Fifty years ago, Tampa citizens were thrilled by the five-hour visit of President John F. Kennedy. It was the third time he had come to our city: in 1959 as a U.S. senator exploring a possible run for the White House; another time in 1960 while campaigning for the presidency; and on Nov. 18, 1963, as our nation’s chief executive.
The event turned the adrenaline spigot up on Tampa, a sleepy city that sorely needed the energy that Kennedy’s visit brought.
As a high school junior, I was in that large group of JFK fans who would do practically anything for a glimpse of the man who held almost exclusive ownership of newspaper headlines, evening television news and magazine covers.
I was too young to consider that Kennedy’s relationship to Florida, and particularly Tampa, was bittersweet. The city’s cigar industry had been hit hard by Kennedy’s trade embargo. It was learned that Kennedy himself was a serious cigar aficionado and sent aides fanning out in the Washington area to buy up as many Cuban-made cigars as possible before he implemented the trade ban.
Tampa cigar tobacco pioneer Angel Oliva predicted the Kennedy action and bought up every leaf of Cuban tobacco on the island just prior to the trade ban, saving the local cigar industry here from a crippling blow. Kennedy knew the embargo wouldn’t get him increased love from the Cigar City, and his trip here was, in part, to smooth things over in an area that went heavily for him in 1960.
In October 1962, the hard stand he took toward Russia during the Cuban Missile Crisis may have saved the world from nuclear destruction.
At age 42, JFK was the youngest man ever elected president and the first of the Roman Catholic faith, both of which seemed impossible in his time.
When I learned my hero was coming to Tampa from a small story buried in The Tampa Tribune without a lot of detail, my brain went into high gear. For security reasons, information on presidential visits was skimpy and not released far in advance. I was resolved to be there no matter what and was able to weasel “all-areas” press credentials from the people assigning them at the chamber of commerce, which meant I could go wherever the president went.
Thank goodness for those official letters I got from my teachers at school stating I would be covering the visit for my school paper.
A year or two before, I had begun taking pictures for the Tribune’s new sports editor, Tom McEwen, and later for the news side. When they found out that I had the coveted “all areas pass,” city editor John Golson asked me to take a photo of the president’s motorcade. The paper would be thin on photographers that day, so asking a kid who had just turned 16 to grab a photo of the president of the United States for the next day’s paper was not unusual.
At the time, the significance of the assignment and the trust the paper had in me went right over my head. Today, I can’t believe I took on that responsibility.
My goal became to spend at least 25 minutes with the president at each of his stops, as well as somewhere along the motorcade route. Gary Williams, a buddy from school, agreed to chauffeur me around to each location on JFK’s itinerary, drop me off and stay with his car until I returned so we could zoom off to the next stop. The strategy worked great.
On that Monday in November, I saw that man I had dreamed of emerging from Air Force One onto Tampa soil. I was not disappointed.
When the president finished the various arrival ceremonies, he ducked through the military formations and disappeared from my sight. It was more than I could handle. I jumped off the flatbed truck I had been stationed on and darted across the tarmac, to the shock of others in the media who knew me. They called me back with words I can’t write here. I thought about it for a second and figured the worst that could happen would be I would be wrestled to the ground by the Secret Service and maybe shot.
The president was shaking the hands of children from the Academy of the Holy Names, located near the air base, when I found him. I started snapping photos. I missed the first handshake with Rosemary Weekley, an 8-year-old pupil who happened to be the daughter of the people who owned Tampa Photo Supply, where I purchased all my film.
I stood back, so as not to get the ire of the bodyguards, and followed JFK at a distance as he proceeded to his waiting limousine. Then suddenly the agents fanned out and there he was, sitting next to the base commander (Paul D. Adams). Nobody else was around. He would have no choice but to grab my hand and listen to what I had to say. I thought quickly and felt it might be inappropriate to recite the pledge of allegiance to him.
He extended his hand, I shook it, and simply welcomed him to Tampa. Then I backed off, and he waved as I took some photos.
The only agent close to the president was sitting in the front seat, and the hateful look on his face told me he did not want me to get too chummy with Kennedy. He ordered the limo to move out and it did ... very quickly.
I didn’t know at the time, but exactly one week to the hour from that handshake, I would be watching the president’s funeral on television with millions of other people.
I had to get back to my buddy Gary; we had a long trip to Al Lopez Field. Kennedy would be taken there by helicopter after a quick meal and briefing by top brass at MacDill. Gary could fly, but only on the roadway, and he did.
We arrived at Al Lopez Field (which occupied the space now taken by Raymond James Stadium) just before the presidential party. They used three helicopters, so if anybody decided to shoot the president’s aircraft down, they’d have three targets. These days there are five decoys, sometimes seven, to choose from. Times have changed.
He went to the ballpark to speak in observance of the 50th anniversary of the first scheduled commercial air flight in America, from Tampa to St. Petersburg, via a seaplane named Benoit.
The president and area Washington representatives walked to the staging area and up the stairs to their seats. Kennedy sat close to where I was standing on the ground. I had the opportunity to get several close-up shots of his profile that have appeared regularly in publications through the years.
In one of his bursts of laughter, I pushed the button on my camera and prayed it was in focus and set to the right exposure. It was. In 1963, there was no digital photography, and you had a long, painful wait to see if you had anything good.
I remember taking that photo, at one-250th of a second. It’s so strange how that short span of time could stick in my mind for 50 years, but it has. Nine months later, I would take copies of all the photos I took of the presidential visit to Washington and present them to Robert Kennedy, U.S. attorney general and JFK’s brother. That picture, taken suddenly and without forethought, was his favorite.
After popping off a roll or two of photos, Gary rushed me downtown for the motorcade. It started when the president left Al Lopez and went around the city, proceeding south on Grand Central (now Kennedy Boulevard) from Dale Mabry all the way to town. People were lined along the entire route.
I stationed myself a block north of Twiggs and Franklin streets. Franklin was the main downtown thoroughfare at the time. I was going to take several pictures of the motorcade, one when JFK’s limo crossed Twiggs Street and the other at Zack, where I was standing. The first was taken with a 200mm telephoto. What I didn’t realize was if Kennedy hadn’t been kind enough to stand in his car at that point, I would have missed him entirely. The motorcade was moving a lot faster than I had anticipated, so I knew I had to get back to Gary and speed on to the next stop on Kennedy’s visit, Fort Homer Hesterly Armory. There, I would get the meanest stare down, almost 10 seconds worth, from the president after I took a photo of him tying his shoe. I didn’t think he would be that offended, but a few seconds later this shaken photographer thought he was going to be dragged to the nearest prison by aides of the nation’s leader.
An excited public got to see and hear the president in all his splendor and humor there, and later at the International Inn at Westshore Boulevard and Grand Central. From there, he departed by motorcade east to Dale Mabry and the seven miles or so back to MacDill Air Force Base and Air Force One.
He was shot and killed in Dallas four days later. The entire world went numb. Life just stopped. It was the first time I had experienced the world in complete silence, shock and withdrawal.
I learned of the Kennedy shooting at school. Classes were suspended and students released. I ran to nearby Tampa Street just in time to get a bus to town. There were only a few passengers, but one had a portable radio and we all listened to the constant stream of news out of Dallas.
I got out of the bus on the north edge of town, having no idea where to go or what to do. There were only a few people visible in the shopping district. Not many cars, either. The silence was frightening.
Rather than dive into one of the stores to join the others in shock, I sprinted the seven blocks to The Tampa Tribune building, where I watched from the side as reporters, editors, photographers and copy boys scurried to get their jobs done in a clearly observable, unbelieving stupor. Suddenly the bells on the teletype machine rang wildly. An editor pulled the copy from the machine and yelled to the open newsroom that the president had been pronounced dead.
A part of me died that day. So many other Americans reported the same.
John F. Kennedy left a mark on America that endures. He inspired courage, sacrifice and excellence in Americans.
To memorialize his legacy, we can muster our own style of the greatness within each of us, aspiring to do the very best we can at all we do, exactly as JFK urged, and keeping in mind the final words of his 1961 inaugural address:
“ ... with a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
Tony Zappone, a former Tampa Times and Tampa Tribune reporter, is a public relations consultant in Tampa.