A newsmaker you should know: Army vet recalls his role in Kennedy's funeral ceremony

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Tom Reid has been awarded the Distinguished Member of the Regiment award from the Alumni Association of the Old Guard for his role as site control officer in charge of President John F. Kennedy's burial at Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 25, 1963.

Back then, the Plum man was a 26-year-old captain in the U.S. Army's official ceremonial unit, the Third Infantry Regiment, which is called the Old Guard.

President Kennedy's interment ceremony -- watched by millions around the world -- was Mr. Reid's first state funeral.

"I had only been with the Old Guard for a few months. There was a generic master plan for state funerals, but no specific plan for an incumbent president's funeral, so we made it up as we went along," Mr. Reid recalled as the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination is marked Friday.

Mr. Reid's recollections -- and those of 21 fellow members of the Old Guard who served during seven ceremonial events that occurred from Nov. 22 to 25 in 1963 -- are part of a book he compiled, "Their Finest Hour."

Published by Word Association Publishers in Tarentum in 2008, the book is a tribute to the memory of Kennedy and to the Old Guard unit that played a leading role in the four-day state funeral.

Friday, Mr. Reid, 76, will be at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, recording his oral history of the events for the Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh, a project of the Veterans Breakfast Club.

The Veterans Breakfast Club is a nonprofit that provides veterans the opportunity to share their stories across various media platforms.

The process of producing the book began in 2001 when, for the first time since 1963, Mr. Reid reunited via email with five members of the guard.

He said they have renamed themselves "The Old Guard Geezers."

"No one person saw the whole funeral ... we each had our own glimpse of it," he noted of that time.

Agreeing their participation in the funeral for Kennedy was a "watershed event" in their lives, the men decided to invite all the former members of their unit to record first-hand details.

Five of the former Old Guard members served as editors for the book: Mr. Reid along with Edward Gripkey, Wesley Groesbeck, James McElroy and Kenneth Pond.

The book progresses chronologically, describing what Mr. Reid considers "the most intense pressure" he had experienced, aside from a year in combat served later in Vietnam.

Highlighted are the planning and constant changes that occurred during the four days in November 1963, mostly at the request of the Kennedy family.

One of them included Jacqueline Kennedy's desire for an eternal flame at the gravesite.

"I had no idea what an eternal flame was," Mr. Reid admitted. But he quickly found out when he made the proper contacts at the Army Corps of Engineers, headquartered at nearby Fort Belvoir, and had one constructed overnight.

During that time Mr. Reid slept on a cot in his makeshift office below the amphitheater at the cemetery's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

"I sure didn't see him," said his wife, Carol, who recalled being at the couple's Arlington, Va., home with their two small children and was expecting a third.

Mr. Reid describes his role in the first televised national tragedy.

"I foolishly thought I was in charge of the ceremony, making executive decisions," he said.

But the power of the press prevailed and Mr. Reid's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Richard Cross confirmed to him it was NBC executive, Bill Jones, who dictated changing the location of the bugler and the firing party for the benefit of the television cameras.

One account describes Arthur A. Carlson who, as a 19-year-old private first class, was responsible for leading and controlling the ornately decorated riderless horse, Black Jack, throughout the funeral.

Another chapter, by then-Capt. Michael J. McNamara, describes the many directions given from "a Sargent Shriver."

"He was, of course was not some [non-commissioned officer] who'd gotten into the planning cycle clearly over his head," but actually a Kennedy family spokesman, Mr. McNamara writes.

Shriver was a statesman and activist and was husband of Kennedy's sister Eunice Kennedy.

Writing about his memories also allowed Mr. Reid to express, for the first time he said, the disappointment of his last-minute dismissal, without explanation, from the ceremony he planned and rehearsed.

He believed it was because of a comment he made the day before the interment ceremony to the wife of Maj. Gen. Ted Clifton, Kennedy's military aide.

While waiting at the White House to brief the general on ceremony details, Mr. Reid commented to the general's wife about his hard work and planning for the next day's ceremony. She mistook his comments as complaining, Mr. Reid said.

"I had merely wanted to point out that we were making every effort to produce the finest and most fitting ceremony possible," Mr. Reid said in the book.

"I was stunned. I was surprised -- to put it mildly -- that I was being outranked. The morning of the burial, we had a ... rehearsal at the gravesite ... all the main points of the funeral were covered. ... Since I was the only one who knew, I conducted the rehearsal," Mr. Reid said.

Following that rehearsal, Mr. Reid said he went back to his office to change into his dress blue uniform for the actual ceremony.

"That's when Col. Richard Cross called me into his office and said: 'Tom, I don't know what's going on, but the general said he doesn't want you in the cemetery at all. Stay out.' " Mr. Reid recounted.

Mr. Reid said last month's award had finally vindicated him -- and created closure.

"The general's wife had me fired from the funeral and barred from the cemetery. Fifty years later, I was escorted through the cemetery to Kennedy's grave and lay a wreath. I felt like I was finally allowed in the cemetery," he said.

Mr. Reid remained in the Army throughout the 1960s, serving a year in Vietnam. He resigned his commission and left the Army with the rank as major in 1968.

After moving back to the Pittsburgh area, Mr. Reid got a job selling steel for Allegheny Ludlum.

The company moved him to the Philadelphia area. There he enrolled and graduated from Temple University law school.

He had earlier earned his bachelor's degree from Georgetown University.

Mr. Reid and his family moved back to Pittsburgh, where he worked as a corporate lawyer for Koppers Inc. Downtown. He retired in 1998.

"Notwithstanding its many other illustrious achievements, the Old Guard's finest hour may well have been the week we buried President John F. Kennedy," write the editors in their introduction to the book.

Laurie Bailey, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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