The Assassin’s Widow

I’m just like everybody else, and I’ve had more than enough.
– Marina Oswald
  1. Chapter 1 Redemption

    In the surreal days that followed the 1963 assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, as the nation absorbed the dual horror of the president’s murder and the subsequent and very public killing of his alleged assassin, a churchgoer in Ann Arbor looked for a bright spot.

    She was struck by the plight of Marina Oswald, the young Russian wife of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Suddenly a widow at age 22, with two young children to raise, Marina Oswald seemed overwhelmed by the media maelstrom enveloping her. Complicating her situation was that Oswald spoke very little English, was jobless and feared being returned to Russia.

    The churchgoer turned to her minister at Ann Arbor’s First Presbyterian Church. What if, she proposed, the church brought Mrs. Oswald to study English at the University of Michigan? The minister, the Rev. Dr. Ernest T. Campbell, welcomed the idea as “the one thing we might do to partially redeem the tragedy.”

    The church’s executive committee agreed. Before the year came to a close, the church’s leaders would invite Oswald to Ann Arbor and offer to host her while she studied at U-M.

    They told no one.

  2. Chapter 2 ‘The Forgotten Woman’

    The public first came to know Marina Oswald through a black-and-white photograph snapped as she left a Dallas jail, where her husband was held after the Kennedy shooting. Lee Harvey Oswald also was accused of killing Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit as authorities closed in on him in the hours after Kennedy was shot. Two days later, as authorities transferred him to a different jail, Oswald was gunned down by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner.

    “Now she’s a widow, too,” was the headline in newspapers across the country.

    Marina Nikolayevna Oswald had two daughters, a 21-month-old toddler and an infant born just five weeks before the assassination. She had been in the United States all of six months.

    Almost immediately, she began receiving offers of help – money, clothing, food, housing – from around the country. Within weeks, donations topped $12,000 and by early 1964 would grow to $70,000 – the equivalent of nearly $600,000 today.

    Still, the help for Oswald paled compared to the support for the widows and children of President Kennedy and Officer Tippit. Just as many had sympathy and compassion for Oswald, others believed she was somehow complicit in her husband’s killing of the president. She was one of the most well-known women in the country but at the same time had become what one newspaper called “the forgotten woman.”

    “What is America going to do about it?” wrote editors of The Deseret News. “Are we going to vilify and harass her for what her husband was accused of doing? Or are we going to provide help simply because here is a human being in trouble who desperately needs help?”

  3. Chapter 3 ‘Be Socially Relevant’

    Records do not show who conceived the idea to invite Oswald to study at U-M, only that the person was a member of First Presbyterian who also taught at the English Language Institute. Based on U-M and church records, this may well have been Maurine Hovey Nolan, an ELI lecturer and longtime member of the congregation.

    At the time of the assassination, she and other First Presbyterian members were starting their second year with Ernest Campbell as their minister. Social justice drove Campbell, and he urged worshippers to engage with the world to right its wrongs. He challenged his church – the oldest in Ann Arbor – to “be politically and socially relevant.”

    “Those who insist that the church should not become embroiled … are really pressing for an irrelevant church,” he preached.

    His goal was simple yet demanding. He encouraged First Presbyterian members to “maintain a vital balance between personal religion and constructive involvement in the ongoing life of the world.”

    This struck a chord with someone in the congregation who believed the church could help Lee Harvey Oswald’s widow through education, assimilation and the English Language Institute.

    The first of its kind in the country, the ELI was established to provide instruction and support for international students who speak English as a second language. It started in 1941 with nine students. By the early ’60s it was enrolling hundreds of students a year for intensive courses in vocabulary, composition, and grammar. Outside of class, students visited museums, zoos and sporting events while practicing their English.

    It would seem a perfect fit for Oswald. After her husband’s death, she said she wanted to stay in the United States and improve her English. She said she understood English better than she was able to speak the language. She relied upon Russian interpreters during interviews with the Secret Service, FBI and the Warren Commission that investigated Kennedy’s assassination. (“Other than Russian, I don’t know any other language,” she testified.)

    When commission members presented her with paperwork written in English by her husband, she recognized his handwriting but did not comprehend the words. “For me, that is a dark forest, a heap of papers.”

    It was her meetings with the Warren Commission, as well interviews with the FBI, that prevented Oswald from coming to Ann Arbor in 1964. By the end of the year, however, she was ready to travel from Texas to become a student.

  4. Chapter 4 ‘She Wished to Face Reality’

    U-M has had its share of students with famous family ties – often parents who are high-profile politicians, Hollywood stars and corporate CEOs. The traditional campus response has been to treat such students no differently than any of the other young men and women in classrooms and dormitories.

    Not so with Oswald. Scheduled to start classes in January 1965, Oswald’s arrival was leaked just days before Christmas, forcing the University to acknowledge her enrollment in a terse news release. Oswald “has indicated a desire to continue her education and mastery of the language is a necessary preliminary to such study.” She would be one of 28,000 students on campus.

    “We regard Mrs. Oswald as a typical institute student,” said ELI Director John C. Catford when her enrollment was announced.

    Church leaders had suggested to Oswald that she use an assumed name when coming to Ann Arbor, but she declined. “She wished to face reality, not dodge it,” the church reported in its newsletter.

    She managed to evade the media upon arriving (“She slipped into our community at night by train while a battery of reporters were waiting hawkishly at the airport,” Campbell said), but photographers were waiting when she stepped onto campus the morning of January 5 for ELI orientation.

    Standing outside the North University Building (located roughly near today’s Biological Sciences Building), Oswald agreed to be photographed. She was 23, neatly dressed in a skirt, sweater and winter coat, and looking like a graduate student with books tucked under her arm. She described Michiganders as “like the weather – crisp and cool.” She made no mention of her young daughters, and said she could not provide any interviews because she had a pending book contract.

    “Please tell a good story,” she told reporters. “I’m just like everybody else, and I’ve had more than enough.”

  5. Chapter 5 ‘She is Very Grateful’

    For all of Oswald’s notoriety, there was little reaction to her being on campus. The Michigan Daily made no mention of her presence (“We just don’t think she’s news,” the editor said). A few letters arrived at President Harlan H. Hatcher’s office, most from writers who were angry enough to write but not to the point of signing their names.

    “Send her back to Texas and if she felt any sorrow at all for the horrible thing her husband did to Jackie and all of the decent citizens of the United States, she would go back to Russia (where she belongs),” said a writer from the Upper Peninsula. “Please get her away from Michigan. In my book she belongs where her husband is. Where is your respect for President Kennedy?”

    A few men sent letters to the ELI office in hopes of striking up a romantic relationship with Oswald. “If you are willing to consider me to become your companion, I shall give you my best to make you happy and pull you out of the morass of bitterness,” came an offer from Bangalore.

    The strongest reaction to Oswald’s enrollment came from the people who were sponsoring her visit: the 2,300-member congregation of First Presbyterian Church. They had no idea their church had offered to host her, to the point of leaders offering to pay for her transportation, housing and coursework out of their own pockets. (Oswald declined all financial offers.)

    When the executive committee of the church governing body, known as the Session, reached out to Oswald in late 1963, it had done so in secret “in order that Mrs. Oswald might be free from the pressure of publicity in considering the offer.” Its members never informed the Session or any other congregant of the invitation, or of Oswald’s acceptance. When the Session convened within a week of Oswald’s arrival, half its members – upset and embarrassed about being left in the dark – were angry to the point of wanting to reprimand the church leadership.

    A week later, Campbell met with his congregation and explained the executive committee’s thinking.

    “It was the committee’s hope to keep the matter from becoming public information in order that Mrs. Oswald’s opportunity to review the matter objectively would not be lost,” he said. “Mrs. Oswald is now well along in an eight weeks’ course at the English Language Institute and is living in one of the homes of the congregation. She is very grateful to the Institute and to the Church.”

  6. Chapter 6 The Graduate

    As a single woman in the Soviet Union, Marina Oswald had studied at a technical pharmacy school in Leningrad. At U-M, she would join 29 international students – from Mexico, Israel, Greece, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere – hoping to improve their English. Together, they would learn and study five hours every weekday for eight weeks.

    “I’m sure Mrs. Oswald could conquer English in any school in America. The reason she is here is that we can teach her more in a shorter period of time,” said Catford, the Institute’s director. He said he was “frankly surprised” at her command of English.

    In addition to attending classes, Oswald made several trips to Detroit, including to a Detroit Pistons game. She was never recognized.

    As Oswald was in her final weeks of campus, her name – once again – made news around the country. Without any sources, national news outlets began reporting that two women students allegedly attacked Oswald in a campus building. Ann Arbor police and campus officials vehemently denied the reports; Oswald herself told them she had not been assaulted in any way, physically or verbally.

    And then she was gone. In a February 26 ceremony in Rackham Assembly Hall, Oswald received an engraved U-M certificate alongside her classmates. An ELI official described her as an average student. She left town two days later, an alumna of Michigan.

    Several years later, Ernest Campbell reflected on the episode initiated by one of his congregants. By then, he had moved on from Ann Arbor to the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City. He shared what it was like for First Presbyterian to have been in the spotlight helping Oswald and of the letters that arrived on his desk.

    “There were some who were quick and hot to say that what we did was unpatriotic. Others told us that our action was unwise, still others that it was unfair. One woman said that she had belonged to a church for forty years and what it had done for her in all that time she could write on the back of a postage stamp,” Campbell said. “I answered every letter, rightly or wrongly feeling it the obligation of my ministry to do so. I said in effect to each person who criticized, ‘The one thing you haven’t shown us is that what we have done is unlike Christ.’”

     

    Sources: English Language Institute records; First Presbyterian Church (Ann Arbor) records; and Harlan Henthorne Hatcher Papers, all at the Bentley Historical Library; A history, the First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1826-1988: incorporating “A sesquicentennial history” 1976, newly revised and updated, editors Lila Miller, Robert M. Warner, Carl R. Geider; Warren Commission Report and Hearings; “Follow Me,” by Ernest T. Campbell