. For a cousin’s kid’s show and tell. The class didn’t believe it was really Kennedy’s blood, of course. He begins his story of one of the most important days in American history. He says the same things. The same way. With the same inflections and the same dialogue.

He starts with “I feel like a broken record.”

Then: “There was a little knock on the door.”

Write to [email protected].


Michael J. Mooney

Michael J. Mooney

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