Patricia Richards had no idea she was creating a tradition.
The longtime photography teacher was leading a class at El Centro Community College downtown and glanced at her calendar to notice that Nov. 22, the day President John F. Kennedy was shot, fell on a Saturday.
“I told my students, ‘OK, have I got a deal for you,’” Richards says. “‘Let’s meet on Saturday at the school; we’ll walk over to Dealey Plaza, and let’s see who remembers and who comes and why they came.’”
One of her students was Hunky’s owner and neighborhood resident Rick Barton, who remembers that once he took in the scene at the infamous grassy knoll, he was “hooked”.
“I hesitate to call it a freak show, but that’s kind of what it is — the interesting people who frequent the place on the 22nd of November,” Barton says.
“We ran back to the school and developed the film, and it just was so exciting.”
That was in 1997. The next year, as Nov. 22 approached, Richards called Barton to invite him to return to the spot. This November marks the 13th year the pair has spent the day at Dealey Plaza acting as “amateur detectives — sleuths with our cameras in the full sense of the romance of photojournalism,” Richards says.
Rain, unseasonable November heat and even a couple of Thanksgiving holidays haven’t kept them away; each of them has missed only one year.
It’s the circus of it all, Barton says, that draws them year after year. The anniversary always attracts newcomers, including people who say they witnessed the fateful shooting or whose family members watched the presidential motorcade. But Barton and Richards also run into the same cast of characters year after year — the JKF Lancers, who hold conferences each year on the assassination; the longtime Dallasites who were present at the shooting and return to tell their stories; the conspiracy theorists seeking new converts; and the vendors hawking JFK gear.
“It’s just surreal,” Barton says of the circus-like atmosphere. “It’s comical on one hand, and then some people are just as serious as they can be. We’ve seen people crying and devastated to this day over the whole thing.”
In one of Richards’ advanced photography classes, she required her students to join Barton and her in the annual ritual.
“It’s a perfect place for them to hone their skills because these people want to tell their stories, they want to be listened to, they want to be photographed and want the truth to be known,” she says.
“For those people who were actually on the curb on the day, what really was the worst day of their lives has just become the best day because they are dedicated to the memory and they must come on the 22nd. To many of them, it’s the reason to keep going because that truth must come out, whatever that truth is.”
All that they have seen and heard has influenced their opinions on what actually happened that day.
“That’s a great American mystery,” Richards says.
“My belief changes every time — it changes with the weather in Dallas,” Barton says. “When you hear some people, you’re just convinced that there was more than one person, then you hear someone else and you think, OK, we’re all crazy. There was just one crazy person.”
Barton and Richards invite Oak Cliff neighbors to judge for themselves this month at their third photography exhibit at Hunky’s featuring photos they’ve snapped over the years, including some in this month’s magazine. An opening reception is Nov. 7 from 7-9 p.m.
And, of course, they’ll be in the midst of all the action again Nov. 22, “our ears open and our finger on the trigger,” Richards says.