Over the Hill

Recalling a presidential tragedy

Phil Dirkx
Phil Dirkx

In Paso Robles almost 50 years ago, I was late for work one day because fire hoses snaked through the intersection of 13th and Spring streets. Most Americans older than 55 vividly remember that day, even if we have forgotten the exact date: Nov. 22, 1963.

It’s the day President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas.

But the president was still alive at 3 a.m. when the Paso Robles fire siren wailed. The three-story Paso Robles Hot Springs Hotel was burning. It stood on the northeast corner at 13th and Spring streets.

The president was also still alive at 8 a.m. when I had to detour on my way to work because of the fire hoses. I managed a loan office on Spring Street two doors south of 13th Street. The hotel was on the opposite side of Spring, just north of 13th Street.

When I reached my office, the fire was almost out. The walls still stood, but the hotel was ruined. Radio KPRL was still broadcasting fire reports from the tire shop next to my office. And President Kennedy was still alive.

Please don’t confuse this Paso Robles Hot Springs Hotel with the grand old El Paso de Robles Hotel and Hot Springs two blocks to the south. That hotel was destroyed by fire in 1940.

The one that burned in 1963 was originally named Hotel Taylor. Its name was changed in 1949 to Paso Robles Hot Springs Hotel.

It had been closed for three months for remodeling when the fire broke out. Four caretakers were sleeping in the hotel that night. All got out uninjured.

So did the four prisoners in the city jail, which was also in the hotel. The jail and police station were on the hotel’s ground floor along 13th Street, near the alley.

That fire also disrupted my business that morning. I doubt I saw any customers. But I didn’t mind. I had to go to a meeting later that morning at our San Luis Obispo branch. I probably left my office around 10:20 a.m. President Kennedy still had a few minutes to live.

My car had no radio, so for 45 minutes I was out of touch with the world. I just looked forward to telling everyone about the fire.

In San Luis Obispo, I parked and was walking to our office on Higuera Street when a woman approached me. I’d never seen her before. She was obviously upset. She said, “The president has been shot!”

The people at my company’s office confirmed the news. We didn’t discuss business or the hotel fire. We just shared our dismay and worries as Americans hungering for news and reassurance. I believe President Kennedy’s death somehow solidified our nation and led to improved civil rights for Americans.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. Reach him at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.