35 years later, Cape Coral resident remembers Elvis Presley’s funeral
Cape Coral resident Joseph Kibitlewski had been a deputy with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department, in Memphis, Tenn., for only a couple of weeks when news broke that the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Elvis Presley, had died.
“I enjoyed his music,” he said, when asked if he was a fan. “It was OK.”
Thursday marked the 35th anniversary of Elvis’ death – Aug. 16, 1977.
The night before the funeral, Kibitlewski was assigned to grounds duty at Graceland. Walking the inside perimeter by the front gate, he made sure no one tried to climb over the property’s wall and gain entry onto Graceland.
“It was just a sea of people,” he said of the scene outside of the gate.
During his shift, Kibitlewski did not have to stop any trespassers.
“The crowd made my job easy,” he said. “The crowd was very respectful.”
“They were more subdued than raucous,” Kibitlewski added. “I think people were really in shock and awe because it (his death) was so sudden.”
Not an Elvis fanatic himself, per say, the U.S. Air Force veteran did appreciate that the singer-actor complied when called upon to serve.
“I think what pleased me most about him was when he was drafted, he went,” Kibitlewski, who served from 1956-60, said.
According to U.S. military records, Elvis was drafted in March 1958 and served as active duty until March 1960. He was discharged in 1964.
The following day, Kibitlewski was assigned to traffic control during the funeral procession. Because of the crowds gathered, he and other deputies were forced to park their squad cars blocks from Forest Hill Cemetery.
“There was four lanes of traffic deep,” he said. “You couldn’t get across.”
Kibitlewski was stationed right out front of the cemetery, responsible for directing the procession to turn into the grounds. Before the start, he gave a bystander his 35mm camera and asked her to take pictures of the cars.
He promised to get her information and send her copies, which he did.
The woman photographed every vehicle in Elvis’ funeral procession as it entered the cemetery. Kibitlewski has kept the negatives to this day.
“The cars were going by you, and you’re trying to see in,” he said.
Kibitlewski was hoping to catch a glimpse of Ann-Margret, but he could not make her, nor any other celebrities or well-knowns, out in any of the cars.
There were a couple of dozen vehicles that took part in the procession.
“As the procession came into view, everybody got quiet,” he said.
Kibitlewski could not hear or see the funeral from where he was stationed, but he visited the grave site later on and took more photographs. In the days and weeks after, fans began writing on the wall at Graceland.
“This is where people poured out their emotions,” he said.
On one of his days off from work, Kibitlewski visited the wall and spent a couple of hours photographing its entire length, capturing the words of love and adoration left behind by fans from other states and other countries.
“I had never seen this type of crowd-expressed emotion on this level,” he said. “The people adored him – this was like visiting a sanctuary.”
Asked why he documented the wall, Kibitlewski’s answer was simple.
“I’m a history nut,” he said, adding that he also has an interest in photography. “It was a cloudy day, perfect for photographing.”
Months after Elvis’ death, people began to spray paint over the writings on the wall, making the site visually unpleasing, Kibitlewski said. Officials decided to sandblast the wall, erasing the earliest thoughts shared after the death.
Kibitlewski also still has his photographs and negatives of the wall.
“I think I appreciate it more now because I had so much going on in my life then,” he said of his ties to what was such a devastating moment for many.
Elvis Aaron Presley was born Jan. 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Miss.
According to information from the Elvis Presley Estates, he starred in 33 films and appeared on television. He sold more than 1 billion records globally, and his American sales earned him gold, platinum or multi-platinum awards.
Elvis had 14 Grammy nominations and won three Grammys, received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at age 36 and was named One of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Nation for 1970 by the U.S. Jaycees.