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Dallas' Love Field hides its presidential history

Plans to create an exhibit at the airport to commemorate where Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as president after John F. Kennedy's assassination have faced numerous mysterious hurdles.

By Jason Whitely, WFAA-TV
The bronze marker on a taxiway at Love Field, inaccessible to the public, which forever marks the spot where LBJ took the oath of office on November 22, 1963.

DALLAS LOVE FIELD — Publicly recognizing the most historic event to ever occur at Dallas Love Field has become a politically charged issue, shrouded in mystery which the city’s director of aviation refuses to discuss as the airport celebrates its 99th anniversary on Wednesday.

For more than five years, historians have hoped to create a permanent indoor exhibit at Love Field to commemorate what happened here on Nov. 22, 1963, when, after JFK’s assassination, Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as the 36th president of the United States aboard Air Force One.

After locating the position where Johnson took the oath of office, former State Rep. Dan Branch, former city councilwoman Linda Koop, architect Jonathan Massey, the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, the Sixth Floor Museum in Dealey Plaza, and other influential community members worked for 18 months to conceptualize an indoor exhibit for the airport. It was supposed to be located above the TSA checkpoints on the second level at Love Field along the hallway leading to the parking garage.

The team of volunteers even created renderings for the exhibit and discussed potential artifacts and technology to incorporate. One name under consideration for was: “Transition from Tragedy.”

Corgan, the airport’s architectural firm, even redesigned a wall and cut a large bay window in the new terminal so tourists and travelers could look out toward the historic spot.

But plans came to a sudden and mysterious halt just before the 50th anniversary in 2013. No one involved ever fully understood why.

Dallas’ Director of Aviation Mark Duebner is in charge of the airport and participated in original discussions about the history project, but refuses to speak about who or what stopped it.

“Mark isn’t available for an interview on this currently,” said city spokeswoman Emily Black in an email to WFAA.

“The government and the Constitution were at work at Love Field,” said Nicola Longford, executive director of the Sixth Floor Museum in Dealey Plaza. “It was a powerful event that took place there. I wish people knew what happened.”

Johnson’s swearing in at Love Field is only the fourth time the oath of office has been given outside the nation’s capital since the founding of the Republic.

Each of the other locations, dating back much farther in American history, already publicly recognize the transfer of power outlined in the U.S. Constitution.

A bronze plaque hangs outside 123 Lexington Ave. in New York where President Chester Arthur received the oath of office in 1881 after President James Garfield’s assassination.

An entire building, the Ansley Wilcox House, in Buffalo, New York, is now a national historic site after Theodore Roosevelt recited the presidential oath there in 1901 following President James McKinley’s assassination.

The National Park Service preserved the Calvin Coolidge Homestead in Plymouth, Vermont, where he took the oath of office in the middle of the night on Aug. 3, 1923, following the death of President Warren G. Harding.

In Dallas, some privately wondered whether Southwest Airlines did not want a dark display, since it is based at Love Field and recently helped open the new terminal.

But Southwest told WFAA last week that it had no objection to such an exhibit being created by private groups.

“No, we do not,” said Richard West with Southwest Airlines corporate communications.

In April, the city’s managing director of Intergovernmental Services, Brett Wilkinson, suggested the indoor exhibit might actually happen after all. He said his office was coordinating with the stakeholders.

“An individual in my office was working with Love Field staff on this. Don’t have a timeline, but we will be meeting in the next week or so to discuss and I’ll let you know,” Wilkinson wrote.

That was six months ago.

But the story gets deeper and responsibility even murkier.

In 2015, local historian Farris Rookstool III got FAA permission to permanently mark the spot of LBJ’s swearing in. Rookstool even personally paid to have a bronze marker cast, which was embedded in the taxiway, forever logging the historic location. Unfortunately, it is inside a secured area and inaccessible to the public.

EAS Lighting Systems, a contractor at Love Field, even donated a specialized taxiway light which is flush in the concrete, as well, and shines toward that terminal window that architects carved out.

But days after illuminating it, Dallas’ Department of Aviation suddenly turned it off.

“The Department of Aviation is investigating a way to reduce the intensity of the light that was installed. Because the light is in an active movement area of the airport, safety of aircraft and ground personnel is of primary importance,” said city spokeswoman Emily Black in an email to WFAA.

But since the light was custom made for the window, an engineer in 2015 told WFAA that either a dimmer could be added or any of the three separate LED lights in the head could be deactivated.

What’s more, the Federal Aviation Administration said pilots have never reported any problems with the intensity of the light next to the LBJ marker.

“We are unaware of any complaints,” said FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford.

So, when pressed about who is upset about the taxiway light, Black conceded: “No one has complained about the light. Airport officials said the intensity of the light was too much for the movement area of the airport, even during the daytime. Love Field may reassess the type of light out there.”

She finally admitted “the light for the marker has been shelved.”

Black did say Dallas would be “coordinating a ceremony to thank those involved in identifying the location for the swearing in of President Johnson, including Representative Dan Branch, Dallas Councilmember Linda Koop, and the firm of Corgan Associates later this year.”

But neither Branch nor Koop said they had been contacted by the city for an upcoming event. Rookstool, who donated the marker, said he had not heard anything, and neither had Nicola Longford nor the director of the LBJ Presidential Library.

Recording the history at Love Field might never have happened, was it not for Branch. The former state representative, who is a knowledgeable student of history, used to fly in and out of the airport quite often and once asked about the location of LBJ’s swearing in just before the old terminal was demolished. That question sparked the investigation, which pinpointed the spot and started talks about the permanent exhibit inside.

Ryan Trimble, a former staffer for Branch who’s also interested in seeing the project eventually become a reality, acknowledged that he has heard talk of a potential upcoming ceremony.

“We want to do something nice and thoughtful and appropriate for everyone who worked really hard on this,” he said.

Officials are trying to figure out what the proper commemoration is inside, Trimble added.

Rookstool gifted a duplicate marker to the city to be displayed in the indoor exhibit.

But for now, travelers, tourists, or locals looking for any sign of what happened on Nov. 22, 1963, won’t find a mention of it.

“There are no plans for the placement of any markers within the terminal at this time,” Black said.

The lingering question is why a privately-funded exhibit created by high-quality and reputable stakeholders has become so politically charged.

On its 99th birthday, Dallas brags about its beautiful new terminal and all of its amenities, but still denies the history that helped define it.

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