How did you start teaching the class?
Burda: OCC’s Royal Oak campus offers special topics history classes and the topic changes every semester. There was a class on assassinations of the 1960s that covered Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X. In 1992, while a part-time faculty at Orchard Ridge, I was asked to be a guest lecturer on Lee Harvey Oswald on whether his rights were violated. In 1993, the 30th anniversary of the JFK assassination, the 1960s assassinations class was changed to focus on JFK. I took over for one of the instructors who decided to not continue teaching that year. Mike was added as a co-instructor in 2002. We have taught it together ever since.
Is the 50th anniversary sparking renewed interest in the JFK assassination?
Vollbach: The class has always filled up and there is limited seating. There is obviously strong interest now because of the anniversary and the newly released Tom Hanks’ movie “Parkland,” which supports the single bullet theory. It is based on the theory that Lee Harvey Oswald is the only one. By the way, the majority of the U.S. population supports that there was a conspiracy.
Tell us about your class. Why and how do you teach it?
Burda: The shooting was a watershed moment in our history. It was the first time in 60 years that a president was assassinated. There were three days of funeral processions. Coverage on TV was 24-7, which was unusual at the time. Then, Oswald himself was assassinated on live television. Those images were just burned in your subconscious. A lot of our students are very removed from this, though we do sometimes get people in class who remember where they were the day JFK was shot.
During the first part of the class we talk about the presidency and what was happening at that time in history. We talk about who JFK was and some of the transitions he went through. He started as a Cold Warrior. Towards 1963, he wanted to withdraw from Vietnam. He wanted a détente from the Soviet Union. He gave a significant speech at American University where he talks about peace that some believe was the nail in his coffin.
Vollbach: We then launch into a mock trial where we assume Oswald survives and he is put on trial for murder. Witness testimony goes on for four weeks. Students are assigned parts and they get to act like a jury and vote at the end of the class. We have a list of witnesses that they role play and they also cross examine each other. Occasionally, we have a surprise witness. We draft people within the college, a former dean will play someone and my wife once came in as Fidel Castro’s lover. We have witnesses give important testimony we have culled from the Warren Commission or from books. In past semesters we’ve had Lee Harvey Oswald testify on his own behalf as a surprise witness. Students then deliberate in class. Just like a jury, we elect someone to be the foreperson. We don’t require them to be unanimous or we’d be there for six weeks.
Burda: It’s a perfect trial. There are no lawyers involved!
What do you remember about the JFK assassination?
Vollbach: I was only a year and a month old when JFK was murdered. It marked my life. He was the first Catholic president; my grandmother gave me the official photograph of JFK and hung it on my bed. The picture hangs in my office right now.
Burda: I was in the 6th grade. I remember someone came into our class between 1 and 1:30 and told us JFK had died. They let us go home early. We were shocked. I remember watching the funeral on TV. Then on Sunday morning, we watched Lee Harvey Oswald get killed on national TV. He was being transferred from the Dallas police department where they were holding him without bond. Police were escorting him six or seven blocks. Jack Ruby came out from the crowd of reporters and police, stuck a pistol in Oswald’s stomach and pulled the trigger on national TV. It was such a shock to see that. As were the images of the children at the funeral…Jackie Kennedy takes to Caroline to the coffin and she kisses the coffin. Those images are just burned in your mind, very much like 9/11.
What fascinates you about this story?
Vollbach: The JFK assassination and the neatly tied package that the Warren Commission gave us, the single shooter conclusion and ‘look how fast we caught him,’ it was just too easy to accept. It doesn’t take a long time to describe to students what happened. Once you give them the evidence that’s out there, they see he couldn’t have been the only shooter. There are several theorists out there who believe Oswald didn’t have anything to do with it.
What can you tell us about the speakers coming to lecture series?
Vollbach: Cyril Wecht is on TV a lot. CNN uses him when they cover high profile deaths. He’s been consulted on Elvis, Anna Nicole Smith and her son Daniel, Lacy Petersen and JonBenet Ramsey. He is the go-to expert. He was born in 1931. He has done over 14,000 medical autopsies. He teaches and has his own institute. Ron and I, in true JFK geekdom, will be attending his institute for a 50th anniversary conference. They are bringing some heavy weight authors we’ve both read and we have our students read.
James W. Douglass is the author of JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. The book advances the theory that, horrified by the specter of nuclear war (in part because of his experience with the Cuban Missile Crisis), JFK gradually turned away from Cold War beliefs, and this is directly responsible for his death.
Playwright Ginny Cunningham wrote a one-act play based on Douglass’s book. Actor Martin Sheen assembled a cast to do a similar dramatic reading to take place in Dallas on November 21, the eve of the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination.
Who do you think assassinated JFK?
Vollbach: We are conspiracy theorists. I walked into the course in 1993 as a lone gunman theorist and I taught that way. Today I teach it totally different. There is so much knowledge. And these are facts, not opinions. Hospital surgeons that took JFK’s body noted that there was wound entry in his throat, which shows there would have had to be a shooter in front, not behind. They reported this to newspaper reporters and to the White House. He was shot near his temple in the front of his head. Those Parkland hospital surgeons then recanted what they said. The Texas School Book Depository, where the Warren Commission said Oswald did all the shooting from the sixth floor window, is behind. The shot that exploded this head came from the front. I’m a hunter. I know what happens to an animal when it’s shot and the response to the body. Every time I watch footage of the JFK shooting, it sends chills up my spine and reaffirms in my head that there was shooter in front of John Kennedy.
Vollbach: Something about Ron Burda that you need to know. Our OCC library has the best holdings of JFK literature in Southeast Michigan, not including Ron Burda’s personal library. Ron Burda has more books and films about this topic that he probably shouldn’t even have because they’ve been taken off the market. He’s lucky he’s a lawyer.
About the lecture series: OCC is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination with a lecture series that features presentations by JFK expert forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht on Oct. 25, and author James Douglass and playwright Ginny Cunningham on Nov. 8. Both events are at the college’s Royal Oak campus, 739 S. Washington Ave. Tickets may be purchased here and between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. at OCC’s Royal Oak Campus bookstore. Limit four tickets per customer.
Ron Burda is a divorce, criminal defense, estate and trust and will attorney from St. Clair Shores. He has been a part-time faculty at OCC since 1983, teaching history since 1993. His courses have included social science, mass media, and gerontology law.
Mike Vollbach has a Bachelor’s in History, a Master’s in History and Master’s in Geography. He is the author of “The Genesis of Urban Centers in the Ancient World.” He attended Muskegon Community College, the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University.