'Black Jack' Famous Kennedy Funeral Horse Dies

Published: Feb. 8, 2006 at 4:24 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 12, 2006 at 11:55 PM CST
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Black Jack/Old Guard Museum Photo
Black Jack/Old Guard Museum Photo

By Matt McFarland

February 7, 2006

FORT MYER, Va. (Army News Service, Feb. 7, 2006)-- Black Jack, the caparisoned horse best known for his rowdy behavior at President John F. Kennedy's funeral, died 30 years ago Feb. 6.

Nancy Schado says she was sadder at Black Jack's funeral than her husband's.

"He meant so much to the country. He did so much to people's moral."

When a former Old Guard commander dubbed her as "Black Jack's Mother," she called it the nicest compliment she ever received. Artifacts from Black Jack's day, including a birthday card from President Richard Nixon still hang in the stables on Fort Myer.

He was given a rare honor for a horse, a burial –– and not anywhere. His headstone is surrounded by shrubs in the shape of a horseshoe on Summerall Field, a location reserved for events like the retirement ceremony of the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

Three days after his death on February 6, 1976, Black Jack's cremated remains were taken to his grave on the caisson he'd walked 10-steps behind as the caparisoned horse at the funerals of three presidents — Hoover, Kennedy and Johnson — and a general of the Army. The crowd of 400 at Black Jack's funeral was larger than must humans draw at their funerals.

"Sometimes the words legend and hero are used too frequently, but I have to call him a legend," said Pete Duda, one of Black Jack's handlers when he served in the Old Guard's caisson platoon.

Duda worked with Black Jack before he gained public notoriety. They were inseparable. If the duo were scheduled for two funerals the next day, Duda would spend all night with the horse.

"I miss him today. He was definitely my best friend as an animal, if there is such a thing," added Duda, who is now retired and living in Ocean, New Jersey.

Dynamic personality

The people who worked with Black Jack describe an animal with a dynamic personality. He was calm but had spirit. Visitors could stroke his nose. If cameras or children were around, he put on a show.

"He was a ham," said Schado.

On the day of John F. Kennedy's funeral, he was almost uncontrollable.

"I was actively afraid that the horse would get away from me," said Arthur Carlson, the Old Guard Soldier who walked alongside Black Jack at the funeral. Outside St. Matthew's Cathedral Black Jack stepped on Carlson's toes.

They served in almost 70 funerals together, but Carlson had never seen him act as he did. Carlson is now retired and living in Mobile Alabama.

Black Jack stole the show

In the first televised state funeral in American history, Black Jack stole the show.

"He got famous by accident, it's just the way things came together," said Carlson.

As the caisson pulled out of the quadrangle near the Treasury Department, a wheel snagged on a large steel grate and dragged it.

"It was really a booming noise in there. It startled Black Jack,' said Carlson.

Schado sees things a different way.

"He wasn't used to assassinations. He was showing his objection to what happened. Animals sense things," said Schado.

As she watched Kennedy's funeral from her home in Arlington, Schado felt compelled to meet the horse. Although there was no biological bond –– Schado jokes that Black Jack had a better nose –– she was soon his adopted Mother.

She'd feed him sugar cubes from her own lips. Every week she would bring a homemade cake for the caisson Soldiers and hand-feed a piece to Black Jack.

Birthdays were a special occasion. One year she baked a total of 108 pounds of cake. She began baking two weeks prior to his birthday and stored the cakes in her station wagon. It was a natural freezer during a Washington winter.

When Black Jack sensed Schado's presence he would kick the doors of his stall in excitement.

Black Jack stands out

The caisson's farrier for 35 years, Pete Cote, had to replace the wooden doors with metal. Cote has seen many horses, but Black Jack stands out.

"He was very very well built, probably about the best built horse that we ever had."

Schado has the plastic figurine of a horse that rested on top of the triple-decker butter pecan cake she gave Black Jack on his 25th birthday in her living room. Now retired, she moved outside of Cincinnati Ohio to be closer to family.

Thirty years after Black Jack's death, 43 years after they first met, she vividly remembers Black Jack's mannerisms, physical features and actions.

Duda also still feels a connection.

"I think about him every day," said Duda.

(Editor's note: Matt McFarland is a Pentagram staff writer.)