jfk-death-certificateThe files relating to the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy are scheduled to be released sometime today (October 26), 25 years after the passage of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Act on the day in 1992. This was in large part due to the renewed interest in the controversy surrounding the assassination due to the Oliver Stone film JFK, but conspiracy theories have surrounded this event almost from the moment that Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested (and then murdered himself by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby).

willard_hessThe 3,000 plus files scheduled for release today would seem to have little relationship to Kettering University and Flint Michigan–unless one perused through the files donated to the Kettering University Archives by Willard Hess. Hess (1906-2000), a 1930 graduate of General Motors Institute (now Kettering University, of course) went back Cincinnati to work at Sayres and Scoville, one of the largest manufacturers of funeral hearses and ambulances, until going into a partnership with his father and friend Charles Eisenhardt (whose family had also been long associated with the firm) to buy it from the heirs. Keeping the Sayres and Scoville brand for the hearses, the Hess and Eisenhardt Company branched out into providing Cadillac-based limousines.

kennedy-limoIn 1950, after the assassination attempt on Harry S. Truman at the Blair House in Washington, D.C. (where the President and his family were living while the White House underwent renovations), the United States Secret Service approached General Motors to design and provide an armored limousine to protect the life of the President. Hess and Eisenhart were brought in to assist GM, and largely became the designers of the automobile, and remained so for the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations, even when the manufacturer became Ford’s Lincoln division, at the insistence of the Secret Service.

hess-museumWhen Kennedy was assassinated on that fateful day in November, the Lincoln three days later was brought to the Hess and Eisenhart factory in Blue Ash, Ohio (a Cincinnati suburb)–and Hess was brought to Washington, were he became a consultant to the Warren Commission. This event haunted Hess for much of the rest of his life,  and he worked closely with the curators at the Henry Ford Museum (which acquired the four Kennedy-era Lincoln limousines), and even built a replica of the fateful car and invited members of the firm who had worked on the project out to his home to see it.

Willard C. Hess passed away in 2000, but donated his papers to the Kettering University Archive, so that his legacy lives on. Within the collection (parts of which will be on display from now until the end of November) are the materials Hess collected on the assassination, including a copy of JFK’s death certificate and a number of photos of the Kennedy limousine and other limousines that the firm provided for heads of state around the world. The Kettering University Archive, located within the historic Durant-Dort Carriage Company Factory One, is located at 303 W. Water Street, and is open to the public from 10-4 Monday thru Friday (although we will be closed November 1o in observance of Veteran’s Day).


Director, Special Collections and University Archives
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