Bradenton woman remembers seeing JFK on Monday before assassination

vmannix@bradenton.comNovember 17, 2013 

MANATEE -- Susan Gilmore McSwain could barely see him amidst the crowd gathered inside the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in Tampa.

"Just the top of his head," she recalls.

McSwain couldn't hear him very well, either.

"The acoustics were awful," she adds.

Yet none of that really mattered to the then 13-year-old that Monday, Nov. 18, 1963.

President John F. Kennedy was in the house.

Bud Gilmore had taken his eighth-grade daughter out of Woodrow Wilson Junior High School just for the occasion. Kennedy was speaking to the Florida Chamber of Commerce and her father worked for the Tampa chamber.

"I thought, 'Wow! I'm looking at a real U.S. president," said McSwain, who now mentors Hispanic high schoolers who are first-generation Americans. "I'd never seen one in real life. I haven't seen one since. It was a very big deal."

Four days later, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

The 50th anniversary makes McSwain, who grew up in Tampa's Hyde Park, put Kennedy's visit in perspective.

"The main deal was it was a president visiting Tampa, rather than this is Jack Kennedy," she said. "This was Florida, which he didn't take in the (1960) election. It was different from the Northeast or any other section of the country, where he was much more popular. The Kennedy aura didn't develop until after his death."

McSwain remembers hearing the awful news in science class when the principal announced over the intercom that the president had been shot.

"We all thought, what? Everybody froze. The teacher, too. We were all frightened," she said. "Then she switched on the radio so we could hear the reports. For hours we moved silently through the halls, sat silently in the classes and listened to the continuous radio coverage."

When McSwain got home, her parents told her something that consoled her.

"They said we have a system. If a president gets shot, the country had a plan, it clicked and the system worked," she said. "Yes, there was sadness, but there was no anarchy like in other countries where there's a coup and something like this happens. That impressed me, even at 13."

Still, what took place in that week's span gives McSwain pause.

"You see them and four days later they're killed," she said.

"That's shocking."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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