TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The black-and-white photos taken in Tampa on the afternoon of Nov. 18, 1963, seem softer now. The faces are happier, more hopeful.
For this city, it was the first visit for a sitting president. Thousands of people gathered along the streets just to get a glimpse of John F. Kennedy driving through in his black convertible limousine.
His trip to Florida, the last before his assassination 50 years ago, is remembered for its joy and optimism. People who saw him that day saw their own wishes and dreams in him, from civil rights to space exploration. They didn’t know it then, but their view of the nation would be irreparably changed just days later when the gunshots struck Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas. It was, in a way, one of the nation’s last innocent memories of its president.
“I marvel at the innocence of the pictures that we see in Tampa,” said Gerald Posner, a Miami Beach-based author of “Case Closed,” a book about the Kennedy assassination. “It was a different era, a time that will never likely be repeated in American politics. The ability to go through a major American city, a 26-mile motorcade, an open car, interacting with thousands of people along the way. It’s a slice of history that unfortunately belongs to a more innocent time.”
At times, Kennedy stood in the back of the car, waving and smiling at those in Tampa.
“Everyone thought he looked right at them and smiled right at them,” said Tony Zappone, who was 16 then and snapped photos for his high school yearbook.
Kennedy spent five hours in Tampa, making four stops in the city that day. In the afternoon, he flew to Miami and gave two more speeches condemning the communist threat. He returned to Washington, and then went on to Texas.
“Photos of that motorcade are so chilling to me because we know what’s coming up,” Posner said.
In Florida, people remembered Kennedy’s graciousness toward the crowds. And his accent and good looks.
“He had a head of beautiful chestnut hair,” recalled 74-year-old Bud Fultz, who saw Kennedy at the Miami airport. “He enthralled the crowd. He seemed to glisten. Everything about him was inspiring.”
To capture those reactions, a Tampa filmmaker has made a documentary about Kennedy’s visit here. It was released this month.
“I didn’t realize how visceral, how emotional of a topic it was,” said Lynn Marvin Dingfelder, the producer of “JFK in Tampa: the 50th Anniversary.” ”I had grown people crying during the interviews.”
The film coincides with an exhibit at the Tampa Bay History Center, which features several of Zappone’s photos, a video of a speech in Tampa and other memorabilia. A ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his visit will be held in Tampa on Monday.
Kennedy’s trip to Florida has become a footnote to history.
On Nov. 15, he flew from New York City to the family’s compound in Palm Beach. A day later, he traveled to Cape Canaveral, where he visited the Saturn Missile Control Center at what is now the Kennedy Space Center. He was shown an early Saturn rocket, similar to the ones that would take Americans to the moon before the end of the 1960s — just as Kennedy had vowed.
He returned to Palm Beach, stayed the following night there and on the morning of the 18th, he flew to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
Zappone said he left a flatbed truck of photographers so he could get a better photo of Kennedy and shake his hand.
“To get that close was a dream I never anticipated,” said Zappone, who later wrote a book about that day.
Kennedy then went to Al Lopez Field and gave a speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first scheduled passenger airplane flight. He spoke of plans for people to “fly at five times the speed of sound” before the end of century.
He also talked to the state Chamber of Commerce at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory and spoke to a group of union steelworkers at a Tampa hotel.
To many, it was as if Kennedy was campaigning for re-election. While Florida had only 10 electoral votes then and wasn’t the prize it is now, Kennedy seemed to sense the state’s importance to the nation.
“Kennedy had lost Florida in 1960 and he didn’t want to lose it again in 1964,” Dingfelder said.
Video clips from the trip showed the president plunging into the crowd after speaking, eager to shake hands. To a modern-day viewer, the access seems almost frightening.
Secret Service agents interviewed in Dingfelder’s film said they had received threats against Kennedy before the Tampa visit and kept track of suspicious people by putting photos, names and addresses on index cards.
People in Florida — especially in Tampa — looked at his Dallas trip and wondered “what if” the assassination had happened here.
“But ours had a happy ending,” Dingfelder said. “Ours was a joyous occasion.”