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A tribute to President John F. Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his death was held at John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 22, 2013. Georgia and Henry Morrison started the university in 1965 in an old mortuary in Martinez. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)

PLEASANT HILL -- For 50 years, David Wallace has preserved a rare memento of the day President John F. Kennedy was killed.

Wallace, 17 years old at the time, plucked a rose from the bouquet scattered across the back seat of the presidential limousine parked outside the Dallas hospital to which Kennedy was rushed. Wallace had watched the president and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy arrive at Love Field and was standing along the motorcade route when the car carrying the mortally wounded Kennedy raced past.

"I saw the president. I saw the president's wound. I had seen the president not 45 minutes earlier as young and vital," a somber Wallace recalled Friday. "I had never seen anyone shot. It's an awful thing to see."

Wallace spoke during a tribute to Kennedy at John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill. Inspired by Kennedy's commitment to education, Georgia Morrison and her late husband, Harry, recruited a group of educators to start an evening university that would cater to working adults and people seeking to change careers.

Georgia Morrison, 83, was listening to radio coverage of Kennedy's Dallas visit when she learned he had been shot.

"We were riveted to our television for those three or four days and devastated by his death," Morrison said. "He was such an inspiring leader, and he offered such promise for a better world and a better United States."


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In December 1964, Harry Morrison wrote a letter to Jacqueline Kennedy requesting permission to name the nascent university in honor of her slain husband, Georgia Morrison said.

"You may be assured that Mrs. Kennedy is most grateful that you wish to pay tribute to the president," Jacqueline Kennedy's secretary wrote back.

The university opened in September 1965 in a former mortuary in Martinez; 59 students enrolled in the first year, according to Morrison. About 15,000 students have graduated from the school, which also has campuses in San Jose and Berkeley.

Contra Costa County Supervisor Karen Mitchoff and Pleasant Hill Mayor Michael Harris also shared their recollections of Kennedy at Friday's event.

Mitchoff, who was 9 years old the day Kennedy died, said she was afraid walking home from her San Mateo elementary school because Lee Harvey Oswald was on the loose, and she didn't understand how far away Dallas was. Mitchoff also recalled hearing "Hail to the Chief" every time the television networks showed Kennedy's casket.

"All I could do was cry. I still get that feeling in my gut, and I can't believe 50 years later we still feel that way, but I think that's important," Mitchoff said, her voice breaking.

Harris said he was too young to vote in 1960 -- the voting age was 21 then -- but he campaigned for Kennedy, drawn by the candidate's youth, intellect, wit and charisma.

"John Kennedy was the first leader to become a hero of mine and my generation," he said.

Harris extolled Kennedy's leadership during the tense days of the Cuban missile crisis, establishment of the Peace Corps and commitment to public service.

"John Kennedy was cut down by an assassins's bullet," Harris said. "That bullet may have killed a man, but it did not kill the dream."

Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.