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Mangino column: The passing of the ‘Matriarch’ of the families of fallen officers

By Matthew T. Mangino - More Content Now - USA TODAY NETWORK

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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One of the few living people with a direct connection to the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy has died. Marie Tippit, the widow of Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit, who was shot to death by Lee Harvey Oswald 45 minutes after Kennedy was assassinated, died on March 5.

On the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, Tippit made breakfast for her husband. J.D. Tippit would leave early in the morning to begin his shift as a Dallas patrolman. He patrolled the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas. Nov. 22 was a hectic day in Dallas. President Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline were visiting along with Texas native, Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird.

J.D. returned home for lunch as well that day. Within minutes of her husband leaving, Marie learned that the president had been shot. According to eyewitnesses, within minutes of the president being shot, Oswald had hurriedly left the Texas School Book Depository, the building from where the deadly shots were fired.

About 18 minutes before Tippit’s murder, Oswald returned to his Oak Cliff rooming house where the housekeeper said he briskly walked in and left within minutes without speaking. He left an empty holster on his bed in his room.

A witness to Tippit’s murder, Helen Markham, told Marie, “J.D. stopped him, and Oswald walked over and put his hands on the side of the car ... He looked in the window and spoke with J.D., who got out of the car. When J.D. was even with the front wheel of his car Oswald shot him.” He was shot four times with a handgun.

The Warren Commission concluded that Oswald killed the president in Dealey Plaza and then, 45 minutes later, gunned down Tippit at the corner of 10th Street and Patton Avenue in Oak Cliff.

Marie Tippit was referred to as the “Matriarch” of all widows of all fallen officers. The carnage never ends. As of the end of 2020, across the country there were 264 officers killed - federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial - in the line of duty. Many of those officers, like J.D. Tippit, left for work and never returned. However, none of the widows and widowers received the notoriety that Marie Tippet received after the death of her police officer husband.

Marie received over the 40,000 letters, including more than $600,000 in donations from around the world. She even got a letter from the president’s widow, Jacqueline, expressing sorrow for the bond they shared.

The president’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, called her and lamented that if the president had not come to Dallas, her husband would still be alive.

According to the Morning News, Tippit told Kennedy, “But you know they were both doing their jobs. They got killed doing their jobs. He was being the president, and J.D. was being the policeman he was supposed to be.”

Rick Janich, a retired Dallas police detective and family friend, recently told the Morning News, “She really was an ambassador for all the widows ... of fallen officers.” He went on to say, “You and I have no idea what these ladies and gentlemen go through. They have a special bond. She was always the one who told them, ‘The way to survive this is baby steps. Think of your family. Survive with your family. You will never get over it, but you have to do the best you can for your family.’”

Nearly 60 years have passed since that fateful day in Dallas. Although Marie Tippit is gone she left an indelible mark on the people she touched. She never stopped working for the families of fallen officers. Her obituary suggested that ”(m)emorials can be made to the Dallas Assist the Officers Foundation.”

She told the Morning News in 2003, “I knew I was loved. You know, that is the most important thing in your life. To be loved. And to be able to express that love to others.” In the face of tragedy, anguish and despair, Marie loved.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.