Editors Note: President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, 53 years ago today on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963. Just four days earlier the nation’s 35th U.S. President was in Tampa for a five-hour visit on Nov. 18th that “stirred a part of our spirit that had to that point been untouched.” AliveTampaBay has first-hand accounts by three Floridians who saw President Kennedy on that chilly fall Monday in Tampa and who recall in vivid detail how they learned of the tragic news from Dallas. We have fascinating audio interviews with Professor George C. Edwards, a presidential historian who grew up in St. Petersburg, and former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, plus amazing photos and a first-person article by Tampa’s Tony Zappone.
Tony’s stirring article starts after the audio interviews by Editor David R. Wheeler with former Mayor Dick Greco and Professor George C. Edwards.
Dick Greco/Photo courtesy Mayor Greco
Dick Greco served four terms as mayor of Tampa. He was a 29-year-old, first-term member of the Tampa City Council when he met President Kennedy in Tampa on Nov. 18, 1963.
George C. Edwards III/Photo courtesy Professor Edwards
George C. Edwards III is University Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University and is a leading scholar of the presidency. He was a student at St. Petersburg High School when he saw up close President Kennedy at Al Lopez Field in Tampa. _______________
By Tony Zappone, Special to AliveTampaBay.com
I recall arriving at Tampa’s Jefferson High School that Friday morning of Nov. 22, 1963. Oddly, my first stops were to delivered them copies of some of the photos I had taken of President Kennedy’s visit to Tampa just four days earlier.
Many had requested copies for souvenirs and I consented at $1.50 each for an 8” x 10” black- and-white enlargement. Color enlargements were just coming into vogue at the time and were expensive. Besides, I got black- and- white film free at The Tribune.
I had just turned 16 but was already taking photos for the old Tampa Tribune and was particularly proud of the ones I had taken of the President. It was an ordeal getting credentials; I was required to get letters from the yearbook sponsor and the school paper sponsor stating that I was authorized to represent them during the visit.
Tampa was a small, peaceful town back then, compared to now; not a whole lot of noise or violence.
I began my normal schedule at 8:30a.m. with an American History class. I loved Mrs. Deaver and we talked about JFK during that morning. When I told her I had shaken his hand and welcomed him to Tampa a few days before she was a bit non-believing. I had to pull out the pictures I hadn’t yet delivered to prove to her that I had, indeed, walked right up to him while he was in his limousine at MacDill Air Force Base.
The President’s visit to Tampa was the talk of the town that whole week. He was a beloved leader, greatly admired by young people, and people in our community were honored that he picked Tampa to visit. That he came here for political reasons, to shore up votes for the election the following year, was not even a thought or issue for the young people who admired him.
While I was sitting in Mrs. Alexine Allen’s journalism class that afternoon, someone came to the door and summoned her from her lecture. She stayed outside 15 or 20 seconds and came back to our class sniffing and teary eyed. I immediately thought someone in her family had passed. The fact was, someone in all of our families was about to die. She announced to us that President Kennedy had been shot while in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, and was not expected to live.
Recollections of my entire five hours with him, only four days before, rushed through my head. We all sighed, “They can’t shoot the President.” The class froze with shock and disbelief. There were no words to say, only tears to flow. It’s something that had never happened in our short lives and we were not prepared for it. After all, the hero to so many young people of the time had just been to Tampa in all his splendor.
I always thought he must have come to say good-bye to me, his biggest fan.
We all collected ourselves and in just a few minutes the principal came on the intercom and dismissed the student body, admonishing them to get home safely but as fast as possible to hear the continuing developments on television.
I got my school stuff (books, etc.) together and rushed two blocks to Tampa Street where a city bus was just rolling up to the corner. I got in. It was as quiet as quiet could be. The driver asked me what I knew — I told him and then sat down, stoic, speechless, thoughts buzzing. In elementary school, I had been prepared on what to do in case of a bomb attack . . . but never in case our President died.
As the bus approached the center of town, about Polk Street, I got off the bus. It was in front of the old Palace Theater, now torn down. There were groups of two, three or four people at a few corners sharing portable radios. Otherwise, downtown had been abandoned.
I scurried over to close-by Maas Brothers and went to the electronics department, hoping to listen in on the TVs on display. They were all off and nobody was there. Sales people had gone home.
Realizing I was only steps from where I had photographed the President’s motorcade proceeding through downtown Tampa, I went to the exact spot and just stood. Then I went down to where his limousine had passed, Twiggs and Franklin, where I snapped what would become one of the most published photos of JFK. The whole idea of such a man as Kennedy being shot was too much for me to take in at the time. I simply didn’t want to.
Still weighted down with my books and other supplies from school, I ran to the Tribune on Lafayette Street (now John F. Kennedy Blvd.) and hurried to the second floor newsroom. It was like a war room. I had never seen it like that. I just stood in a corner so I wouldn’t get in the way and be asked to leave. Bells were sounding constantly on the Associated Press and United Press International teletypes. Staff people were running around the room. Editors were screaming orders.
Suddenly, all gathered in front of a television someone had brought in to the newsroom. I watched as legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite choked up as he reported shortly after 2:30 p.m. the death of the 35th President of the United States. I felt part of me died that moment. It was the word the country was terrified would come. If Mr. Cronkite said it, it was official.
I went home to watch an entire weekend of news. It was the biggest news ever to occur in my lifetime. Chills went up my spine every time I thought about our President, the center of the attention of the entire world, who had shaken my hand four days earlier. It was almost too much to handle.
The following Sunday, I watched live on TV as JFK’s accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was shot and killed as he was being taken to a jail away from the police station. Oswald had shot and killed a police officer the day before he was nabbed.
A day later, on Monday, the entire world watched as the body of one of our most beloved Presidents was wheeled through the streets of Washington and buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
It was almost one week to the minute that I had touched his hand.
I don’t remember when the world started again. It was something it took a long time to get over.
Tony Zappone/Photo by David R. Wheeler, editor of AliveTampaBay.com
Tony Zappone, a real estate consultant, had a long career in television journalism and advertising. He was a 16-year-old student at Jefferson High School when President Kennedy visited Tampa. See just a few of Tony’s memorable photos from the president’s visit in the attached photo gallery.
Photos in the AliveTampaBay.com gallery by Tony Zappone.