At about 9 AM on November 25, 1963, Harvey Winter, a 48-year-old State Department employee, drove from his home in South Arlington and took up a perch near the US Treasury on Pennsylvania Avenue. “I was over in that little island between the Commerce Department and the Willard Hotel,” says Winter, now 98. “I decided that would be a good place to be when the cortege came along. Today you wouldn’t be able to get within a half a mile, with the Secret Service and all. There was nobody there.”
After a few cold hours, President Kennedy’s casket—which had lain in state in the Capitol’s rotunda for two days—headed on its caisson back down Pennsylvania to the White House, then on to St. Matthew’s cathedral, passing within a few yards of Winter. He aimed the Pentax he’d brought on trips abroad as an intellectual-property negotiator and with each shutter click captured a tiny, amateur sliver of history: Jackie flanked by Bobby and Ted, the flag-draped casket, the riderless horse.
Fifty years later, a workout partner at my Old Town gym asked if I would help a friend, Amanda Chandler, make sense of a box of her grandfather’s slides, labeled “Dec 1963.” Chandler and I spent a rainy Sunday sorting through more than 40 shots, some of the casket going up to the rotunda, a few of Kennedy’s temporary gravesite in Arlington and of LBJ’s 1965 inauguration.
“I was just cleaning out a closet and saw the box,” Chandler says. “I freaked out. They could have sat there another ten years.”
In the age of Facebook and Instagram, it’s hard to recall a time when photos, especially of an event so obsessively examined, could remain tucked away. It’s almost as astonishing to encounter the photographer in his assisted-living facility in Easton. Beside the bed are photos taken on happier days—the Acropolis in Athens, the Taj Mahal.
“He could have been a great President,” Winter says after repairing to the sunny lounge. “He was stopped short of that. His actions in the nuclear confrontation—he played that just right. One step at a time with the Soviets.”
The recollections force Winter to blink back tears. The photos, he says, were his way to be part of the national mourning. And then? “I went home and had a couple of drinks.” Because you were cold or because you were sad? “Both.”
This article appears in the November 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.