JFK then and now
Pallbearer still has scrapbook on assassination
By David Giffels
Jerry Diamond of Stow has kept a scrapbook of items about President John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination. Diamond is the fourth pallbearer from the right in the photo.
Jerry Diamond knows it wasn't about him.
But he lives in a country fascinated with anniversaries and ceremony and brushes with fame.
So he understood why, 40 years after the fact, I might be interested in his small piece of an American epic. Why I might be interested in a man from Stow who was a pallbearer at one of the most famous funerals in our nation's history.
On Saturday, the most tragic piece of the Kennedy mystique will again unfurl, as a nation remembers the 40th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination.
Jerry Diamond will watch, as he has always watched, with two sets of eyes. One will take in the profound national sadness that still rises up with the memory of the event. And the other will watch for the young Marine at the rear left of the casket as it made its slow ceremonial way toward Arlington National Cemetery.
"That's me,'' Diamond said as he paged through a faded blue binder of old photographs. He touched his finger to the image of a straight-backed soldier in dress blues, one of eight men carrying the heaviest casket they'd ever been assigned.
When Diamond talks about the event now, it is with an emotional reserve. He has told the story many times, and he has lived his years twice over since that November day in 1963. Then, as now, he saw this as a soldier's duty that deserved no fanfare.
There was no particular reason Diamond was chosen for funeral detail. A native of Pennsylvania who'd grown up in Stow, he enlisted in the Marines straight out of high school. At age 19, the private was assigned to the Ceremonial Guard and Body Bearers unit, which included members of the Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. The only real requirement was that each man be around 6 feet tall.
The group had handled a number of funerals and was practicing for the state ceremony for former President Herbert Hoover, who was nearing death.
While training at Quantico, Virginia, Diamond was called to his barracks. In the same breath, he learned that the president had been shot and that he was being sent immediately to Washington to pick up the body. From that moment on, his focus would be on the bronze casket containing the president's body.
On the day of the funeral, November 25, 1963, he and the seven others escorted the casket from the Capitol rotunda to St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Cathedral to the graveside. The funeral was among the first major news events to be televised nationally, and so it remains etched more directly in the memories of most Americans who were alive then.
And this is where Diamond's memory differs.
What he remembers is the weight of the casket, and the feeling in his legs as he stood atop the Capitol steps, worried about the steep decline.
"Don't fail me now,'' he remembers telling himself, then adds, "You didn't want to be the one that locked knees and passed out.''
He remembers his commanding officer, "a real leader of men,'' breaking protocol, stepping in to help with the weight as the pallbearers stood at attention.
He remembers the signals the men gave with eyes and body language as they stepped sharply through their silent routine.
He remembers the skittishness in the riderless horse that carried a set of boots down Pennsylvania Avenue.
And he remembers his rigid Marines discipline being tested as he passed through the throngs on the street. He never turned his head, but from the corners of his eyes, he could see the pain on the faces of people crying.
"It kicked,'' he says. "Oh, wow.''
His wife, Barbara, didn't know he was one of the pallbearers until Diamond's sister spotted him on television and called her. The previous weekend had been such a whirlwind that he didn't have time to call home. In a sense, even at the center of all that attention, he was alone.
Not long after the funeral, Diamond was transferred to Camp Lejeune, where he served another two years before his discharge. He returned home and took a job with Ohio Edison. He and Barbara raised two children and now have a grandchild. After 37 years with the power company, he is on an extended vacation that will lead to his retirement in February.
At age 59, he recognizes the pallbearer detail as a milestone in his life. But now it's one of many.
He has followed the ongoing history of the Kennedy assassination, watching documentaries and reading about it. He keeps a scrapbook and a few other mementos, including a copy of a picture from the Smithsonian Institution that shows him carrying the bronze casket on November 22, 1963.
"You know you're older than dirt when they put you in the Smithsonian,'' he jokes.
And like so many others, he retains an image of a young president who he believes lost his chance to change the country.
"Here we are 40 years later, talking about a man,'' Diamond says. "I think he was one heck of a man, a good leader. Had he lived, I think things would have been a little different. Then, it was, `What can you do for your country?' Now, it's all, 'Me, me.' ''
Maybe as a reminder of that difference, Diamond keeps an American flag and a Marine Corps flag flying in his front yard.
"That was a time when you wanted to serve your country,'' he says. "We were focused on what had to be done.''
Posted: 20 November 2003