In Tampa, Catholics revered President Kennedy as their own

President Kennedy stops to shake hands with young admirers after his arrival in Tampa. Sister Mary Patricia Plumb greeted the president with her fifth-graders when he arrived at MacDill.
President Kennedy stops to shake hands with young admirers after his arrival in Tampa. Sister Mary Patricia Plumb greeted the president with her fifth-graders when he arrived at MacDill.
Published Nov. 19, 2013

TAMPA — Tom Morgan was 5 the year John F. Kennedy came to town. His Catholic mother, under the spell of Jackie Kennedy, liked to dress him in suits with short pants, like John John, the famous White House son.

Morgan recalls peering down from bleachers at the old Al Lopez Field in Tampa on Nov. 18, 1963, and getting a look at the first Catholic president in U.S. history. His hair looked lighter than it did on TV.

"He looked right up at us," said the Rev. Morgan, now pastor of St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa. "I waved to him."

The priest's next memory was etched four days later: his mother, locked in her room, crying for hours.

By no means were Catholics sole sufferers of the grief that consumed America after the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas. People of many faiths and political beliefs were stunned and saddened. But among Catholics, the loss felt personal. And those in Tampa still had images of the president fresh in their minds.

"The world that he had just left here was one of celebration and jubilation," said Liana Fernandez Fox, 66, a retired Hillsborough Community College math professor who watched the presidential motorcade pass her uncle's store on Franklin Street.

In a half-day visit to Tampa, Kennedy made the city feel connected to things that mattered.

He waved, looked people in the eye, smiled boyishly and spoke the words "Tampa" and "Florida," sounding impossibly familiar now in old videos. He ate lunch at MacDill Air Force Base. He rode an open convertible through the city.

There he was, near a television station on Grand Central Avenue, a street later renamed for him. There he was, yards from someone's bungalow, its porch crowded with spectators.

It was a Monday but even nuns skipped school.

"We were very, very proud he had been elected," said Sister Mary Patricia Plumb of Academy of the Holy Names, 76, who greeted the president with her fifth-graders when he arrived at MacDill Air Force Base.

She tapped pupil John Gibbons, first cousin to the late U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons, to put his finest penmanship into a short note from the class to the president.

"I remember that I had to write it and rewrite it and rewrite it a number of times," now-lawyer John Gibbons said, "because it had to be perfect. It just had to be perfect."

Retired lobbyist Kathy Betancourt, then 17, intentionally wore her uniform from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic School in Ybor City, reveling in what felt like Catholic clout.

"You knew you would stand out if you wore your uniform," she said. "There would be all these pagans around. He would certainly notice people in uniform and look at you."

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The president was the first famous person she saw life-sized, not shrunk by a television tube. She thought he was better looking than Troy Donahue, the sex symbol of the '50s and '60s.

Kennedy was a natural for Tampa, heavily Democratic. He took 56 percent of the 1960 vote in Hillsborough County, compared with 36 percent in Pinellas County, which, like much of Florida, sided with Richard Nixon.

Plumb, the nun, recalls that even in Pinellas County, Kennedy had won a mock election at St. Cecelia Catholic School.

The core values he espoused were familiar to Catholics.

"He talked about helping other nations and caring about the poor and civil rights," Betancourt said. "He was implementing the Eight Beatitudes. He was implementing through his public policy what Jesus taught, which is very important when you're a Catholic."

Rev. Morgan, as a boy, felt influenced enough by his brush with Kennedy to consider a career in law and politics. He had started on that path at Florida State University before answering the call to seminary. "President Kennedy, just his presence, had that much of an impact in my life," he said. "Up to the time I was in high school, I wanted to be like President Kennedy."

The Nov. 18, 1963, tour of Tampa started with a hop by helicopter from MacDill Air Force Base to Al Lopez Field, directly north of what is now Raymond James Stadium. After a speech at Al Lopez, the motorcade went south to Grand Central, east to downtown Tampa, north on Franklin Street and then west on Cass Street to the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.

There, Kennedy spoke to the Florida Chamber of Commerce, at one point paraphrasing Jacob Marley's ghost in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and telling the business leaders that "mankind is our business."

Monsignor Robert Gibbons, older brother to letter-writer John, remembers sitting near the front of the armory. He was a freshman at Jesuit High School. "It was as if our city had finally been discovered," he said.

And it was as if Catholics had finally gained acceptance.

The Kennedys weren't Catholics in name only, but practicing ones who attended Mass regularly, said Gibbons, now pastor of St. Paul Catholic Church in St. Petersburg.

"Catholics felt the Kennedys were proud of us and proud to be associated with us."

It went both ways.

Jackie Kennedy would wear a mantilla — a long, lacy veil — to church and the next Sunday, Latin Catholics in Tampa would break out their mantillas.

President Kennedy had broken through obstacles for Catholics seeking political office, going up against fears that the pope would be running the White House.

"In your teenage brain," Betancourt said, "you're thinking, what kind of order would the pope give them that they wouldn't like? Go to Mass? Don't eat meat?"

It was a different era.

Clergy scandals seldom became public and abortion rights hadn't yet become fodder for politicians.

When it was time to explain sex to 10th-graders at the all-girl Sacred Heart Academy, it happened during religion class. The nuns disappeared and a priest stepped in, covering up the religion textbook with a newspaper.

That's how Fox, the retired Hillsborough Community College math professor, recalls those times. She grew up in a Latin Catholic family that needed little excuse to bake a cake and have a party. A good report card would do. But she recalls the collective grief that blanketed households in the fall of 1963. Her Cuban-born father, who immigrated as a child, was devastated by Kennedy's death. "There was no radio music, no playing music, no singing music, just a somber tone for several months," she said.

That's what people did for family members.

That's what they did for Kennedy.

An earlier version of this story stated an incorrect first name for Liana Fernandez Fox.

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at or (813) 226-3382.