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NH man witnessed JFK ceremonies perched high in the Capitol Dome

New Hamsphire Union Leader

November 22. 2013 12:44AM
The caisson carrying President John F. Kennedy's casket arrives at the East Front of the Capitol on Nov. 24, 1963, in this photo taken from the catwalk around the Capitol Dome by Jim Westhall of North Conway. At the time, Westhall was a congressional aide to U.S. Rep. Louis Wyman, R-N.H. (JIM WESTHALL)

As John F. Kennedy's casket was brought to the nation's Capitol two days after his assassination, a New Hampshire resident took photographs of the somber procession from an unlikely perspective — a catwalk halfway up the Capitol dome.

North Conway resident James Westhall, an aide to then-U.S. Rep. Louis Wyman, R-N.H., was the only one of seven people on the catwalk with a camera. The day was a Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963, and a horse-drawn caisson brought the assassinated President to the Capitol building to lie in state.

"It was high. Behind a flagpole is where I was standing," Westhall said Thursday. "I thought is this possible? This is like a bad movie. It didn't seem real."

Westhall shared his exclusive photographs with the New Hampshire Union Leader this week.

They capture the mood of dismay that fell upon the nation.

One shows the Kennedy casket delivered on a horse-drawn caisson, with a riderless horse behind it. Trees are bare, the lawn has turned its November brown, and hundreds of mourners are grouped in an arc on one side of the plaza, others in a line on the other.

Westhall said he heard only the muffled hooves of the horses before taking the photo.

"It was just a quiet picture, a quiet scene. You didn't hear anything; it was stark silence," said Westhall, an author and retired tennis tournament promoter.

Westhall took another photo once he stepped back inside. Still halfway up the dome, he shot down upon the Capitol Rotunda, where the casket lay in state. He had no flash, so the brightest spot of the photo is the flag-draped casket.

Shadows otherwise dominate the moment. Dignitaries form an imperfect circle around the casket. And the casket rests off-center from a cross formed by shafts of light that bisect the semi-circle.

Westhall landed on his perch thanks to a fellow congressional aide, Pennsylvania native Gerry Schiappa, who at the time worked for a Pennsylvania congressman whose office was across the hall from Wyman's. Westhall said Schiappa, who became a lifelong friend, befriended everyone in the Capitol. So when the Kennedy procession arrived, Sciappa grabbed Westhall and five others and they made their way to the dome walkway.

"Unlike today, we just walked by everybody," Westhall said. "They said 'Hi Gerry.' He responded to them and we walk up the steps."

Sciappa later worked for Wyman as well. Westhall said Sciappa's widow spends part of the year at a family summer home in Wolfeboro.

Westhall said he was up in the dome for about an hour. None of his fellow observers said anything, and he was the only one with a camera — a Zeiss Ikon Contina, with which he took 35mm slides.

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