TAMPA — It’s been 50 years since sniper bullets tore away the life and promise of President John F. Kennedy.
And still, the assassination of the 35th president remains a benchmark in the lives of many Americans — as was the Pearl Harbor attack, the first man on the moon, and 9/11.
“It’s different with Kennedy,” said Rodney Kite-Powell, Saunders Foundation curator of history at the Tampa Bay History Center. “Something about his death touches people differently than other historic moments.”
Part of the explanation may lie in the experiences of four Tampa people who have unique memories of that day, some of them still excited then by Kennedy’s visit to the city four days before his death.
They are a devastated school teacher who abandoned his class, an anchorman who fell into a spontaneous chat with the president, a Texas transplant shooed from the plane holding the president’s body, and a fan of Americana who added conspiracy theories to his collection.
Here are their stories.
Jack Espinosa enjoyed a successful career as a teacher and later as public information officer for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. But what most know him for is his sense of humor.
A former standup comedian who toured the Caribbean, he cannot walk into room without dishing out wisecracks to everyone he knows.
“I practice those insults,” he said, a straight face hiding his mischief. “They need to be perfect. I can’t let one be better than another or someone might think I like them more. The truth is, I don’t like any of them.”
On the subject of Kennedy’s assassination, though, the funny man turns somber.
“I’m not a drinker, never have been. But I had four doubles after I heard the news.”
At the time of Kennedy’s Nov. 18, 1963, visit to Tampa, Espinosa was a history teacher at King High School. He said such a job kept him current on this nation’s problems — the threat of Communism, racial strife, political division.
Kennedy offered hope for a way through them all to a better tomorrow, Espinosa said.
An active member of the Democratic Party, Espinosa successfully lobbied the Hillsborough school board to allow students a day off with a note from their parents to see the president when he visited Tampa.
For his efforts, the late Sam Gibbons — then in his first year as a U.S. representative — invited Espinosa to meet Kennedy backstage before the president’s speech at Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.
“The president asked me what I do and I said, ‘I teach high school history.’ He said, ‘You people are going to save the country.’
“Wow. He always knew the right things to say to the right people and he meant his words. He understood what it was going to take for this country to come together. We all needed to do our part. I just knew he was the right guy to be leading the country at that moment.”
Espinosa was directing a class Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, when a fellow teacher delivered the news to him that the president had been shot. Espinosa told his students he’d be right back.
He hurried to the teachers lounge to see if the television news had an update. As he walked in, Walter Cronkite made the announcement on CBS that the president was dead.
Stunned, Espinosa returned to his class and informed them.
A frightened student asked him, “What do we do now?”
In reply, Espinosa wrote the laws of presidential succession on the black board.
But his mind soon moved beyond the political considerations.
“What do we do now?”
Without permission or warning, he walked out of class and headed to the nearest bar.
“I wasn’t thinking straight. I just knew I couldn’t teach that day.”
When he finally returned home, he still was wondering: “What now?”
Arch Deal, longtime WFLA-TV anchorman, had a rule he lived by as a reporter: Always arrive to an assignment early and stay late so you don’t miss a thing.
On the day of Kennedy’s visit to Tampa, this approach paid off in a big way.
Deal was pulling double duty as a field reporter for the presidential visit and was sent to MacDill Air Force Base to cover the president’s lunch at the Officer’s Club.
He arrived about 40 minutes early and took a seat on a bench outside the club, near Bayshore Boulevard and MacDill Avenue. Ten minutes later, the president’s limo pulled up and out stepped Kennedy.
“I remember there was no Secret Service by his side,” Deal said. “It didn’t strike me as odd at the time, but today it does.
“He looked at me and as casually as he would an old friend, he said, ‘Nice day.’ I agreed and then he offered to sit with me and chat.”
Deal described it as a BS session.
Kennedy, he said, would be tackling important issues during his speeches in Tampa but had no desire to spend his downtime on business.
“We talked about everything except politics and Marilyn,” Deal said with a laugh. “He gave me the idea that he was probably a great guy to sit down and have a beer or cigar with. He knew how to connect to people.”
That bond made it harder for Deal to do his job once news of the assassination spread.
Still, as a newsman, he had a duty. The WFLA team prepared its own local show on the assassination and Kennedy’s life, to be aired that night. Instead, the network, NBC, stuck with its own continuous coverage.
Deal, in fact, remembers it as a historic time for the networks. Before, they were slow gathering facts. Not any more.
“The networks rose to new heights on that day.”
Deal the newsman takes a back seat to Deal the man when he looks back on that week. He and Kennedy spoke only half an hour but Deal said he felt he had made a friend.
“It was like I lost a family member. I was stunned.”
Wesley Tyler believes he had a firsthand look at the end of America’s innocence.
Today, Tyler is a Tampa resident. The day of the Kennedy assassination, he was a Texan, born and raised in Dallas, a freshman in college who lived near the airport — Love Field — Kennedy was scheduled to use.
Tyler cut school, jumped in his car with his $10 Brownie instamatic camera, and drove to watch the president’s arrival.
He was one of thousands of Texans with the same idea.
Both the president and first lady Jacqueline took the time to reach through the wire fence surrounding the airport and shake hands with those outside looking in.
“There was no security with them that I remember,” Tyler said.
He hurried afterward to Mockingbird Lane, along the scheduled Kennedy motorcade route. He snapped the limousine carrying Vice President Lyndon Johnson as it drove past, but was pushed from his spot as the president’s car crept closer.
“For years, on some of the old films, you can see me getting pushed out of the way. I would always point to myself when the footage aired.”
He returned home, and heard the news the president had been shot.
Tyler doesn’t know why, but he felt compelled to return to Love Field and was shocked he was able to drive into the airport, close to Air Force One.
“I’m pretty sure they were swearing in Johnson around that time.”
Tyler said a Dallas policeman carrying a machine gun approached him, demanding to know what he was doing. Tyler’s neighbor was a reporter for the local CBS affiliate, he explained, so he tried to use that as a cover story.
“I claimed I too worked for CBS, but he looked at my cheap camera and was not believing me. He told me to get the hell out of there.”
“I think from that point on, the president has never been as accessible to the public as he was that morning.”
Tampa native Ed Golly admits he’s a bit odd.
A room in his home is wired with recording equipment. Old albums are packed neatly into shelves. Old 45s hang from the ceiling like artwork.
Golly isn’t a sound producer or connected with the recording industry in any way. He is a graphic designer who has worked with such local architectural firms as FleischmanGarcia.
“I’m just eccentric,” is how he explained his decorating choice.
He is obsessed with theories that present alternatives to the official finding that Kennedy was the victim of a lone gunman. He has amassed a vast collection of original news clippings from the days following the assassination and of articles about possible conspiracy explanations.
Still, he insists, he is not a man who believes government cover-ups lurk around every corner, “X Files” style.
“I’m not a conspiracy nut,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t bother with them.”
When it comes to Kennedy’s assassination, he believes something is amiss.
His family growing up in Tampa was not political, he said, so the day Kennedy visited here he had no desire to go see him.
But on the day of the assassination, he was glued to the television set like the rest of the nation.
“It was a Friday. I was 11 years old and home from school with a sore throat. I was lying in bed when my mom came into my room and said she thought I needed to come see the news.
“I sat on the floor for the rest of the day. I remember when Walter Cronkite announced that Lee Harvey Oswald was the killer.”
Cronkite, said Golly, “was the greatest newsman in the history of Western Civilization.” If such a man declared it was Oswald, it had to be Oswald.”
For years, said Golly, he accepted this truth.
Then one day, a friend bent Golly’s ear about some of the inconsistencies from the official investigation of Kennedy’s assassination and about theories on what might explain them — multiple gun men, CIA involvement, mafia connections.
“He made compelling arguments.”
Golly has since become engrossed in the subject and is a walking encyclopedia on it.
He said he would willingly talk the night away with anyone who wants to discuss the assassination.
“I’m not satisfied with the answer that Oswald acted alone. I know I’ll never have enough information to know what happened for sure, but I think I know enough to have the opinion that what we have been told is not the whole truth.”
For how long will he pursue the truth?
“Forever,” he said. “It’s Kennedy after all.”