Panel recounts 50th anniversary of President John Kennedy's Tampa visit

Published November 17 2013
Updated November 17 2013

TAMPA — As President John F. Kennedy rode through the streets of Tampa 50 years ago, Tampa police Officer Russell Groover was at his side.

A member of Kennedy's motorcade, it was Groover's responsibility to ensure the president's safety.

But even with dozens of armed law enforcement and military members nearby, there were tense moments, Groover said Saturday afternoon at the John F. Germany Public Library as part of a presentation to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's visit to Tampa.

When Kennedy gave a speech at Al Lopez Field on Nov. 18, 1963, Groover, who is now 76, encountered crowds larger than he had ever seen before.

"It was dangerous," Groover said. "The crowd pressed in so close that they pushed a few motorcycles right to the ground."

The crowds continued along the sides of the road as the motorcade made its way downtown, Groover said.

At one point, a boy threw a candy bar toward Kennedy, he said. It landed on the hood of one of the Secret Service cars and frightened everyone inside.

"They thought that thing was a stick of dynamite," Groover said. "That's when it started to dawn on me that we're really naive. It could've been something."

The rest of the trip, which included stops at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory and a hotel before heading back to Air Force One at MacDill Air Force Base, went smoothly.

But, just four days later, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas during a motorcade.

For Arch Deal, who was part of the Tampa press corps traveling with the president during his visit, Kennedy's assassination hit home.

On the day of Kennedy's arrival in Tampa, Deal, now 82, showed up at MacDill a half-hour early. So did Kennedy.

Deal scored an extra half-hour chatting with the president over lunch, prior to the day's news conference.

"We talked about the weather," Deal said. "I didn't ask about Marilyn (Monroe)."

When Deal learned of Kennedy's death, he felt as if he had lost a friend.

"I was dealing with the death of not our president, but a man I got to sit down and have a chat with for 30 minutes," Deal said.

Jetie B. Wilds Jr., 73, told the dozen people gathered at the library Saturday that as a young African-American, he had been inspired by Kennedy.

"He had an aura about him that said, "You are a part of me and I am a part of you,' " Wilds said.

As a teacher at Booker T. Washington Junior High School at the time, Wilds went to hear Kennedy's speech at Al Lopez Field with his students.

Kennedy's death four days later didn't end Wilds' hope.

"It just meant for me," Wilds said, "that I had to do more good."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.