EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally appeared in the June 6, 2007, edition of the Tyler Morning Telegraph.
Senior funeral director Don McElroy kept a piece of history stored away in a file cabinet in his home for more than four decades — a document declaring President John F. Kennedy dead of multiple gunshot wounds to the head and neck.
After learning about the possible value of an erroneous death certificate of the 35th president, McElroy, with the help of an auction company, listed it for sale on eBay last week.
“I’ve had it 43 years and I’ve lost it several times at home,” McElroy said. “I didn’t think it was valuable.”
McElroy, a Tyler resident and senior funeral home director for Stewart Family Funeral Home, obtained the JFK death certificate in 1963 while working for the funeral home responsible for transporting Kennedy’s body from Parkland Hospital to Air Force One at Dallas Love Field Airport.
McElroy decided that it’s time for the certificate to go on to a better place - a place decided by the highest bidder on the popular online auction Web site.
WITNESS TO HISTORY
McElroy’s story begins when his military service ended. He was drafted and returned to civilian life in Dallas where he was rehired with the Vernon O’Neal Funeral Home just one month before Kennedy was shot.
During that time, McElroy said, the city of Dallas contracted ambulance services to the funeral homes instead of hospitals, which is the current protocol.
McElroy worked an EMS unit, and was on Lemon Avenue when JFK’s motorcade passed through downtown Dallas.
His unit got an emergency call to pick up a patient and bring him to Parkland Hospital.
The patient, incidentally, wasn’t JFK, but upon returning to the hospital, McElroy heard over the police scanner the president was shot.
His ambulance was en route to the hospital, and when he arrived, the president’s vehicle had not.
McElroy recalled the scene as the car carrying the president, his wife, Jackie, and Secret Service members pulled into a hospital bay.
“It was mass confusion,” he said. “People were screaming and crying. It was something unthinkable.”
McElroy, who continued the family tradition in the funeral business, was used to seeing death, but he said seeing the president was something he would never forget.
“He was obviously dead when the car pulled up,” he said. “I was born and raised in the funeral business, and I’ve seen all kinds of trauma and a cold chill ran up my spine.”
Kennedy was declared dead about an hour after his arrival, and Vernon O’Neal was contacted to bring a casket and hearse to carry the president to Love Field for transport back to Washington, D.C.
The funeral home got the nicest casket they could, which weighed nearly 900 pounds, McElroy said.
The Secret Service loaded the president’s body into the casket and brought it out to the hearse where McElroy and others loaded it into the car - with one special request.
McElroy said Jackie Kennedy wanted to ride in the back with her husband’s body, and McElroy helped position the casket so she could.
He noted her shocked but calm demeanor.
“She was not emotional,” he said. “I think she just felt she had to be strong toward the public.”
The hearse was then driven by Secret Service members to Love Field, and the rest is history.
But when O’Neal wrote up the official death certificate for the president, he made two errors: he left out the president’s Social Security number, and the address for the White House was incorrect.
When O’Neal was about to destroy the original copy with errors and write a new one, McElroy quickly stopped him, thinking a piece of history might have a nice place in his home.
McElroy took the certificate, the only known one still around with the errors, and kept it in his house until recently.
Preserving the Past
Decades later, McElroy was in Houston at an auction for the hearse used to carry Kennedy, and happened to tell the auctioneers - World Wide Auctions - that he had a copy of the death certificate.
The auctioneers’ ears perked up and now the certificate is on eBay with a starting bid of $1,000.
McElroy, now 68, has been embalming and directing funerals his whole life. He’s taught embalming in the Philippines, has lived in Tyler for the past two years and feels like the death certificate would be better suited elsewhere.
“I would hope maybe a museum would buy it. I just wanted it to be a piece of history,” McElroy said. “I would hope someone would take it and treasure it.” But not forgetting the tragedy of the day, McElroy said he laments the death of Kennedy and says the country suffered for it.
“I feel like he was a good leader. People had a lot of trust in him,” he said. “I feel that he was getting the country on the right track.”
Photo Caption: - Staff Photo By Amy Peterson
Don McElroy was in the right place at the right time to acquire a death certificate of JFK that contained errors. He says it is a one of a kind historically significant document and hopes to sell it for tens of thousands of dollars. McElroy is currently working at Stewart Family Funeral Home in Tyler.