JFK’s day in Tampa

As the nation commemorates a tragedy, memories of a joyous visit live on.

click to enlarge TWIGGS AND FRANKLIN: President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade proceeds through a bustling 1962 downtown that’s now almost unrecognizable. - TONY ZAPPONE
TONY ZAPPONE
TWIGGS AND FRANKLIN: President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade proceeds through a bustling 1962 downtown that’s now almost unrecognizable.

On Nov. 18, 1963, President John F. Kennedy visited Tampa — four days before his fateful trip to Dallas.

He toured Tampa International Airport to endorse the recent designation of the American Airlines hub and invoked local aviation legend Tony Jannus.

He rode down the Tampa boulevard now named after him, then known as Grand Central Avenue, in a 1961 Lincoln model 74A convertible — the same vehicle he would ride in Dallas. His 28-mile trek included Tampa destinations that no longer exist as they did back then — Al Lopez Field, the Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory, the ultra-modern International Inn — before ending his tour at MacDill Air Force Base.

It was a giddy, tension-filled event, the first visit to Tampa by a sitting U.S. president. The man they called Jack greeted enthusiastic crowds, touching outstretched hands while enjoying the mild Florida autumn weather. His charisma was in full effect. Politically, his speeches rang with a partisan familiarity — he addressed criticisms by Republicans who had called into question his economic policies and held up Tampa as a city on the rise. His visit, however, was remembered more for its hoopla than for any issues discussed.

In attendance was Mayor Dick Greco, then a fresh-faced newbie on Tampa City Council. “It seemed like the whole city was tuned in,” he says in Lynn Marvin Dingfelder’s documentary, JFK in Tampa: The 50th Anniversary.

The late U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons was JFK’s right-hand man during his stay here.

“To me, it’s a wonderful day,” the congressman says in the one-hour film broadcast by WUSF, which premiered last week to a sold-out Tampa Theatre audience. The bittersweet account shows a nostalgic Gibbons in one of his final appearances, three months before he died. He and others in the film convey the joy of the occasion, presented with concisely edited visuals and testimonials — a challenging task that Dingfelder credits to editor/director Larry Wiezycki.

The film includes accounts from local politicians, high-profile figures, Secret Service personnel on duty, and Tampa police officers, along with touching anecdotes from the men and women who remember waving at the motorcade as children. A priest recalls how he and his Catholic school classmates identified with the president. African-Americans talked about changes to come. JFK and Tampa’s melting pot seemed made for each other.

“We didn’t have the animosity that other places in Florida had,” Dingfelder told CL. “We were special.”

Some came to watch JFK as part of class field trips. One woman admitted to skipping school to be there. Two others were teens at the time. In the film, they bicker over which caught the young prez’s eye. “I wore my lightweight red wool dress,” JoAnn DeWitt says. “I was sure he was not going to miss me.”

Dingfelder’s most surprising discovery, she says, was learning about the security threats and extensive canvassing of the FBI, Secret Service and Tampa Police Department. President Kennedy, according to some accounts, had the least security around him in Tampa of any of his U.S. visits. Tampa’s Mafia loomed large, but the president requested that no agents sit behind him to obstruct the view while on his motorcade through Tampa. It was if he didn’t want security to ruin his rock star feng shui.

We should focus less on the tragedy and scandals, says Tampa resident Michael Fluno, and remember the joy that underscored JFK’s visit, and Tampa’s place in his legacy. To commemorate, Fluno and a group of friends — Guido Maniscalco, Stephen Gately and Carrie Henriquez — are campaigning for a proclamation to name Nov. 18 John F. Kennedy Day in Tampa. The group will be at the corner of Twiggs and Franklin streets on Mon., Nov. 18, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of JFK’s visit there and host an informal meet-and-greet from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Fluno, 38, says his fascination with the JFK visit began with a historic photo taken by Tony Zappone, a Tampa photographer who snapped a famous shot of the president in his motorcade that offers an evocative portrait of a bustling downtown. The photo is featured prominently in the Tampa Bay History Center’s JFK in Tampa exhibit.

“I had just turned 16,” Zappone said in a phone conversation with CL. “I was a stringer shooting mostly for my school newspaper. The Trib asked me to shoot the motorcade because they didn’t have enough photographers.”

Zappone shares his account and 25 of his photos in the book, John F. Kennedy: A President and Kid With a Camera (at jfktampa.com). While he may have been playing the part of a photojournalist, he was as taken with JFK as his peers.

“I loved him. I would rush home from school to watch his press conferences even though most of it went over my head. ... Everyone was just mesmerized by the man. We never had a president like him in my lifetime.”

The following events are planned to commemorate President Kennedy’s visit to Tampa:

JFK in Tampa: The Exhibition The Tampa Bay History Center offers an extensive look at the late president’s 1963 stump with rare film footage of Kennedy in Tampa, a real 1963 TV showing footage from JFK’s time in Tampa complete with 1960s-style living room, the podium he used while delivering a speech at the International Inn, photographs, home movies, newspaper headlines, and oral histories from Tampa residents who saw and visited with the president. The exhibition also includes uniforms and badges from the Tampa Police Museum and notes from the Secret Service “Kennedy Detail” which were used while escorting the president around the city, and will soon include outtakes from Lynn Dingfelder’s documentary. Through Dec. 8. Tampa Bay History Center, 801 Old Water St., Tampa. tampabayhistorycenter.org.

50th Anniversary JFK Event at John F. Germany Public Library Join former local TV news anchor Arch Deal, local photographer Tony Zappone, and former Tampa Police Officer Russell Groover as they discuss President Kennedy’s 1963 visit and the events that occurred on that day. Free. Sat., Nov. 16, 2 p.m. John F. Germany Public Library, 900 North Ashley Drive, Tampa. 813-273-3652. hcplc.org.

Rebroadcasts of JFK in Tampa: The 50th Anniversary Dingfelder’s film will be shown on WUSF-Ch. 16 on Sun., Nov. 17, at 7 p.m.; Mon., Nov. 18, at 8 p.m.; and Fri., Nov. 22, at 4 p.m.

Florida Conversations Panel Discussion and Public Screening Hear Dingfelder and some of the people in her documentary speak on Thurs., Nov. 21, at 5:30 p.m. at the Tampa Bay History Center, followed by a public screening of JFK in Tampa: The 50th Anniversary at the Tampa Bay History Center. Free.

JFK Historic Marker Unveiling, Dedication & Press Conference The public is invited to Franklin Street and Kennedy Boulevard, where public officials will honor President Kennedy with a new historical marker. Noon, Fri., Nov. 22.

More info at jfkintampa.org.

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