The evidence was overwhelming: Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman and there was simply not enough evidence of conspiracy in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Former Oak Park resident and OPRF High School grad Howard Willens had a front-row seat to the conclusions as a member of the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, better known as the Warren Commission.

Willens was one of three staff attorneys who conducted the investigation of events that led up to and included that day in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963.

Appointed within days of the assassination to work with the commission, Willens has written a firsthand account of his experiences, History Will Prove Us Right: An Insider Reveals the True Story of the Warren Commission Investigation into the JFK Assassination.

He appeared at the Oak Park Public Library, Nov. 12, to speak with journalist Charlie Meyerson about his book, which came out in time for the observance of the 50th anniversary of the murder of our 35th president. It is the only book written by a member of the management team of the Warren Commission.

Material for the book came from journals and extensive notes, never before published and kept during the nearly 10-month investigation. The official 889-page report was presented to President Lyndon Johnson in September 1964.

Willens was a 32-year-old deputy to the head of the criminal division of the U.S. Justice Dept. on Nov. 22, 1963. He and his boss were on the way back to the office after a late lunch when a division attorney ran up to them and told them the president had been shot.

When they got back to the office of the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, Willens said, they found his secretary crying.

Days later, acting Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach “volunteered” him to work on the commission. From that time on, Willens, along with others on the team, kept a journal at the suggestion of the historian of the U.S. Department of Defense who thought the historic nature of the work warranted it.

The commission had to “prove a negative” — that there was no conspiracy and that Oswald, and Jack Ruby, who shot Oswald two days after Kennedy’s murder, both acted alone. To do that they had to “investigate all the evidence surrounding the people involved to see if there were any relationships or acts of support that facilitated what they did,” Willens said.

The FBI also investigated the assassination and presented a couple of reports before the end of 1963. But while they were impressive, Willens said they were not “something they wanted to rely on.”

“In the first report, the FBI took the firm position that the first bullet hit Kennedy, the second one hit Connally and the third bullet was the fatal shot,” Willens said. “Within 24 hours of the shooting, it was determined there were three shots: the first one missed; the second entered Kennedy’s throat and exited hitting [Texas] Gov. [John] Connally in the back. The third killed the president.”

The FBI report, he said, generated a lot of controversy and uncertainty about the source of the shots and the number of shots and wounds, providing material for conspiracy theorists ever since.

Many, including film director Oliver Stone, contend Oswald was not the lone gunman, that at least one or two shooters, fired weapons simultaneously from the grassy knoll, located nearby the book depository building in Dealey Plaza, and from a vantage point behind the nearby picket fence.

Who was involved in the alleged conspiracy? Generals and the intelligence community, who were afraid there’d be a change in policy in Vietnam or distrusted Kennedy because of the Bay of Pigs invasion or the way he settled the Cuban Missile crisis, just to name a few — and a majority of Americans continue to believe them, but Willens said there are no facts supporting them.

Oswald started his job at the book depository on Oct. 15. No one knew before then that he would have a vantage point from the depository. The motorcade didn’t fix that itinerary either until just before Nov. 22, Willens said.

“The evidence with respect to Oswald was detailed and iron-clad in terms of the weapons, the fingerprints on the boxes on the sixth floor of the depository, the rifle with his palm print on it, eyewitness testimony, the three cartridges on the floor. He was the only one who left the depository after the assassination,” Willens said.

After the shooting, Oswald returned to his apartment to get a change of jacket and his revolver and was walking down the street when Dallas Police Off. J.D. Tippit stopped him because he matched the description of a man seen running out of the depository. Oswald shot him and ran into a movie theater where he fought police before his capture.

Willens speculated that had Oswald lived, his trial would have lasted 2-3 days and he would have been convicted.

But before millions on television, Jack Ruby, a minor hoodlum and nightclub owner, in circumstances that Willens noted were not planned, walked into the police department basement and shot Oswald.

The trouble with the critiques of the Warren Commission and all the books coming out about the assassination is they don’t accept or even acknowledge that the findings have been looked at repeatedly over nearly five decades, Willens said. The findings — the nature of the wounds, the trajectory of the bullet and absence of a second shooter and the absence of a conspiracy have all been confirmed. Only two bullets were found in the vehicle. Workers in a nearby railroad yard told investigators they had seen no one with a rifle at the picket fence or on the grassy knoll. Willens said they would have had a good vantage point to see anything like that.

It was incredibly challenging work to be engaged in, he said, an intense experience with a human touch, both positive and negative. “There was constant debate about the nature of the wounds and Kennedy’s autopsy and so forth,” Willens said. “All of the lawyers who worked on it said it was perhaps the most important assignment they ever had in their professional lives. I agree with that.”

Ironically, Willens became a Robert Kennedy delegate in 1968 from the District of Columbia. He said he was disturbed that some of the recent books about the assassination and the Warren Commission blamed Chief Justice Earl Warren, the chair of the commission, and even Robert Kennedy for defects in the report.

He noted that Kennedy was on the “verge of recreating a new presence and become a force in American politics,” he said. “He would have been a superb president. And he had the capacity to talk to all diverse segments of the American public. … I don’t think about Robert Kennedy’s assassination. We have to move on.”

Local connections

Howard Willens grew up in Oak Park, Here are a few recollections:

My parents, Joseph and Helen Willens, moved to Oak Park in the late 1920s from their home in Chicago. Our address was 314 S. Kenilworth Ave., where I lived with my two sisters until about 1944, when we moved to a home in the northern section of Oak Park, on Columbian Avenue. I attended Emerson grammar school from kindergarten through eighth grade, which was conveniently located right across the street from our home on Kenilworth.

I attended Oak Park and River Forest High School for four and one-half years, beginning in February 1945 and ending with my graduation in June 1949. I was captain of the 1948 tennis team that won the state championship, was valedictorian of my class, and one of the student speakers at our graduation ceremony.

I spent my first year of college at Stanford University, but then transferred to the University of Michigan where I graduated in 1953. At Michigan, I was president of student government, earned membership in Phi Beta Kappa, and was the student speaker at graduation.

I went to Yale Law School, where I graduated in 1956, and then served two years in the U.S. Army before I moved to Washington D.C. and began my legal career there in early 1959.

I have returned to Oak Park on a regular basis — to visit my parents, who moved to River Forest in 1957, and to visit one of my sisters who lived in Oak Park at 222 N. Marion St. for more than 20 years. I have attended a few reunions of my high school class and remember them and the school with affection and respect.

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