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Steve Otto Columns

Otto: 50 years ago, Tampa had its day in the sun with JFK


Published:   |   Updated: November 18, 2013 at 09:08 AM

Today marks 50 years.

That's a lot of water over the dam, and time plays tricks with reality.

But digging back into the admittedly cobweb-draped passages of memory, what I came to are the teenage flashes of a sun-drenched November day, back when politics was a new interest, and a lot of fun at that.

There was a spirit in the air, and politics for young people had the “what can I do for my country?” attitude.

The president's stop in Tampa was no more than that. I didn't take in the historical implications of a five-hour presidential visit, one that a half-century down the road would be recounted as if he had landed on the moon and not downtown Tampa.

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Those were the days when Grand Central Boulevard was just that — the drive by the University of Tampa and over the Lafayette Street Bridge into downtown Tampa.

Today, of course, it is Kennedy Boulevard that you take, going by the statue of John Kennedy; both legacies of that five-hour visit.

I believe what the president took away from those five hours was a box of cigars from Ybor City Alcalde Marcelo Maseda, along with a Spanish doll for little Caroline Kennedy.

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I've heard it said that the assassination of the president four days later marked a change in our lives. It was the true end of that post-war age of innocence that lasted from the early 1950s on up to that event.

Television, which was becoming our gathering point, would have its watershed moment, with the networks broadcasting coverage of the event nonstop for four days.

My generation would look to the mailbox, wondering if we would be getting a letter of “Greetings” from Uncle Sam, along with a notice about when to report for a military physical.

In a sense, those five hours in Tampa marked a finale, not just to Camelot but to an entire American age.

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Kennedy gave a speech that afternoon at Al Lopez Field, which was over near the current Raymond James Stadium. It's worth listening to again if you get the opportunity.

The theme was another 50th anniversary, this one to mark the first scheduled airline flight from Tampa to St. Petersburg by Tony Jannus. Kennedy had a good time with that one, noting that they were building a replica of the plane and he thought it would be a good idea if the Republican mayor of St. Petersburg flew in it.

You might have thought he had a crystal ball up behind the speaker's stand as he warned of impending crises looming in Asia and the Middle East.

And then he was gone, and we went back to doing whatever we were doing in those days, with no way of knowing that four days later our lives would change again.

The impact might not be as sudden as the weeks and months following 9/11, but our confidence would be shaken and the institutions that held us together would be tested for years to come.

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