WESTERLY — Pamela Markham wanted to be home with her family on Nov. 22, 1963. Instead the 14-year-old was stuck at boarding school in Connecticut watching the events of the day — and the weekend — unfold on television along with the rest of the students, none of whom were as affected in quite the same way as she. When she first heard the news — that the president had been shot — Markham thought it was a cruel joke.
“That’s not funny,” she told her classmates. Soon, however, the young woman, now known as Pamela Markham Heller, realized the awful truth. She sat down in front of the television and joined her classmates.
Her parents, Dean and Susan Moore Markham, were in the Kennedy family inner circle. They lived near Hickory Hill, the Virginia home of Bobby and Ethel Kennedy and the site of many a Kennedy tag football game and family gathering. They were neighbors and friends, their children played together and the families carpooled together. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend would later write that Dean Markham was “a fixture in our household.”
Dean Markham was the godfather of Christopher George Kennedy, the eighth child of Bobby and Ethel (the godmother was Patricia Kennedy Lawford). Earlier in 1963, Christopher was christened by Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston at St. Francis Xavier Church in Hyannis. Markham joined the president and assorted members of the Kennedy family, including patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., in the church that day.
“Our parents were in daily communication with the Robert Kennedys over ‘soft’ issues such as children, tennis, chickenpox, etc.,” recalls Markham Heller, an artist who divides her time between Westerly and New York.
On Nov. 22, 1963, Pamela knew that her parents would be at Hickory Hill, helping the Kennedys through the tragedy. She knew the rest of the family would also be there.
“My mother was at Hickory Hill the afternoon the president was shot,” says Markham Heller. Pamela’s youngest sister, Marion, a second-grader, was there, too.
Marion Markham Abood, an actress who lives in Watch Hill and New Jersey, says she doesn’t remember anything too specific about that day. She does however, remember being at Hickory Hill amid a lot of commotion — “a lot of people in the house and upset nieces and nephews.”
In a Huffington Post article, Bobby Kennedy Jr. wrote that “Daddy’s friend and former football teammate, Dean Markham, picked up my little brother David at Our Lady of Victory. ‘Why did they kill Uncle Jack?’ David asked him. Dean, an ex-Marine, combat veteran, known as the toughest linesmen on the ‘GI-Bill Squad’ — the toughest football team in Harvard University’s history — wasn’t tough enough to field that question. He wept silently all the way to our driveway.”
Dean Markham, a Pasadena, Calif., native, was named an honorable mention All-American football tackle at UCLA in 1942. He went on to Harvard to finish his college studies after two years in the Marine Corps. He and Robert F. Kennedy roomed together and became close friends. According to his obituary in The New York Times, Bobby Kennedy once called Markham “the meanest lineman at Harvard,” although he was known as a gentle man off the field.
Like many of Bobby’s friends, Markham became part of the Kennedy family’s inner circle in Washington along with people like Kenneth O’Donnell, Lawrence O’Brien and Pierre Salinger. In 1960, the president-elect called Markham to Washington as a special consultant to the White House. He served as director of the President’s Physical Fitness Program, member of the Federal Inter-Agency Commission on International Athletics, director of the White House Conference on Narcotics and Drug Abuse and a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Commission of Narcotics and Drugs. In 1962, as attorney general, Robert Kennedy named Markham a special U.S. marshal to serve in Oxford, Miss., for the entrance of James H. Meredith to the previously all-white University of Mississippi.
Markham Heller says that much of her factual information about the day of the assassination comes from reading William Manchester’s account of the events in “Death of a President.” She does know that her father was involved in organizing arrangements for the funeral, and she also knows that when the president’s body arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, he made sure that the moment was commemorated. “My father thought it would be proper to have something to mark the occasion,” she recalled. “So he got Marines to come and play as the casket was lifted off the plane.”
“I know that my father disappeared for four days, and I know that he and others began to research the funeral of Abraham Lincoln and how best to handle invitations to members of Congress, heads of state, judges and other officials,” both at home and around the world, Markham Heller said.
“It was probably a good escape. He was probably doing some grieving of his own that way,” she added.
Dean Markham, who later worked on coordinating the John F. Kennedy Library traveling exhibit tour as well as fundraising for the future John F. Kennedy Library, was executive director of the President’s Advisory Commission on Narcotic and Drug Abuse in 1963. During his tenure in the Kennedy administration’s Special Projects Staff, Markham took on a variety of jobs dealing with drug abuse, youth fitness, and juvenile delinquency, and also coordinated regional conferences.
During the Johnson Administration, he acted as special consultant to the president on drug abuse. He died in an airplane crash in Idaho on Sept. 23, 1966, along with George Skakel Jr., the brother of Ethel Kennedy.
After President Kennedy’s assassination, Markham left government service to become head of the Washington office of Skakel’s company.
Markham left behind his wife, Susan, and his daughters; Pamela, then 17; Ann, then 16, and Marion, then 10; and his sons, Dean Jr., then 13, and George W., 3.
Markham Heller, who watched on television as her father escorted Richard Nixon to his seat during the president’s funeral, says there is one thing she remembers well; one thing she will never forget.
“My President,” Markham told his young daughter, “will always be President John Kennedy.”