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When Camelot came to Cambridge

JFK monument to mark historic moment in Alamo Heights

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At Alamo Heights City Hall, Frank Ruttenberg (right) points to a 1963 photo of President John F. Kennedy to Ray Romano (left), Ginny Porrata and Virginia Knott. They were students in the picture when it was taken. Photo by Collette Orquiz

ALAMO HEIGHTS — On Nov. 21, a crowd is expected to  gather outside Cambridge Elementary School on Broadway to dedicate a monument marking a milestone in the city’s history — a visit 56 years ago by President John F. Kennedy.

Nov. 21, 1963, was the day America’s Camelot couple, Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, thrilled thousands of San Antonians as they drove through town in an open convertible. Just 24 hours later, the president was shot to death in Dallas.

The JFK monument, though, will mark a joyous moment – the excitement of children at Cambridge, who stood outside the school to wave as the presidential limo passed on its way to Brooks Air Force Base, where Kennedy was to dedicate the new School of Aerospace Medicine.

“It’s (the monument) great for Alamo Heights and will be a great thing for our kids, too,” said Mayor Bobby Rosenthal.

The marker features a huge photograph, embedded in a 6-foot-long, 4-foot-high streamlined metal frame designed by Tim Blonkvist of Overland Partners. There is a plaque with information about the picture, and an open space, symbolic of how quickly things can change in a short time.

The photo captured youngsters and their teachers waving and smiling as the convertible carrying the Kennedys, Gov. John Connally and his wife, Nellie, approached. Copies of the photo were distributed to many students’ families later that year. Many still treasure the picture.

The idea for the monument came from businessman and civic powerhouse Jim Berg, who was given one of the original photos by Ginny Porrata, who was among those former students. She appears in the center of the throng of learners with her mom, one of the few parents in the photo, standing near.

Porrata’s dad, Army Col. J.A. van Hardevelde, was originally thought to be the photographer, but it now appears that Army Maj. Walter M. Kardegg, whose daughter Linda was also at Cambridge, took the picture. Both men are deceased.

“The picture is iconic, and I didn’t want it to sit and gather dust,” Porrata said.

Neither did Berg. Although he wasn’t in the photo (he was a college freshman, far from San Antonio on that day), he threw himself into the project of memorializing the historic moment. As the owner of MatsonCreative, he used the firm’s high-tech equipment to enlarge the photo and presented a framed copy to then-Mayor Louis Cooper when the new City Hall opened in 2015.

Today it dominates the building’s inner hallway.

“I promised Louis after the installation that I would someday be back with an appropriate sign to mark the place the photo was taken, as a ‘teaching moment’ for the generations not around that fall day,” Berg said. When he did come back, he pledged to raise $20,000 to cover the costs, arranged an even larger version of the picture, and worked with the city to refine the idea.

Rosenthal was all for it, and earlier this year the City Council approved the monument placement on city property by Broadway and Ogden Lane, between the sidewalk and Cambridge’s playing fields.

“Words can’t explain how much I appreciate Jim Berg’s generosity and passion,” Rosenthal said. The mayor’s family was in Dallas in 1963, and his older sister was at the fatal motorcade.

Lynda Billa Burke, now a City Council member and former San Antonio councilwoman, saw the Kennedys on the South Side when her dad, Bob Billa, took her to Brooks for the dedication.

“This brings back wonderful memories, and it will be a great thing for our city,” she said.

As news of the dedication spreads, many of those former Cambridge students have gotten out their copies of the photo to locate themselves and friends, while also sharing memories.

Ken Pruitt has collected reminiscences and raised donations on the Alamo Heights Class of 1971 website. Porrata contacted many others. A few came to City Hall in mid-September to share memories. Porrata was there. So were Lisa Pawel, who started a Facebook page for folks in the photo. Frank Ruttenberg, Bill Thomas, Virginia Knott and Ray Romano came, too. Some brought their own time-worn copies of the historic photo.

“I was sure the president was waving at me in particular, and I mainly remember how beautiful Mrs. Kennedy was,” Thomas said.

Tom Pressley of Shreveport, Louisiana, still keeps a copy of the little drawing he and others in his Cambridge first-grade class made after seeing the motorcade. Like many other far-flung alums, he hopes to return to San Antonio for the monument dedication.

Tom Frost III, waving wildly in the photo, remembers yelling “Jack!” just before the president turned to wave.

“About five seconds later I felt a sharp pain in my tricep,” he said. “My teacher grabbed me and shook me and told me never to call a president by his first name. And I said, ‘Well, it worked, didn’t it?’”

In 2013, on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s visit, Frost said he returned to the spot at the exact time to simply stand and honor the fallen president.

“I thought there would be a lot of us there, but I was the only one,” he said. “I hoped more people would come to mark that moment.”

More details for the dedication will be announced later.

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