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Space Center Houston investigates authenticity of alleged JFK lectern

Almost a year after WFAA began asking questions, Space Center Houston commissioned a study into the authenticity of one of its most famous artifacts.
Credit: NASA
On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy delivered his famous 'moon shot' speech in which he inspired the moon missions that would come later in the decade.

DALLAS — In what it termed “a remarkable turn of events”, Space Center Houston on Tuesday unveiled a restored lectern made by IBM, and announced that it had “conclusive authentication” that the item is a historic artifact used by President John F. Kennedy for his famous moonshot speech in 1962.

Steve Pine, a Houston-based furniture expert hired by the space museum, said he matched the grain on the thin wood veneer of the lectern to images of the one Kennedy stood behind in Houston.

“It’s a really strong case, and I feel comfortable saying those patterns are like fingerprints,” Pine told WFAA. “They are not the same on any two lecterns we were able to get pictures of.”

But Farris Rookstool, III, the Dallas-based JFK historian who originally raised questions about the lectern’s authenticity, said Tuesday’s announcement by Space Center Houston still offers no conclusive proof that the old lectern it received from Rice University has any historical value.

“This is not provenance or documentation,” Rookstool said. “This is a report of how to repair and make their lectern look like JFK’s.”  

Space Center Houston did not respond to repeated requests for comment placed over the course of multiple weeks during the reporting process of a February WFAA piece that raised questions about the lectern’s authenticity. After that report aired, however, the museum removed the lectern from public display and commissioned Pine to examine it.

“Having that authenticity questioned, it made me mad at first, but it caused us to stop and focus on this right then and there,” Paul Spana, Director of Exhibits at Space Center Houston, said in a new video the museum posted to YouTube. “Now I want to go hug that person who questioned it because this is one of the coolest projects that we ever worked on.”

In February, Rookstool raised multiple concerns about the museum’s lectern, saying there was no visible evidence of a “saw cut” around it like the one JFK used. Rookstool also explained that the president’s lectern was typically not borrowed from local venues like Rice University but rather transported and erected by the White House. Plus, Rookstool said, the lectern in the possession of Space Center Houston does not appear to be bullet proof or have any markings to indicate that it once belonged to the U.S. government.

According to the biography posted to his website, Rookstool is a former FBI analyst who served as the “primary source” for that agency’s JFK Task Force, spending almost a decade reading more than 500,000 pages of classified investigative reports relating to the assassination.

He has authenticated Kennedy artifacts over the years for museums, auctioneers of collectibles and private collectors, including the sniper’s perch from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shots at Kennedy and the license plates on the presidential limousine that day in Dallas. He’s additionally authenticated items belonging to the notorious 1930s gangsters Bonnie and Clyde, and others relating to the Montgomery, Ala. city bus on which Rosa Parks made history in 1955 by refusing to relinquish her seat to a white passenger.

But Spana said that when he and Pine took the lectern apart this year, they discovered the “saw cut” Rookstool question. Pine said that feature, which allows the top part of a lectern to separate from its bottom, had collapsed, masking that marking.

“The object itself just matches completely in the photographs that can be seen,” Pine told WFAA in a phone interview. “If you’ve worked around a lot of wood, and worked with veneers, and have some background in wood technology, it’s easier to recognize.”

Pine runs his own conservation firm now after working for 32 years as the Senior Conservator of Decorative Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

“Pine’s report only confirms questions I posed a year ago,” Rookstool said. “It also confirms that the lectern has been altered over the last 60 years and confirms my concerns. The report does not prove, in fact, that it is the same lectern used by President John F. Kennedy in 1962.”

In 1992, almost 30 years after JFK gave that famous speech, Rice claimed to have discovered the lectern backstage at the campus theater in Hamman Hall.

Months later, the university simply drew up a letter validating it as such, and donated its lectern to Space Center Houston. It was never officially authenticated before going on permanent display, where it had remained for more than three decades.

But in February, Rice University admitted to WFAA that the lectern does not have a clear provenance or chain of custody to prove its historical worth.

“It was the only lectern of its kind on campus, and older faculty and staff who worked at Rice in 1962 widely and routinely identified this as the lectern from which JFK delivered his speech,” said Greg Marshall, the director of University Relations at Rice. “I’ve never had any reason to doubt them.”

Marshall told WFAA that he thinks the university loaned its lectern to the White House for the president’s speech.

“I can't prove it, but I'd be willing to bet that this lectern was not purchased specifically for the JFK speech,” Marshall wrote in an email to WFAA. “Rather, it most likely was just the best lectern Rice had at the time we learned that the president would be coming to speak at the university's semi-centennial, and it was moved to the stadium for that purpose.”

The style of IBM lectern that Kennedy used was also widely available for purchase and frequently used by businesses and governments.

But, as Rookstool notes, the White House provided its own lecterns for official presidential speeches as far back as 1940, setting them up at appearances along with American flags, microphones and more.

“Unfortunately, neither Space Center Houston nor Rice University have addressed how the university came into possession of this commercially available IBM lectern,” Rookstool said. “Neither institution has addressed the fact that the lectern used on Sept. 12, 1962, was provided by the White House Communications Agency (WHCA) and not borrowed from the theater department at Rice.”

Just the same, Space Center Houston put the lectern back on public display today.

Said Rookstool: “I look forward to reviewing their extensive research and documentation, rather than the restoration of a piece of antique furniture.”

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