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50 years later, JFK's visit to Tampa still resonates


Published:   |   Updated: November 18, 2013 at 10:19 AM

TAMPA — President John F. Kennedy was shot to death in Texas. His protectors had been more worried it would happen here. There were suspects, there were motives, there were opportunities.

Fifty years ago this month, Tampa joined the rest of the world in mourning the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of their 35th president, John F. Kennedy. It was a Friday. Grief stricken residents stayed home, watching or listening to the news, trying to come to terms with the tragedy.

The Monday that started the week seemed far away, with its emotional highs from Kennedy's whirlwind five hour visit to Tampa. Thousands had heard him speak, tens of thousands caught a glimpse of him coming and going and moving through Tampa in the first trip here ever by a sitting president.

Crowds cheered, young women screamed in delight, children got the day off from school, politicians postured for the opportunity of a photo-op with the Hollywood-handsome president.

“I think it hit Tampa harder than other cities because he had just been here,” said Lynn Marvin Dingfelder.

Dingfelder heard more than 100 stories about Kennedy's visit from people in Tampa while researching for her documentary, “JFK in Tampa: The 50th Anniversary,” which premiered this month at Tampa Theatre.

“It was so personal for Tampa. Some compared it to losing a family member. The city embraced him that day and he returned the love.”

In the days leading up to the visit, though, the men charged with protecting the president were swept up by fear.

Threats against the president abounded, specific and general. Security staff was stretched to the limit.

“I think people are shocked when they hear that Tampa was a dangerous place for Kennedy to visit,” said Dingfelder. “But it was.”

***

Undaunted by any of this, Kennedy was campaigning, unofficially, reaching out to as many people as he could.

By a slim margin of 50,000 votes, he had lost Florida to Richard Nixon in the 1960 election and his approval rating in the South was 51 percent — much lower than his national rating of 59 percent.

He did win Hillsborough County. But the Civil Rights champion was campaigning this day near Lakeland, a hotbed of KKK activity. There was also concern over the passion stirred in Florida by the Cuban revolution, the Cuban missile crisis, and by Washington's half-hearted support of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

The next presidential election was a year away and Kennedy had not yet declared his candidacy. His trip to Tampa was described as “non-political.” He was visiting Tampa and Miami in the same day before a five-city tour of Texas, another state he had lost in 1960.

“He was nervous about coming to Florida,” said Gerald Blaine, a Secret Service agent who protected Kennedy and later authored “The Kennedy Detail,” an account of the assassination through the eyes of the president's security men. “He was not sure how Florida would react to him.”

The Secret Service was worried about other matters.

“As agents you look at every stop as if there is a threat,” said Blaine.

Tampa had many.

***

Two Tampa residents had threatened the president's life because of his Civil Rights Act. One was in prison for another crime and the other was under watch.

“We were more concerned about Civil Rights and going into the South,” said Blaine. “There were a lot of people who were not too happy with Civil Rights.”

People on both sides of the Cuba debate – for and against the rule of Fidel Castro – warned that the other was planning to take action.

“Then you had the mob,” said Dingfelder. “This was their home.”

Kennedy's brother and his attorney general, Robert Kennedy, had declared war on organized crime and Tampa was home to gangsters.

Despite the threats, Blaine said, his security detail was understaffed.

The back-to-back Florida and Texas tours thinned out the Secret Service. Only a dozen agents were in Tampa to protect the president at four different stops and along what was then the longest motorcade in presidential history – 28 miles.

Kennedy made the challenge even greater.

***

Tampa developer Dick Corbett didn't live here at the time of the visit but he did know the president. He worked in the 1960 campaign as Midwest coordinator and served on the presidential transition team. After the assassination, Corbett, who later would develop the WestShore Plaza, served as head of finance for Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign and worked in the Kennedy family business office for two decades.

Corbett was president of the student body of the University of Notre Dame when he first met Kennedy, who was visiting while a candidate in February 1960. Corbett had previously met President Dwight Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon. He described Ike as proper and Nixon as socially awkward.

“It felt like they were lecturing me,” Corbett said. “Kennedy was different. He was relaxed. He asked me questions. He spoke to me rather than at me. It was a real conversation. He seemed like he wanted to talk and not that he was told to.

“He wanted to get to know everyone. He was the kind of guy who would walk into a restaurant and rather than follow Secret Service, would head right into the kitchen to meet the chef. How do you protect someone like that?”

This trait was on display the moment Kennedy exited Air Force One at MacDill Air Force Base at 11:15 a.m. that Monday in November, 1963.

***

Wearing an Oxford gray suit with a white shirt, a blue tie with a gold stripe, he would inspect the honor guard and lunch in the Officer's Club, as planned. But first he bounded toward the crowd of 4,000 military personnel and their families. He asked names, made personal inquires.

Following lunch, he shook hands with the 25 African American waiters at the club and once back outside, he climbed into a waiting car — then right back out the other side when he spotted a group of children and their mothers walking past.

If he saw people he wanted to meet, Blaine said, he reached out to them regardless of the potential danger.

“There was no fašade about him,” Corbett said. “That true personality is why he brought excitement with him wherever he went.”

Said Dingfelder, “He was a rock star president. He was like The Beatles.”

His Tampa stage was Al Lopez Field.

The stadium was open to the public, first come first served. It seated 8,000. Crowd estimates have varied. Newspapers accounts the following day said 8,000 to 10,000. Blaine's book puts the figure at 20,000.

Security measures were in place, but chaos prevailed. There was just one entryway in a fence surrounding the stadium; people climbed the fence instead for a quicker shot at a better seat.

“Can you imagine that occurring today,” said Dingfelder, “Times were different. Today you need to be a big donor to see the president speak. Back then Al Lopez was wide open.”

***

The stadium speech began around 1:30 p.m., sponsored by the Tampa Chamber of Commerce to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first commercial flight — a signature event in Tampa Bay history. Kennedy was whisked to the stadium via a 10-minute helicopter ride aboard Marine One.

Some in the crowd dressed in minks, some in shorts. They cheered when Kennedy spoke about the importance of aviation, when he expressed sympathy for the 3,000 Tampa cigar makers out of work because of the new embargo on trade with Cuba, and when he asked that everyone do their part to defeat Communism.

Again, as at MacDill, he walked to the crowd afterward to shake hands. A sea of people surged toward him.

Once he left the stadium, and his security detail relaxed and young women stormed the stage for JFK signs and buttons.

The next leg of his journey would be the most precarious — a 40-minute motorcade drive that took him through downtown. The president rode in his specially designed Lincoln convertible limousine, cruising at slow speed for maximum exposure to the tens of thousands of spectators lining the streets.

Russell Groover, one of the 35 Tampa motorcycle cops in the president's motorcade, said local law enforcement from Tampa, Hillsborough County, surrounding areas and military personnel stood in every building along the route, on every floor and every roof.

Still, Groover said, it was a nerve-wracking ride.

“We had just been through the Cuban crisis the fall before,” he said. “It fresh on us. We were on full alert.”

“Today there are over 4,000 agents in the Secret Service and armored cars, counter assault teams, counter sniper teams and so forth,” said Blaine. “At the time we couldn't get those resources.”

Kennedy again added to the danger.

***

Seeking to look more accessible, he ordered his Secret Service detail away from the special bumper platform at the rear of the limo. He stood, holding the car's roll bar and waving. And he rode with a group of five agents in the follow-up car of whom only three had the motorcade experience Blaine felt necessary to protect him.

“He was absolutely fearless and had no regard for what could happen to him,” said Corbett, who attributes this to Kennedy's youth, his storied experiences as a World War II commander, growing up in a powerful family and innocence of the age.

This fearlessness may have set him apart from other presidents.

“I don't know many who would have had the courage to walk into a room in the South and say that everyone needed to be treated equal,” said Corbett.

That's what happened around 2:45 p.m. that Monday in Tampa during his appearance at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory on Howard Avenue, sponsored by the Florida Chamber of Commerce. Before 4,500 invited guests, now changed into a freshly pressed Navy blue suit with a dark tie and white shirt, Kennedy spoke for five minutes then answered questions presented by a moderator from the crowd.

One question was, “What is the outlook for your civil rights program and, sir, why are you pushing it so vigorously?”

His reply was confident, according to news reports: He knew his policy was unpopular in Florida, he expressed disappointment that the state did not have stricter laws of its own, and he believed everyone should be treated as he wants to be treated.

Corbett said a belief in equality was a defining Kennedy characteristic.

Joe Kennedy, the family patriarch, grew up in Boston when Irish Catholics suffered discrimination. He never let his children forget it, Corbett said.

***

Next, Kennedy's motorcade traveled to the International Inn at the Tampa Airport. Hundreds of invited guests chanted, “JFK! JFK!” in the hotel's Crystal Ballroom during an event sponsored by the United Steelworkers Union.

Ybor City's honorary mayor Marcelo Maseda presented Kennedy with a box of cigars and a Spanish doll for Kennedy's 6-year-old daughter Caroline.

One final leg of the motorcade took the president back to MacDill.

At 4:37 p.m., he waved goodbye to Tampa and walked back onto Air Force One.

“He was elated with how the visit went,” said Blaine. “He was happy with the reception, and it started his Florida-Texas trip off right.”

Four days later, with his wife Jacqueline at his side, at the end of another motorcade before another adoring crowd, Kennedy was hit in a volley of three bullets fired from a building above.

He was pronounced dead at a nearby Dallas hospital.

“It happened to happen there,” said Blaine, who's from Texas. “It could have happened anywhere. I just kind of turns the whole world upside down.”

Only select individuals spent serious time with the president when he was in Tampa — U.S. Reps. Sam Gibbons and Claude Pepper, Sen. George Smathers, Tampa Mayor Nick Nuccio. Most of those along the way saw him from afar or met him for a moment.

That was enough.

“He was only in Tampa for five hours, but people really felt like they got to know him even if they didn't actually get to meet him,” Dingfelder said. “He had that kind of effect on people.”

Added Corbett, “Complete strangers felt like they knew Jack Kennedy. It was because they did. People always saw the real deal.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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