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Story Last modified at 8:40 a.m. on Thursday, May 24, 2007

Old family movies reveal a moment in history

Film of JFK taken moments before his assassination

By DARRELL L. BREESE
Alaska Star

photo:news

Bob Yeargan recently discovered a 30-second segment of footage he filmed of President John F. Kennedy as he drove past him on Main Street in Dallas Nov. 22, 1963, moments before he was killed.
Photo courtesy of Bob Yeargan
When Eagle River's Jim Yeargan took a box of old 8mm movies into Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association, he was hoping to convert family memories of Christmas, birthdays and other anniversaries onto DVDs to preserve them for his children and grandchildren.

But when Michael Walsh, who works at AMIPA, transferred the film, he couldn't believe what he saw when he came across a three-minute portion of one of the reels.

“Right there in the middle of the kid's birthdays and first steps was a section of film of President John F. Kennedy just moments before he was killed on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas,” Walsh said. “I couldn't believe what I was seeing.”

Jim's father, Bob Yeargan, who had slipped away from work 43 years ago hoping to get a picture of the president as he drove past, took the footage.

“I was listening to the radio, keeping up on where he was,” Bob Yeargan said. “When he was getting close, I left the office and walked two blocks to the corner of Market and Main just in time to film the motorcade as he passed.”

After capturing the now historic footage, Yeargan walked to his car to get some lunch before returning to work.

“When I got in the car and turned on the radio, I heard what happened,” he said. “It was hard to believe at first, because I had just seen him, and I didn't hear any gunshots.”

The next day, Yeargan returned to film about three minutes of footage in the area of the shooting, capturing images of the Texas School Book Depository and the now famous grassy knoll.

photo:news

Bob Yeargan found footage of people milling around the grassy knoll in Dallas the day following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on an old home movie.
Photo courtesy of Bob Yeargan
Not realizing the historical significance of his film, he continued shooting family movies to finish the roll, before stashing it away in a box.

“It was just like pictures,” he said. “I put the film in a box, so we could enjoy it later. I knew that I had the president on the reel, but I didn't realize the importance of it at the time. I don't think anyone did.”

Eventually, Bob Yeargan gave the movies to Jim for safekeeping, who brought them to Alaska.

“He spliced them together from the small two-inch reels to large seven-inch reels, so I thought he should keep them,” Bob Yeargan said. “He had put them in a box just like me until his kids suggested converting them to DVD.”

That decision led to Walsh's remarkable discovery.

AMIPA has rooms full of historic films about Alaska, and, for a fee, it transfers film to video or DVDs for clients, normally working on home videos of family gatherings or events.

photo:news

Yeargan also captured images of the Texas School Book Depository, bottom, with his 8mm movie camera one day after filming President Kennedy's motorcade as it passed on the day of his assassination in 1963.
Photo courtesy of Bob Yeargan
“What made things more interesting is that we have a running joke when we restore family movies,” Walsh said. “We ask each other if they got the Kennedy shot or footage of the grassy knoll. This film had both.”

Nearly a month after discovering the footage, Walsh is still surprised.

“It was remarkable, and I can't imagine having another experience as an archivist,” he said. “When I first saw it, I was thinking to myself Did I just see what I thought I saw?' I was sort of numb. I still get goosebumps when I talk about it now.”

After making the discovery, Bob Yeargan gave the footage to AMIPA so they could preserve it in their archive.

“We're looking into getting a grant, so we can properly store the film,” Walsh said. “This is a golden moment in history captured on film. It goes to show how important home movies can be in recording history.”

Bob Yeargan doesn't understand all the excitement about the couple of minutes of film related to Kennedy.

“I guess it is part of history,” he said. “But the shot of my son marching as the drum major with the band means more to me.”

Reach the reporter at darrell.breese@alaskastar.com.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, May 24, 2007.