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Man recalls role in JFK funeral
Served as pallbearer for historic ceremony
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Hugh Clark holds his medal of commendation in front of a photo of himself at age 18. He received the medal for his service as a pallbearer for President John F. Kennedy. - photo by Crystal Ledford

Hugh Clark was just 18 years old when he took on a task of huge national and historical magnitude.

Clark, who addressed members of the Forsyth-Cumming Optimist Club on Thursday, was one of six pallbearers who laid President John F. Kennedy to rest after his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.

Clark, a Johns Creek resident who spent most of his life as a police officer in New York, said he remembers the day Kennedy was shot and killed "like it was yesterday."

He still has a photo album full of official White House press photos from the funeral and preceding days, as well as newspaper clippings, letters and some other special mementos.

Among them is a JFK half dollar, of which only 500 were made, and a commendation medal for his participation in the funeral.

In 1966, Clark said he meet Jackie Kennedy, who presented him with an equally special memento -- a gold tie clasp in the shape of the ship JFK served on during World War II.

The clasp is one of seven that were made and scheduled to be given to the Kennedy family at Thanksgiving in 1963.

"Of course, that never happened," Clark said.

His journey to one of the nation's saddest events began when Clark joined the Navy at 17 and soon after came to Washington D.C. to serve as a ceremonial guard.

Before the president's death, he was assigned to be a "body bearer" at Arlington National Cemetery.

"If I buried one soldier, I buried 1,000," he said. "Within three months, I became the top pallbearer."

At that time, he said, "the Vietnam War was heating up and we would work funerals every 45 minutes from 8 in the morning till 5 in the evening."

He said the experience "had a great impact" on him.

"Knowing that was the final resting place for all those soldiers who came before me, I wanted to be there for them and their families," Clark said.

He was then promoted to serve as a member of the president's personal honor guard at the White House.

"For me, it was a joy to see all the dignitaries arriving and being close to them," he said. "For an 18-year-old, it was big fun."

But all the fun ended on Nov. 22 when Clark and his fellow honor guard members heard news of the president's death.

"We were all in the barracks getting ready to go home for Thanksgiving," he recalled. "We were all ironing our dress blues and shining our shoes.

"Then a flash came over the TV that President Kennedy had been shot. We all just stopped and were glued to the screen."

Clark said even at that point, he knew he would be a part of the funeral, but didn't know exactly what role he would play.

Clark recalled that it was as if "a darkness had fallen over the land."

"All the branches of the military were on alert and no one had any idea what was going on," he said.

His commander later called him and told him to pick a second man and report to Andrews Air Force Base, where he would "meet the president's remains."

Over the next four days Clark participated in a number of exercises that would lead to laying the president to rest.

For hours, he said, he and the other pallbearers rehearsed carrying a casket similar to the 1,300-pound one used for Kennedy up and down the steps at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider.

They also took turns standing guard over the casket as Kennedy lay in state.

"When you're so tired you can't close your eyes, you know you're really tired," said Clark, describing how he felt throughout much of the four days.

Eventually the body was moved to St. Matthew's Cathedral for the funeral service.

Clark and his fellow pallbearers then marched seven and three-quarters miles to Arlington as the casket was pulled by horse and wagon. 

"I just keep thinking, 'I don't want to be the one to mess anything up,'" he said. "At 18, I didn't really understand the magnitude of what I was doing."

Finally, the time came.

"We very slowly lowered the casket into the ground, and as we did, it felt like we would all be pulled in with it," he said.

The American flag on the casket was folded and presented to Jackie Kennedy. Once the family left the grave site, Clark said, "We gave our final salute to the commander and chief."

The following day, Clark was reassigned to South Carolina.

"That was the last funeral I ever did at Arlington," he said.

"Other than being born, being married for 42 years and having a lovely daughter, it was the greatest event I have ever participated in."