Gravedigger remembers JFK burial

By THOMAS FERRARO, UPI National Reporter  |  Nov. 21, 1988
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WASHINGTON -- Clifton Pollard vividly recalls being one of the last people on Earth to perform a service for President John F. Kennedy. 'I dug his grave,' he said.

'It made me feel like the proudest man in the world,' said Pollard, then chief gravedigger at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from the nation's capital.

'It felt good to be able to do something for the president, one of the last things ever done for him.'

Today, 25 years later, Pollard is retired, partially paralyzed from a 1980 stroke and living with his wife Nettie in a modest rowhouse in Washington.

He recalls that Nov. 24, 1963, two days after Kennedy's assassination, began with a Sunday morning breakfast of bacon and eggs, then a telephone call to report to work on his day off.

He can still hear the thrashing of his green and yellow backhoe.

'I remember it well,' says Pollard, 67, seated in his living room, a cane at his side and a red box of news clips and other memories on his lap.

'Mr. (John) Metzler (cemetery superintendent), said 'Sorry to have to pull you out here on a day like this.''

'I told him, 'It's okay. It's an honor to be here.''

Pollard said he drove the backhoe -- a machine that scoops dirt towards its operator -- from the warehouse to a grassy hill where Kennedy would be buried.

It was about 10:30 a.m.

'The weather was good. Sunny. Flags were lowered. It was real quiet. The soil was dark and rich on top. Leaves covered the ground,' Pollard said softly.

'I thought about the job I hadto do and who I was doing it for. I liked Kennedy. He was a nice man who did things he said he would do. He helped open schools (to blacks). He was against discrimination.'

Pollard, who is black, began working at the cemetery in 1946 after a stint in the Army during World War II.

He remembers digging slowly.

'I took my time -- about 45 minutes,' he said. 'I wanted to do the job right. I wanted to give him a good-looking grave. And I did.

That afternoon Pollard went home and told his wife, 'I just finished digging the president's grave.'

Nettie recalls the moment. 'He was walking around here like he was walking on air.'

The following day, while thousands jammed the cemetery for the funeral, Pollard was back digging more graves for $3.01 per hour.

Late that afternoon, his work done, Pollard tried to attend the burial. 'But a soldier stopped me. He said, 'It's too crowded. You can't go over there.''

'So I went to the grave that evening, after everyone left, and paid my respects.'

Less than 16 months later, before dawn on March 14, 1965, Pollard was back at the gravesite to help pull up the coffin for re-interment 20 feet away in a soon-to-be permanent JFK memorial.

'I felt bad. I felt like I was disturbing the president. Then, I found out they were building a memorial.'

Kennedy's brother Robert was there that morning -- and shook Pollard's hand. He said, ''I'm proud of you.''

Pollard used to regularly stop by the gravesite until his 1980 stroke and retirement reduced these visits to infrequent trips.

He and Nettie are to be buried at the cemetery -- just 100 yards from the Kennedy grave.

'We'll be there, near the president,' the old gravedigger said.

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