The Last Thing President John F. Kennedy Ever Signed in the Oval Office

Among the most poignant mementos of Camelot ever offered for sale, signed and given by Kennedy himself at his final meeting in the Oval Office; It is dated November 21, 1963; JFK left for Texas that morning

Thomas S. Estes was the U.S. Ambassador to Upper Volta from 1961-1966, and was instrumental in ridding Africa of the scourges of measles and smallpox.

Jonas Salk, who had invented the polio vaccine, discovered a vaccine that prevented measles and smallpox. Upper Volta’s Minister of Health asked Estes to help obtain the...

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The Last Thing President John F. Kennedy Ever Signed in the Oval Office

Among the most poignant mementos of Camelot ever offered for sale, signed and given by Kennedy himself at his final meeting in the Oval Office; It is dated November 21, 1963; JFK left for Texas that morning

Thomas S. Estes was the U.S. Ambassador to Upper Volta from 1961-1966, and was instrumental in ridding Africa of the scourges of measles and smallpox.

Jonas Salk, who had invented the polio vaccine, discovered a vaccine that prevented measles and smallpox. Upper Volta’s Minister of Health asked Estes to help obtain the new Salk vaccine for his country. In his nation about three out of five children between the ages of 1 and 5 died every year during the cold season, as they would be weakened by the measles or smallpox and then catch pneumonia or some other fatal illness. Estes consulted with the State Department which, as he said, “let me know it would be my decision if the vaccine were to be used in Upper Volta. After consulting with experts from the World Health Organization, who agreed to undertake the project if it were extended to all of Africa, I agreed provided that the teams doing the vaccinations should include Voltaic, French and American technicians. If the project worked well in Upper Volta, the other African countries would welcome it.” Some in Africa accused the U.S. of poisoning African babies but about 300,000 children were vaccinated. The program proved to be an outstanding success, and set the stage for vaccination programs that eliminated smallpox and greatly reduced the measles cases in Africa.

In November 1963 Estes and Charles Darlington, who was U.S. Ambassador to Gabon, were in Washington hoping for appointments to see President Kennedy before returning to their postings in Africa. Kennedy was very busy, and they had difficulty obtaining them. From here, Estes tells the story in two oral histories he gave, one of which is on The John F. Kennedy Library website and the other on the website of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training in the State Department’s George Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center.

“Finally I proposed a two-for-one, both of us at the same time. This found favor and over we went at 9:00 or 9:15 on the morning of November 21, 1963. We had to wait and I played with John-John, the President’s son…Eventually we were ushered in and welcomed by the President. He sat in his rocker and we sat on a sofa. He presented me with his photograph which he inscribed. He asked us to tell him what was happening in our countries and Darlington made a brief report on Gabon. Knowing we only had a half hour or so, I reported briefly on the Salk vaccine project.” Estes related, “I was telling the President about this, somewhat as I’m saying it now. The President stopped me. He said, ‘Now wait a minute. Go back over this again. How many children were inoculated? How any died before that?’ He probed; he kept probing. Finally—I remember I was sitting to his left—he hit his leg with his hand, like this [slap], ‘Why don’t I hear about these things?’ I said, ‘Mr. President, I report these things to the State Department and to the AID people. Now how they get from them to the White House is beyond me.’ He said, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. I understand that. But I want to know about this. Now, I have to leave in a few minutes but I want to know more about this when I return. This is tremendously exciting and important – saving children’s lives. This is the sort of thing I like to hear about.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir, I’ll pass this on.’ It was then getting on to quarter of eleven—ten minutes of eleven or so—and I knew he was scheduled at eleven…He looked at his watch and said, in effect, that he wanted me to stay in Washington until he returned from a trip to Texas and when he returned he wanted me to give him a full report, telegrams, results, future plans, the whole deal….Naturally I said I’d stay. He said he was sorry but he had to leave. A photographer was moving around the Oval Office and I have a photo of that occasion on my study wall.” Estes concluded by saying, “I went right over to the African Bureau and told them they’d better have this material ready for when the President got back from Texas…I telephoned the next morning to make sure that the material was being gathered in case the President called for it—and I was sure he would. I drove into my driveway at one o’clock and a neighbor rushed out and said, ‘Turn on your radio the President has been shot.’ Everybody has his own reaction. What do you remember you did? I leaned against the car and cried. I just cried. It didn’t seem possible, still doesn’t.”

JFK’s schedule for November 21, 1963, is a public record. Historycentral.com states for that date: “President Kennedy had breakfast with his children. He said goodbye to Caroline when she left for school at 9:15. President Kennedy arrived at his office for the last time at 9:55. His last meeting was Thomas Estes US Ambassador to the Upper Volta, and Charles Darlington the US Ambassador to the Republic of Gabon. The President left the White House for the last time at 10:50 and helicoptered to Andrews Air Force Base where he and the First Lady departed for San Antonio Texas at 11:05 AM.” So Estes states that at 10:50 the President said he had to leave, and the schedule confirms that he left immediately thereafter by helicopter.

We offer the very signed photograph JFK handed Estes in the closing minutes of his time at the White House – clearly the last thing he signed there. It is 12 by 16 inches, and reads “To Ambassador Estes, with esteem and very warm regards, John F. Kennedy.” It is dated at lower left, perhaps by Estes, “11/21/63”. We obtained this directly from an Estes heir, and to say it is unique is hardly sufficient. It carries with it all the poignancy that can be mustered in thinking back on the Kennedy years – Camelot – when the nation was filled with optimism and dynamism, and was led by a young, inspirational president. It is fitting that at his last meeting in the White House, he expressed a keen desire to be “saving children’s lives”.

 

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