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The Spring Hill College link to Lee Harvey Oswald

Updated: Nov. 19, 2019 at 11:00 PM CST
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JFK: GULF COAST CONNECTIONS

MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - Just four months before he would become one of history’s most notorious assassins, Lee Harvey Oswald stopped by Spring Hill College to pontificate on the evils of capitalism and the failures of Soviet communism.

It is an unlikely link to a murder that occurred 585 miles to the west, but it became part of the FBI’s investigation of the fatal shooting of President John F. Kennedy.

“What stuck, stuck with me was the image of his face,” said the Rev. John Payne, who was a seminary student at the time and possibly the only person still alive who saw it. “And what seemed to me to be the case was his eyes were desperate. And I was thinking to myself, there’s nothing you could do to fill that man with any hope or joy; that his despair is almost a bottomless pit. And then I said a prayer for him.”

FOX10 News this week is highlighting the Gulf Coast connections to the assassination, which occurred 56 years ago this Friday.

Founded 190 years ago, Spring Hill College is nestled in the heart of Mobile’s Springhill community. The Jesuit institution was Alabama’s first Catholic college and one of the nation’s oldest.

Although Oswald’s speech in Mobile would make its way into the report published by the Warren Commission, it could hardly have been less remarkable at the time. It drew no media coverage, from news organizations on or off campus. It was a closed event, and only a handful of the priests-and-teachers-in-training attended.

Among them was Gene Murret, Oswald’s cousin. His letter inviting Oswald to campus is an exhibit in the Warren Commission report. Murret wrote that his fellow scholastics, as the students were called, were interested in hearing about Oswald’s experience as a defector to the Soviet Union.

“We were hoping that you might come over to talk to us about contemporary Russia and the practice of Communism there,” the letter states.

Oswald accepted and gave his talk on July 27, 1963 – a little less than four months before the shooting. Much of what is known about that speech comes from Robert Fitzpatrick, who was a seminarian at the school.

Fitzpatrick spent the speech with Oswald’s wife, Marina, since women were not allowed in the Jesuit House of Studies. But he took detailed notes based on discussions with those who had seen the speech. He even included questions and answers. Those notes, along with notes Oswald, himself, made are in the Warren report.

Speech sparked ‘frustration and some anger’

Those writings show that Oswald discussed his life in the Soviet Union, working for a factory in Minsk, the capital of modern-day Belarus. He spoke of joining a hunting club sponsored by the factory and praised Marxist ideals. But he complained that basic consumer goods were expensive and that there was a large gap between communist theory and the way it was practiced in the Soviet Union. Fitzpatrick quoted him saying, “Capitalism doesn’t work, communism doesn’t work. In the middle is socialism, and that doesn’t work either.”

Payne, now a retreat director at The Jesuit Spirituality Center at St. Charles College in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, agreed to record a statement about his recollections. He said he came away thinking Oswald was a malcontent.

“What struck me was that he first complained about everything he’d experienced in Russia. And then he complained about everything he found in the United States,” he said. “And my reaction was one of frustration and some anger, and I thought, if he is totally frustrated with what he finds here, then why should we, as a matter of fact, be subjected to listening to his complaining if he’s unhappy with both the Russian world and the world of the United States.”

The building where Oswald spoke, the Jesuit House of Studies, was the place where the Jesuits prayed and studied. It no longer exists; a large dorm complex is in its place.

A Catholic order known for intellectual inquiry, the Jesuits thrived on differing perspectives. Gentry Holbert, director of the library and instructional resources as the college, said it was not unusual for them to have weekend speakers.

“Oswald had lived in Russia and had some talks on communism, and Jesuits like to hear from everyone, so to them it was just a normal, oh, here’s an interesting person coming into town,” she said.

Within days of Kennedy’s violent death, the Spring Hill College speech got on the FBI’s radar. Two special agents from Mobile tracked down every lead, questioning people who saw Oswald’s speak.

The agents confirmed that Oswald’s uncle, Charles “Dutz” Murret, drove himself, his wife, and Oswald and his wife, from New Orleans to Mobile and paid for the room where they stayed at the Palms Motel, a Government Boulevard motor lodge that no longer exists.

The FBI even checked to see if Oswald or his relatives had made or received any phone calls from their motel room. (They hadn’t).

The FBI also chased leads that turned out to be false. For instance, the report mentioned a Dale County man who claimed to have witnessed the assassination. But the agents determined he was nowhere near Dallas at the time and had been reported “mentally unsound.”

Agent’s son recalls stories of investigation

Fairhope resident Mickey Degnan’s father, Harry Degnan, was one of those FBI agents. He recalled hearing stories about the small role his dad played in the massive investigation that followed the assassination.

“Well I think he was like most people that trying to figure out, you know, why the people at the seminary had an interest in Oswald, who was atheist, who was, you know, obviously went to Russia, didn’t care for Russia and apparently didn’t care for the United States, either,” he told FOX10 News.

Mickey Degnan, who followed in his father’s footsteps and became an FBI agent, was 11 when Kennedy died. As a student in a Catholic school in Mobile, he said, he felt a special blow upon hearing that America’s first Catholic president had been killed.

Degnan also recalled hearing his father’s stories – not just about that case but his work in Selma during the civil rights era. He said it helped motivate him to pursue a career at the bureau.

“It’s like the coach’s son,” he said. “I mean, I used to listen to the stories, and back in those days, you know, they’d have one or two office picnics a year … and just listening to those stories. I mean, they were great storytellers.”

The FBI turned up no evidence that Oswald’s trip was significant in any way to the assassination. But Holbert said some have noted that New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw – acquitted in Louisiana of conspiring to kill the president in the only trial ever held in connection with the shooting – appeared on campus that same year as part of an international relations forum.

“People that are putting together all these dots found it strange that he was here, maybe the month before,” she said. “It may not mean anything. But as you know, there’s lots of strange, little dots.”

Holbert said that during the speech, Fitzpatrick – whose notes are part of the Warren report – walked around campus with Marina Oswald. For him, it was a chance to practice Russian, which he had been studying. And Holbert said they apparently maintained a relationship after the event, exchanging a number of letters.

At one point, Holbert said, Marina Oswald even gave him “Swan Lake,” an album of the famous Russian ballet.

“I looked forever for that in our archives, but I guess he took it with him,” she said.