Remembering JFK's historic visit to Tampa in 1963

October 22, 2013 

20130201 35 Kennedy

Rick Tuma portrait of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a U.S. president. Chicago Tribune 2013

TUMA — MCT

A half century ago on Nov. 18, a Monday, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy electrified the Tampa Bay region with motorcades and several speeches. The 35th president of the United States visited here only four days before his assassination during a motorcade in Dallas.

Memories of that long ago visit to the Sunshine State remain vivid for many who witnessed history as JFK delivered some of his last speeches to the American public. We'd like to hear from anyone with first-hand accounts or anyone whose family told stories about that day or recorded the event in photographs, letters or other ways -- even home movies.

On that November day in 1963, Tampa schools excused students with signed notes from home so families could gather around the president as he mesmerized the throngs along his motorcade routes. The picture-perfect blue skies, gentle breezes and mild temperatures made for an unforgettable day.

Inaugurated on Jan. 20, 1961, as the first Roman Catholic and youngest president, JFK only served 1,065 days before a sniper's bullet took his life on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas. Yet his achievements far surpassed his time in the White House. By launching the nation into space, pushing the battle for equal rights and winning the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy set America on a stronger path.

As famous as his stand against Soviet Union missiles being positioned in Cuba is his speech in West Berlin after the construction of the Berlin Wall in a Germany divided after World War II. A million people stood on the streets to hear JFK's famous phrase "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("I am a citizen of Berlin").

In criticizing communism that June day in 1963, Kennedy stated: "Freedom has many difficulties, and democracy is not perfect. But we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us."

But during his three speeches at Tampa's International Inn, Al Lopez Field, Fort Homer Hesterly Armory, he spoke about the economic conditions in the country. First lady Jacqueline Kennedy did not accompany him on this trip, remaining at the White House with their children.

The first sitting president to visit Tampa, Kennedy's motorcade meandered 28 miles through the city with the president waving from the same convertible that he rode that fateful day in Dallas. Live television broadcasts captured the day for those who could not line the streets or hear the speeches. Air Force One whisked JFK away from MacDill Air Force Base after his five-hour visit.

During his captivating tenure in the White House, affectionately known as Camelot, John and Jacqueline Kennedy brought elegance and grace to the high office, and the first lady also endeared herself to Americans with her advancement of the arts and culture.

The shock of his assassination only four days later left Tampa reeling after such a festive and memorable day here.

Please share your recollections and memorabilia with us as the Herald remembers that historic day so long ago. Contact Vin Mannix at 941-745-7055 or send email to metro@bradenton.com.

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