I grew up in Tampa, and 60 years ago, I watched President John F. Kennedy pass by in an open convertible during his visit to the city, the first ever by a sitting president.
Four days later, the nation reeled at the news of his assassination in Dallas.
It was one of those moments you never forget — where you were when you heard about it, and how it felt.
Twenty years ago, I wrote this remembrance for the Tampa Bay Times on the 40th anniversary of Kennedy’s death. I have edited a few details; the first time it ran, my brothers scolded me for not mentioning that our mother was there on the day we saw him.
But essentially this is unchanged, like the life-defining memory I can still see in my mind’s eye, and feel in my heart.
(Originally published Nov. 18, 2003)
Sixty years ago, on Nov. 18, 1963, President John F. Kennedy visited Tampa.
On a bright, beautiful fall day, he landed at MacDill Air Force Base at midday. He lunched at its Officers Club, spoke at Al Lopez Field, the International Inn and Fort Homer Hesterly Armory, and rode in a motorcade through downtown Tampa. He returned to the base to fly to Miami before dark.
He took a helicopter from the base to the ball field but traveled the rest of the route in a big navy blue Lincoln convertible, its top down in the balmy weather. Folks lined Grand Central Avenue (now Kennedy Boulevard), Franklin Street and Dale Mabry Highway to watch the charismatic young president pass by.
In fall of 1963, I was 11, a student in the sixth grade at St. Patrick’s Catholic School in Tampa. The parish, so new its raw concrete-block school had only been open a couple of years, was the southernmost on the Interbay peninsula. It served what was then an area of working-class neighborhoods: Rattlesnake, Port Tampa, Gandy Gardens, Ballast Point.
My two younger brothers and I attended St. Patrick’s. Named for the patron saint of Ireland, the school had several Irish priests, nuns and lay teachers on staff. What’s more, our father was Irish-American, the son of immigrants from Dublin and Tipperary. So Kennedy, Irish and Catholic, was not just any president. He was ours.
All the dark rumors of sexual escapades, mob connections and hidden health problems were not yet even whispers in our world. Kennedy was golden, and when we heard he was coming to Tampa as part of a trip warming up for the next year’s election, we were thrilled.
The president’s return route to MacDill would take him down Dale Mabry late in the afternoon, passing just blocks from St. Patrick’s. We had heard that some of the rich girls from the Academy of the Holy Names on Bayshore would get to go to the base to shake the president’s hand when he arrived, but we could see him even if we didn’t have connections.
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We fidgeted more than usual through Monday classes, then what seemed like most of the school tramped the 10 or so blocks to the now-vanished Dale Mabry railroad overpass just north of Gandy Boulevard. Several of our teachers and parents, including my mom, came along, trying to keep us in order but as excited as we were.
The road had no sidewalks, so we stood on the weedy verge and picked sandspurs out of our bobby socks, forming a jittery Irish banner in our green-and-white uniforms.
The motorcade was moving fast, and I remember one of the nuns warning us not to step into the road in our eagerness to see it.
I know from photos and written accounts that sirens were blaring and that Sen. George Smathers and Rep. Sam Gibbons rode in the back seat with Kennedy.
But my memory is of silence, of the people along the road holding their breath for a moment as the huge dark car flashed into view.
And in my mind’s eye I see only Kennedy in the back seat, his hand raised, grinning that dazzling grin as the golden sunlight of a late fall afternoon slants down. We had only a moment to cheer and return his wave as the big car tore south.
We talked about seeing the president all week, until the girls said “He’s so cute!” so many times that the boys got disgusted. “Presidents aren’t cute,” one snorted.
That Friday afternoon, we were daydreaming through the last class of the week when the buzz of the intercom broke in.
Our principal’s gentle voice told us to put down our books and take out our rosaries. “President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas. Dear children, please pray for his safety.”
We got orders to pray all the time, but not in the middle of a lesson. We knew this was all wrong. Kennedy couldn’t have been shot. He was the president, our president, especially now that we had seen him dashing right down Dale Mabry.
The beads rolled reassuringly through our fingers. Again, I remember silence, the silence before something indelible happens.
The intercom crackled again. The principal’s voice was breaking. “Children, dear children.” She took a breath. “Please pray for the repose of the soul of our president.”