Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, has shaken the hand of every U.S. president since Harry Truman. But there is one handshake that stands out above the others.
On a drizzly fall morning in Fort Worth, a 14-year-old Williams and his mother were escorted by Secret Service members from the ballroom to a holding room inside the Hotel Texas. First lady Jacqueline Kennedy entered first, greeted them and stood right next to him. Moments later, President John F. Kennedy came around the corner, took a puff from his cigar, then put it out.
Williams was surprised by Kennedy’s reddish hair, which couldn’t be seen on black-and-white television, and he wanted to get a good look at the president’s shoes: black cap-toe dress shoes.
The president shook his mother’s hand, then shook Williams’ hand. Kennedy didn’t immediately let go, turned back to Williams' mother and told her: “You’ve got a good-looking young man here.”
Roughly two hours later, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
The date was Nov. 22, 1963. There are no photographs of his encounter with the president exactly 60 years ago, but for Williams, now 74, every detail of that day is etched in his memory. The six-term congressman shared some of those memories with NBC News in an interview in his office in the Capitol.
So how did the young Williams come to stand face-to-face with the president of the United States?
Williams’ father, who owned Jack Williams Chevrolet in Fort Worth, was well-connected in town. He was personal friends with the congressman who represented the area, Democrat Jim Wright, who upon learning that Kennedy would be making a visit to their city had asked the car dealer if he would supply some vehicles for the motorcade to take the president from Carswell Air Force Base to the Hotel Texas and back.
The elder Williams agreed but had a request: Could his wife and son meet the president? Absolutely, Wright, the future speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, told Williams’ father.
“The word got out in Fort Worth the president’s coming,” Williams recalled. “Everybody was so excited that he was going to be coming here, especially to Fort Worth, because Fort Worth had always played backseat to Dallas.”
'Be a leader'
On the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, Williams and his mother arrived at the hotel to see Kennedy’s speech at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce breakfast. Williams' father, a former football player, had arrived hours earlier to help provide security at the request of his close friend, I.B. Hale, a former FBI agent and the head of security at aerospace company Convair’s Fort Worth factory.
Hearing Kennedy inside the ballroom before shaking the president's hand planted a seed. All the young Williams cared about back then was baseball, but as he listened to the 46-year-old Kennedy, defining America as “the keystone in the arch of freedom,” he was inspired and thought to himself he, too, could “be a leader.”
“He didn’t seem that much older than me. And I thought to myself, as one person, I can maybe do what he’s doing,” the conservative congressman said of the Democratic president. “He did touch people and young people related to him.”
Later that day, at Arlington Heights High School, the principal entered Williams’ Latin class and whispered into the ear of his teacher, Mr. Henning, who put his head down on his desk and began to weep.
“I was in a trance,” Williams said of that moment he learned Kennedy had been assassinated. “I was trying to process … and then I see Lee Harvey Oswald get shot and killed. And it began to make the world a lot different … a total loss of innocence.”
It turns out Oswald, the primary suspect, had briefly attended Arlington Heights years earlier. When they brought Oswald’s body to Fort Worth, where his mother lived, Williams and a friend drove down to Miller Funeral Home and peeked in the window to see if they could see Oswald’s casket. They were unsuccessful.
“So that all happened in a period of about 48 hours. The world changed,” Williams said.
Surprisingly, Kennedy wasn’t the first president Williams had met. At a Kansas City A’s game in 1955, Williams said he shook hands with former President Harry Truman, who was on hand to throw out the first pitch. He met President Dwight Eisenhower years later at the same venue, Municipal Stadium.
Williams said he met fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson, who served as Senate majority leader and vice president before becoming president, on several occasions, including once in his dad’s office.
A star baseball player for Texas Christian University, Williams would be drafted by the Atlanta Braves organization in 1971. At spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida, the next year, President Richard Nixon came through the clubhouse in hopes of getting his picture with Hank Aaron, who was chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record. Williams met Nixon there.
“He told us the only job he would rather have than being president of the United States was being commissioner of baseball,” Williams said.
Asked if he really played baseball with Aaron, Williams replied: "That's a whole 'nother story."
Williams played golf with former President Gerald Ford in Sun Valley, Idaho, at a golf tournament organized by baseball Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew to raise money to fight leukemia. Ford “totally hit it sideways,” Williams said.
While jogging shirtless on the TCU campus, Williams said he randomly ran into President Jimmy Carter on the steps of the school’s chapel and shook hands. He met Ronald Reagan during a campaign stop in Fort Worth during the California governor's second unsuccessful bid for president, in 1976. Williams' father presented Reagan with a jackalope taxidermy, which was later displayed at Reagan's ranch.
Through Texas political circles, Williams came to know both George H.W. Bush and his son George W. Bush. The Williams family spent time with the Bushes at their summer compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, and he flew on Air Force One with W.
Years after taking over his father’s auto dealership, Williams said he met President Bill Clinton during a small business event in downtown Fort Worth; today, Williams is chairman of the House Small Business Committee.
Shortly after he was elected to Congress, Williams met President Barack Obama during a 2013 meeting with House Republicans in the basement of the Capitol. He’s taken numerous photos with President Donald Trump, some of which are displayed in his office. And he met President Joe Biden when the Democrat visited the GOP dugout during the 2021 Congressional Baseball Game at Nationals Park.
Williams is the GOP team manager. He survived another politically motivated shooting, in 2017, when a gunman opened fire on Republican lawmakers and staffers during their morning baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia.
“I’ve shook the hand of every president since Harry Truman,” Williams said, “and people will tell you there’s not many people out there that can say that.”
CORRECTION: (Nov. 22, 2023, 9:46 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated Rep. Roger Williams’ age. He is 74, not 73.