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Nellie Connally, 87; Former First Lady of Texas Was a Passenger in JFK's Limousine

September 03, 2006|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

Nellie B. Connally, the former first lady of Texas who was riding in the limousine carrying President Kennedy when he was shot in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, has died. She was 87.

Connally died Friday night at an assisted-living facility in Austin, Texas, said Julian Read, a longtime friend of the Connally family.

Read expressed surprise at Connally's death, noting that she had "been extremely active and vital the last few days and weeks."

Nellie Connally was the last living person from the car on that darkly historic day more than 42 years ago when Lee Harvey Oswald opened fire from the Texas School Book Depository as the presidential motorcade made its way through the streets of Dallas.

Oswald's bullets mortally wounded the president and struck Texas Gov. John B. Connally. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, was pronounced dead at Parkland Hospital. The governor, however, recovered from his wounds to serve two terms.

Nellie Connally would remember that day in Dallas forever. "It was a car full of yellow roses, red roses and blood, and it was all over us."

Kennedy had come to Texas to shore up his flagging political support, participate in fundraising efforts and try to settle some bad feelings between Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and Sen. Ralph Yarborough (D-Texas).

The Connallys had met the Kennedys that morning for the drive from Love Field through Dallas. The president and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who rode in the backseat of the limousine with her husband, had been greeted enthusiastically along the motorcade route.

At one point on the drive, Nellie Connally, who was sitting just ahead of the Kennedys, turned around and remarked, "Mr. President, you certainly can't say that Dallas doesn't love you." Moments later, the shots rang out.

Nellie Connally recalled turning to see Kennedy clutch his throat. As she turned to look at her husband, he was hit in the back by a bullet. She pulled him close to her, and in doing so covered a baseball-size wound in his chest. Doctors later said her action probably had saved his life.

She was born Idanell Brill in Austin, the oldest of five children. Her father was a leather merchant who made holsters that were used by law officers, including the Texas Rangers.

She had aspirations to be an actress when she went off to the University of Texas in the late 1930s. She was named "Sweetheart of the University" in 1938, and it was there that she spotted Connally.

"I recognized a tall, good-looking brunet coming. That was it. I just knew," she told reporters years later.

John Connally went to work as a congressional aide to Lyndon Johnson in Washington after graduation. Nellie and John Connally married in 1940 and had four children.

His political career rose over the years. He managed political campaigns for Johnson, including his 1964 presidential run, and held high-ranking posts, including secretary of the Navy as well as Texas governor. There was talk of the presidency for Connally, but missteps along the way cost him support.

A longtime Democrat, Connally alienated the party faithful by serving as Treasury secretary for President Nixon. After leaving the Treasury post, he headed an effort to garner Democratic support for Nixon. He eventually switched parties, but his later efforts to get the GOP presidential nomination failed.

Nellie Connally rode the crest of the waves with him and felt them crashing beneath her when times were bad.

Their first child, Kathleen, killed herself in 1958 at age 17.

In 1988, Nellie Connally had a mastectomy after doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer.

The next year, her husband, who once held the purse strings for the United States and had amassed considerable wealth in the private sector, was forced to declare bankruptcy after a series of business dealings went bad. He had debts of $93 million and assets of $13 million.

As part of the bankruptcy process, the Connallys went through a four-day auction of their personal possessions that drew worldwide media attention.

In 1993, her husband died of pneumonia.

Despite all the hardships, friends said she maintained an optimistic outlook and spent her later years with her grandchildren and fundraising for her favorite charities.

But overshadowing her life was the day Kennedy was shot. After the death of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1994, Nellie Connally became the last survivor of the four key figures riding in the limousine that day in Dallas.

In 2003, on the 40th anniversary of the assassination, she published her personal account: "From Love Field: Our Final Hours With President John F. Kennedy."

The book, taken from a handwritten journal she compiled days after the assassination and discovered in the 1990s, was co-written by Mickey Herskowitz.

She is survived by a daughter, Sharon Connally Ammann; two sons, John B. Connally III and Mark Connally; and several grandchildren.

Services are pending.

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jon.thurber@latimes.com

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