Phyllis Peters met Teddy, just missed JFK in Berlin, had jailhouse encounter with Jack Ruby
When Nov. 22, 2013, the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, was approaching, the various news media gave a lot of coverage to the milestone.
But one local woman was especially affected by the coverage, and more particularly by an article in "The North Texan," an alumni publication of the University of North Texas.
In the magazine, King City resident Phyllis Peters, a UNT alum, read the story of other alumni who played key roles during and after Kennedy's trip to Dallas.
They included Mike Howard, a Secret Service agent who had to tell Marina Oswald that her husband, Lee Harvey Oswald, had been shot and then was among several agents along with a Russian interpreter who spent seven days holed up in a hotel room interviewing her.
Another alum was Jim Carrico, who was a second-year surgery resident at Parkland Hospital in Dallas and the first surgeon to attend to Kennedy. When he came home two days later, Kennedy's blood was still on his dress shirt.
Several other alumni were journalists working for various media outlets that covered the assassination and its aftermath.
As Phyllis read the article, the events of that time and her eerie connections to them came flooding back: She had met Teddy Kennedy at a university function when he was campaigning for JFK; she and her twin sister were in East Germany when JFK was scheduled to make a speech in Berlin; and she had a chance meeting with Jack Ruby when he was in the Dallas County Jail after killing Lee Harvey Oswald.
Speaking in a soft voice that carries a hint of her Texas roots, Phyllis recalled growing up in a small town called Carrollton outside Dallas in a large family that included seven girls and three boys. "My mom was American Indian, and my dad was Scottish," Phyllis said. "My mom had eight single births and didn't know she was having twins until she had my sister Patricia and me in 1941."
One of the most traumatic events of Phyllis' childhood - and her entire life - occurred in 1947 when her 12-year-old brother Billy Kerr was shot and killed.
"He lived until the next day in an iron lung," she said. "We were walking home from bible school when a neighbor boy said, 'Your brother got shot in the head - he's dead.' I saw a flash of white light."
The town had no police force, so the Dallas County Sheriff's Office did the investigation and determined it was an accident.
(After Phyllis grew up and worked with child abuse victims, she asked the Carrollton Police Department, which had been formed by then, to open a cold case file related to Billy's death.
"He was 12 years old and was with a 16-year-old friend," she said. "By then I had done a lot of volunteer work with child abuse victims. Someone called a child abuser a soul murderer because the abuse can cause the devastation of that person's essence.
"The police told me that 'as a result of your brother being killed, the town decided that it needed its own police force.' If one good thing came out of Billy's murder, that was it. But my mom was never the same after his death.")
Phyllis and Patricia attended UNT, and Phyllis explained that Texas was a very conservative state, and bigotry was rampant in some areas.
"I never was a Republican - I've always been an Independent - but in college I joined the Young Republicans Club because my dad was a Republican," she said. "I was asked to ride on the club float in an upcoming parade. This was 1960. Teddy Kennedy was coming to the campus to campaign for Jack, and the Young Democrats were hosting a reception for him.
"We all wanted to see Teddy, so we crashed the reception. I went through the receiving line, and while I was talking to Teddy, he asked me what projects the Young Democrats were working on. I said we were making a float for the homecoming parade but didn't say I was supposed to ride on the Young Republicans' float!"
A school newspaper photographer shot a photo of Phyllis with Kennedy, and assuming she was a Young Democrat, put that in the photo caption. When the Young Republicans saw it, she was off the float.
After Phyllis and Patricia graduated from UNT in 1963, they went to Europe for about a year and a half. "We bought a brand new Volkswagen and squabbled the whole way around Europe about who was going to drive," Phyllis said. "We had family friends all over Europe, and we almost got arrested twice - inadvertently - while learning each country's traffic laws and language. My sister and I did make some hilarious memories."
(For those who have forgotten their Cold War history, at the end of World War II, from 1949 to 1990, Berlin, located in East Germany, was divided between the Soviet sector, called East Berlin, and the American, British and French sectors, which became West Berlin.)
Phyllis said that Americans were not supposed to travel into East Berlin or East Germany, but the sisters went from West Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie, an infamous gate along the Berlin Wall that divided the east and west sectors, into East Berlin.
"We couldn't believe the dire starkness of East Berlin," Phyllis said. "It was sterile, stark and deprived. It was as if the people had been vaporized."
When they heard that JFK was going to give a speech in West Berlin on June 26, 1963, they tried to get back but didn't arrive in time to hear his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech.
They returned to West Berlin a couple of days later and saw the podium where he had given his speech. Less than five months later, JFK was killed, and Phyllis remembers precisely how she learned about it.
The twins were in Nuremberg, Germany, and had been invited to an officers' club, where they were dancing with a couple of young officers "to a loud oom-pah band when a loud voice came over the intercom system," Phyllis said.
"It was the Armed Forces Network with a news flash saying Kennedy had been shot in Dallas," she added. "Everyone stopped dancing, and people sat around drinking. When the announcement came that he had died, every officer got up and walked out. They were all in a tank division, and we were so close to communist countries. We wondered, is this the start of World War III?"
(On Nov. 24, Dallas police transferred Lee Harvey Oswald, who was accused of killing Kennedy, to the county jail, and as they led him through the basement of the police headquarters, nightclub owner Jack Ruby rushed forward and shot him in the stomach.
During Ruby's trial, he said that he shot Oswald because he "couldn't bear the idea of the President's widow being subjected to testifying at the trial of Oswald," although he later claimed his lawyer told him to say that and changed his plea to guilty by reason of insanity.
The jury convicted Ruby on March 14, 1964, and sentenced him to death, but his conviction was later overturned; however, he died from cancer Jan. 3, 1967, before a new trial could take place.)
The twins' European trip was momentous for another reason as Phyllis met her future husband Don Peters in an Air Force base officers club in Ramstein, Germany. He was a fighter pilot who entered the military at the end of the Korean War but did not fight in that conflict.
After the twins returned to the U.S., Phyllis, who had majored in English education, couldn't get a job teaching but got a positionwith the Dallas County School District in the superintendent's office. "I analyzed new curriculum while waiting for a teaching job to open," she said.
The superintendent's office was next door to the Dallas County Jail, which was located opposite the Texas School Book Depository, and Phyllis sometimes ate her lunch on the now-infamous grassy knoll near where JFK was shot.
Oswald had worked at the Texas School Book Depository, and evidence, including eyewitness accounts, led police to conclude that he shot JFK from there. Since Phyllis worked in the area, she befriended a guard at the depository, who took her up to see the sixth floor, from where Oswald fired his shots.
"I stood right there - the boxes were still stacked up under the window - where Oswald had stood, and there was still police caution tape criss-crossing the area," Phyllis said.
(Nearly two decades later, after renovating the lower five floors of the building for use as county government offices, the Dallas County Administration Building was dedicated on March 29, 1981. On President's Day 1989, the sixth floor opened to the public as the Sixth Floor Museum, which charges an admission fee to view exhibits.)
While Ruby was being held at the Dallas County Jail and Phyllis was working next door, she had a chance encounter with him.
"One day I was sitting inside a little restaurant, and I was wearing a mini-skirt - short for that time but not compared to now!" Phyllis said. "Someone said, 'There's one of the Kerr twins!' and I looked, and it was a sheriff's deputy, Mr. Graveley. We knew each other in Carrollton and started chatting. He said he worked upstairs and asked me if I wanted a tour. Everybody knew Jack Ruby was in that jail.
"He took me through the women's section, and they said some nasty things about my mini-skirt. Then he took me through the men's section. The women were packed four to a tiny cell, but the men had much bigger cells.
"Mr. Graveley wanted to take me out a different way to avoid the women, so he led me through a rabbit warren to some huge cells with prisoners in white jumpsuits, and there was Jack Ruby.
"He said, 'Graveley, who you got with you?' and Mr. Graveley explained that I was his daughter's friend. Jack Ruby said to me, 'The girls who work for me (at my nightclub) don't need an education. You come see me when I get out, and I'll give you a job.'
"He stuck his hand through the bars to shake my hand. When someone does that, you automatically put out your hand. I thought to myself, I shook the hand that killed Lee Harvey Oswald."
Phyllis and Don got married after dating for two years, and she noted that she has moved 27 times since leaving Texas.
"Don loved being a pilot and also was an instructor - he taught instrumentation," she said.
Don alternated teaching in California and Germany before becoming an Episcopal priest, serving in several churches as the rector. He also got his doctorate at the University of Georgia and counseled Episcopalian priests.
Meanwhile, Phyllis worked as an advocate for abused children in a big brother/big sister program, and the couple had one son Paul.
When Paul was 9 ½ years old, and the family was living in Florida, he touched a live high-voltage wire and had to go through a lengthy recovery.
"I was teaching, and when Paul got hurt, he could not go to school, and I quit teaching," Phyllis said.
Eventually, as Paul recovered, Phyllis opened a home décor and antiques shop, which was adjacent to the Thomas Edison winter estate, one of Florida's top tourist attractions.
"I would bring antiques from Sweden and England and taught classes on antiques," she said of the business she ran for 15 years. "We would take trips to New England and buy antiques. I thought I would only do this until Paul recovered, but I did so well and used the money I made from appraising to start a Sea Scout program affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America in the beach area near our home."
Don died in 1987, and Phyllis moved to Oregon in 1988 as her twin Patricia was already living here; she eventually moved to King City in 2000. In Oregon, Phyllis continued her philanthropic work, raising funds for Ride Connection, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing responsive, accessible transportation options for those in need, and the Dougy Center, which provides support in a safe place where children, teens, young adults and their families grieving a death can share their experiences, as well as other non-profit organizations.
"I love fundraising, Phyllis said. "I love the planning and the conceptualization. You meet good people - it is a joy to work with people like that."