Fifty years ago, only four days before a bullet in Dallas changed a nation, President John F. Kennedy belonged to Tampa. And for that moment, he was ours.
Imagine: This month marks a half-century since one of the worst things to happen in America, the assassination of a president. With this anniversary will come much discussion of that moment and what happened after, of history and change, and inevitably, of conspiracy theories, grassy knolls and second shooters.
A documentary produced and written by Lynn Marvin Dingfelder — JFK in Tampa: The 50th Anniversary, debuting at the Tampa Theatre on Thursday and sponsored in part by the Times — is not that. It is, as she puts it, "Tampa's day in the sun" before the worst happened.
Dingfelder started on it two years ago, culling photos and voices, asking people who were there for memories and dusty home movies. Each was "like a Christmas present," she says — what would they find in there?
Plenty, it turned out.
On Nov. 18, 1963, with another election approaching, Kennedy wanted Florida. So on that warm Monday, he landed in Tampa for an event like this city had never seen. No sitting president had come here, and this one was a rock star. Crowds in those old movies sound like they're greeting the Beatles.
The president visited MacDill and Al Lopez Field and the armory. He rode downtown and all around, 28 miles all told, in that same open convertible he would ride in in Dallas.
There he is in photos and on film, handsome and smiling with the minarets of the University of Tampa behind him, getting a doll from a little girl, passing Tampa storefronts and Tampa faces. There is a story about the empty seat you see beside him onstage as he gives a speech. I'm not telling.
And where but here would kids from West Tampa Junior High play the very Latin Macarena bullfighting song for the president?
Dingfelder, a longtime TV reporter, along with Larry Wiezycki, her partner in this project, wove stories from familiar faces who went on to be politicians, judges, restaurateurs and activists, and of ordinary folk, too. What's striking is the difference in their perspectives from a single day: the African-American girl who saw the president wave at her and ran home to tell her mother, the girl who wore her red dress because he could not miss her in it, the teenager asked by the president himself why he wasn't in school. Catholics, who saw one of their own.
And there are details that might have been lost, like Secret Service men so pre-Internet they gave local officers pictures of dangerous suspects on 3x5 index cards to carry.
There's Jack Espinosa, chronicler of Ybor City now in his 80s, talking of being introduced to the president when he was a beginning teacher and what Kennedy said that makes him well up even now. Congressman Sam Gibbons, who stood with his friend the president that day, was interviewed before his passing last year. That's a gift.
And to a person, you knew they would never forget Tampa's moment, the day the president saw us.
John Romano's column will resume soon.