FIRST PERSON: Remembering JFK, Malcolm Kilduff

by By Jerlene Rose • For The Citizen

In June 1983 Malcom Kilduff was a guest speaker at the Robert A. Taft Institute of Government seminar. He was addressing thirty classroom teachers who were participating in the two-week seminar at Eastern Kentucky University. 1983 was the 20th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Kilduff told the group he was riding in a telephone-equipped vehicle just two cars behind President John F. Kennedy when the shots were fired from the Texas Book Depository in downtown Dallas on November 22, 1963. Both Kennedy and Gov. John Connally were hit by the bullet believed to have been fired by Lee Harvey Oswald.

Kilduff was JFK’s acting press secretary that day because Pierre Salinger was in Japan. Kilduff, as the official spokesperson, was the one who made the public announcement of Kennedy’s death.

When the physician told him President Kennedy was dead, Kilduff walked up to Johnson and simply addressed him as, “Mr. President…” Mrs. Johnson, standing beside him, screamed. Kilduff asked President Johnson’s permission to make the announcement to the public, and Johnson told him to wait until he and Mrs. Johnson had left the building, saying, “We don’t know yet whether this is part of a conspiracy to take out all the leadership to disrupt the United States. We just don’t know enough.”

As soon as word was received that the Johnsons were safely aboard Air Force One, Kilduff walked to the microphone and made the public announcement, then he left to join them. Kilduff made the only voice recording of the swearing in ceremony using a Dictaphone he found on Kennedy’s desk in the plane, the only recording device they could find. The oath of office was administered by Attorney Sarah Tilghman Hughes, a federal judge who served on the US District Court for the Northern District of Texas.

In 1983, speaking to the teachers’ group at EKU, Kilduff created a big stir when he told the group he had a different theory about the shooting. He believed Oswald was aiming at Gov. John Connally instead of Kennedy.

“The shots came over my right shoulder,” he said. He based his theory on two things: Connally, as secretary of the Navy, was the one who signed Oswald’s dishonorable-discharge papers from the Marines, and “no one has ever proven there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy.”

Kilduff stayed on as assistant press secretary under Lyndon Johnson until 1965. He retired, started a consulting company, and later moved to Kentucky with his wife. He got a job as associate editor of the Beattyville Enterprise and also worked for the Jackson Times, both owned by Louise Hatmaker.

Louise and I were friends and I got to know Malcom and his wife when they attended meetings of the Kentucky Press Association. I asked him why he decided to move so far away from Washington when he retired. He was originally from Staten Island, NY and grew up in Arlington, VA. He served in the United States Navy from 1945 to 1947, attended George Washington University and Harvard University. He also went to the Arlington Institute of Law. Beattyville was certainly a huge change from New York and Washington.

Kilduff told me he was a recovering alcoholic. He said he had realized he had begun to drink too much. “Washington is a constant round of meetings, martini lunches, social events, receptions, parties. Everywhere you went there was alcohol available. I needed to get away from that and the temptations.” In Kentucky, Kilduff often spoke to students and civic groups about his experience with President Kennedy and about his alcoholism and his recovery.

Kilduff had been married and divorced twice. His third wife was Beattyville native Rosemary Porter, who he met when she worked in Washington D.C. as an aide to U.S. Sen. Vance Hartke. When she retired, they moved back to her hometown.

Rosemary also became a columnist for the Beattyville newspaper, and it was her column on dealing with methods of forecasting the weather in mountain folklore that became the impetus for the town’s annual fall festival, the Woolly Worm Festival, in 1988. It is still being held during the third weekend in October.

They were both wonderful caring people and were involved in local civic organizations in Lee County and the surrounding area. Malcom was a member of the Kiwanis Club, the Natural Bridge Park Association, and the Buckhorn Scenic Trails Association. Both won numerous awards from the Kentucky Press Association for their articles.

Rosemary died of cancer in 1998 and is buried in Lee County. Malcomb Kilduff was 75 when he died in a Beattyville nursing home in 2003. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA.

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