Keene (N.H.) Sentinel Photo
Brattleboro Union High School teacher Bill Holiday holds an 8mm copy of the Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
BRATTLEBORO — The small film reel F. William Holiday Jr. cradles in his hands is something he won’t let anyone else touch. It’s one of his most prized artifacts, and for good reason.
The original 8mm footage from which Holiday’s film was copied captures from beginning to end the assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, of America’s youngest president. In approximately 26 seconds of full-color frames, the home-movie camera of Abraham Zapruder, a previously obscure Dallas businessman, captured the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, 50 years ago Friday.
Holiday’s copy hasn’t been pulled from the Internet, or recorded from television. It’s a direct descendant of the Zapruder film, an honest-to-goodness, grainy, frame-by-frame version, far from the digitally enhanced footage seen today.
The story of how he obtained it, though, he keeps a mystery.
Holiday, a history teacher at Brattleboro Union High School, has spent the past four decades working to give his students intimate access to the people, the places and the archives to help them grasp a major tragedy in American history. He has shared with them the vivid details from interviews with nearly two dozen people who were in Dealey Plaza in Dallas the day Kennedy was killed there, or who were otherwise directly connected to the tragedy.
And Friday, on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, Holiday and his wife were in Dealey Plaza for a remembrance ceremony, hosted by the city of Dallas and restricted to 5,000 people. Holiday had to apply to attend the ceremony and obtained clearance after a background check, he said. He is also scheduled to speak at a conference hosted by the Coalition on Political Assassinations in the city today about how he teaches the assassination.
For Holiday, the assassination of an American president in broad daylight, on a major city street, is something he — and millions of others — continues to grapple with.
The theories about who shot and killed Kennedy vary from one man who acted alone, to an inside job, to the gun of a Secret Service agent that went off accidentally in the car behind Kennedy.
But after Holiday’s decades of research and his attempts to set aside the possible from the ridiculous, he said he is certain of one thing: “There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that Kennedy was shot from different directions.”
If Lee Harvey Oswald was a part of the plan to kill Kennedy, Holiday said, “he was only one part.”
The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, also known as the Warren Commission, was established in 1963 by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the assassination. It concluded Oswald acted alone, firing three shots.
More recent review boards and commissions have formed and released their own findings, which offer varied conclusions including contradictions of the Warren Commission’s analysis.
Holiday, a Brattleboro native, was 13 years old and in junior high school the day Kennedy was killed. He still remembers his principal’s announcement over the intercom that alerted him and his schoolmates to the incident. School closed early that day.
Holiday went home, where he and his family were glued to the television, which showed nonstop coverage of the assassination. Questions circulated among family, friends and neighbors, who asked why and how such a thing could have happened.
“You wanted to know why. Why would a guy do that? And what was his beef with the president?” Holiday said.
Holiday said he was too young to think about conspiracy theories or question the Warren Commission’s findings. But that would change about a decade later, when he began teaching U.S. history and exposing himself to workshops and presentations on the Kennedy assassination.
“It snowballed in the mid-’70s and picked up steam,” he said of his research.
Interest is what drove him to seek out eyewitnesses for himself, he said. “But also you come to the realization that they are just real people and they are willing to share stories of what happened if you can find them.”
Holiday has organized trips to Dallas for his students about 10 times so far. And every so often during those trips, he said, word of mouth has let eyewitnesses — or those with connections to the Kennedys — know he is in the city.
Some of Holiday’s conversations with eyewitnesses tugged at his heart, as they evoked the emotions of that tragic and confusing day in 1963.
During one of Holiday’s visits to Dallas, Beverly Oliver returned to the grass between Elm and Main streets where she had stood to watch the president’s motorcade. She immediately broke down, Holiday recalled.
He’s also met onlooker James Tague, who was hit by shrapnel. “I remember when he put his hand up to his face for the first time to show where he’d been injured by a stray shot,” Holiday said. The gesture was simple, but meaningful.
In the years after the assassination, the students who accompanied Holiday to Dallas would experience moments such as these. But today, new technologies, such as Skype, have made it so Holiday’s students learning about the assassination can be face-to-face with those same eyewitnesses without leaving the classroom.
For his senior seminar class in fall 2006, Holiday even requested the assistance of the Brattleboro Police Department to set up a mock motorcade behind the school with hidden shooters stationed at three locations. He said the echoes from a rifle and two pistols firing made it difficult for students to agree on how many shots were actually fired. The re-enactment was designed to help illustrate the confusion on Dealey Plaza in 1963.
“Kids are as interested today as they’ve ever been, like it happened in their time,” Holiday said. “The more you show them, the more intrigued they are, and the more they want answers.”
Had there been a film and photographs of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the intrigue may have been comparable, he said.
“Lincoln was something of an iconic figure, more so after his death than in his time in office. Kennedy’s allure has increased since his death, too, in part due to the assassination and a lack of concrete answers.”
Kennedy’s assassination marked the beginning of a profound change in how Americans later came to view their government, Holiday said. And, he said, those effects are present today.
“My generation is probably the last generation whose innocence was changed by an event like that.”
Secrets about America’s unsuccessful military invasion of Cuba, known as the Bay of Pigs, in 1961, and the following year’s Cuban Missile Crisis — which pitted Cuba and the Soviet Union against the U.S. — got the wheels of skepticism turning, Holiday said.
“Today’s generation is very skeptical of anything government. It started here.”
There are still many unanswered questions about the Kennedy assassination, including what happened during the autopsy and whether actual photos of Kennedy’s body will ever be released, Holiday said.
And as those questions await answers, the public’s interest isn’t likely to wane.
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