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Inspired by the Kennedys, International Plaza's creator dreamt big

Dick Corbett, right, worked for both John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy and later developed International Plaza.

Photo courtesy of Dick Corbett

Dick Corbett, right, worked for both John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy and later developed International Plaza.

It is an understatement to say that, at 75, Dick Corbett has been busy leading an interesting life.

He broke his nose no less than five times as a young boxer before he even got to college. He started out with not much and made it into a lot.

He came to Tampa an outsider, looked around, saw promise and became the creator and driving force behind what's now our swankiest mall, International Plaza. He and his wife, Cornelia, owned the Rowdies soccer team and gave millions to Tampa's art museum.

Just this summer, he was named chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

He talks about ways to get kids off their iPhones and outside.

Ask him how he got here, whom he looked up to, and he says John F. Kennedy, the president assassinated 50 years ago today.

"It was absolutely dramatic," says Corbett, a trim man in a neat blue blazer. "When I met him, I saw someone young and full of energy. And who literally would not quit." It can be fascinating, the people behind who people become.

A kid from Rochester, N.Y., he went to Notre Dame because his dad was a quarterback there ("under Knute Rockne," Corbett says.) He was senior class president when candidate Kennedy came through and then he was hooked. He joined the campaign and then went to work as a junior White House aide.

Part of his job was to go through letters and applications from constituents, the ones for whom Kennedy's famous speech resonated, the part where he told us to ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country. Letters poured in from university presidents and heads of industry, inspired, asking how they could help.

"Jack Kennedy electrified the entire country," Corbett says. "It was a very exciting place to be." The world could use that now, he says.

He went on to Harvard Business School and was sitting in a finance class when he heard his president had been shot. On this anniversary, you hear it over and over from those who lived it: "The world stopped," Corbett says. "I was absolutely crushed that my hero had died."

Years later he worked for Bobby Kennedy on his 1968 campaign. He says he was standing about 15 feet away when the president's brother was gunned down. Rochesterian Saw Kennedy Killed, says the local headline on yellowed newsprint he kept amongst the photographs and letters.

"The whole desire of the country to see things happen — it all just sort of stopped."

He got involved in business, borrowed money, dove into real estate and landed in Florida. Tampa — in 1978, a smallish city with an impressive airport — looked to him like this state's future.

Like most everyone who lived it 50 years ago, Kennedy is on his mind, how it changed everything, how it changed him. The president had a way of seeing the big picture on issues such as segregation "from 50,000 feet."

"The Kennedys, both of them, were totally unafraid of risk," he says. "The Secret Service would tell you this. Jack Kennedy would leap into crowds, get totally involved."

So here is what he took from knowing a president who died 50 years ago and too soon: "You just attempt to do it, to dream, to see your dreams come true."

Inspired by the Kennedys, International Plaza's creator dreamt big 11/21/13 [Last modified: Thursday, November 21, 2013 10:20pm]
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