Grave emergency

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

The morning of Nov. 22, 1963, Dallas Police officer J.D. Tippit, 39, was having coffee at the Dudley M. Hughes Funeral Home on Jefferson Boulevard. 

Tippit and his fellow police officers would gather there often since they served as escorts for funeral processions. 

Ronald Hughes Jr., the grandson of the Oak Cliff funeral parlor’s original owner, remembers being a 6-year-old sitting at the dining room table eating warm cereal and seeing Tippit and the other familiar policemen talking and laughing together.

Later, around noon, his grandfather and uncle picked him up from preschool and took him to the El Fenix restaurant on Colorado where they had lunch.

They asked after the owner’s wife, who was usually at the register.

“She’s outside listening to the radio,” they were told. “Something happened Downtown.”

By the time they got back to the funeral home at 400 E. Jefferson, there were police cars and ambulances in the front driveway, and many officers and men in suits crowd around the home the family shared with the funeral business. 

Most anyone who was alive the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated remembers the details of their day, but for the Hughes family, their connection to that significant day goes a step further.

It was their funeral home that received a call shortly after Tippit was shot three times by Lee Harvey Oswald a block away. And their ambulance driver, Clayton Butler, drove the dying policeman to Methodist hospital.

Emergencies were handled differently in 1963, starting with the way they were reported. There was no 911 service — that wouldn’t begin until 1968. A caller had to either know the police or fire department’s direct number by heart, or they had to dial 0 and ask the operator to make the connection. In the case of Tippit’s shooting, an eyewitness — Hughes’ barber, Domingo Benavides — used the police car’s radio to make the call.

After dispatching officers to the scene, the police switchboard operator picked up the direct line to the Hughes funeral home, whose job it was to provide ambulance services to that part of Oak Cliff. There were no private ambulance companies or emergency medical technicians in the early ’60s, and emergency medical service wouldn’t be officially implemented until 1971. 

Up until 1973, the year the city of Dallas hired its own operators to answer emergency calls, ambulances were provided by area funeral homes that the city contracted. In 1963, the city of Dallas had three main funeral homes that provided ambulance services. 

Hughes recalls, “The Dudley M. Hughes funeral homes covered a major portion of the Dallas area, including West Dallas and southwest and northern Oak Cliff, while Black & Clark, the black funeral home, primarily covered southeast Oak Cliff … Sparkman/Hillcrest Funeral Home covered everywhere else.

“The Hughes funeral home had eight emergency cars, which at the time were high-top Suburbans. Before that, we just had station wagons. Eventually we purchased four Cadillac ambulances with lights on them. The Suburbans were primarily emergency cars, while the others were transfer cars.” 

Ambulances not only took the injured to the hospital, they also transported patients to and from nursing homes and even gave newborn babies and their mothers rides home.

The cost was considerably different back then, too.

“A private ambulance call cost $27.50,” Hughes says. “And if it was a city ambulance call, it was $32.” 

Those old ambulances were sparsely equipped, and “the city only required them to carry a first aid kit, basically a tackle box with some gauzes and bandages and maybe an oxygen bottle. It was a big deal if your ambulance said, ‘oxygen equipped’ on the side.” 

Hughes adds, “If you used oxygen it was an extra $7.50.”

“The money did add up,” he says. “But the real value to the funeral home was the advertisement that the ambulances provided.” 

Having all of those oddly shaped vehicles with “Dudley M. Hughes” across each side in fluorescent paint driving around town and in front of news cameras brought a great deal of name recognition to the family’s business. 

In the early ’70s, the ambulance industry shifted.

Veterans began returning from the Vietnam War with newly developed trauma emergency treatment techniques, and cities took over the ambulance services and began using teams trained to provide emergency medical services. 

Ronald Hughes says he is honored that his family played a small part in history.

“In our own way, every one of us is a part of history,” he says. “It’s ongoing. Sometimes it just takes a while to recognize the significance of your part.