Nov 22, 2023 - News

Days before assassination, JFK made historic visit to Tampa

 Clipping from the Tampa Tribune, Nov. 18, 1963, via Newspapers.com

Clipping from the Tampa Tribune, Nov. 18, 1963, via Newspapers.com

Four days before President John F. Kennedy rode in a motorcade through downtown Dallas, where shots rang out and sent a nation into mourning, a throng of Tampa residents flanked a road with no sidewalks to see him.

Why it matters: Kennedy's day-long visit to Tampa on Nov. 18, 1963 — the city's first ever by a sitting president — was his final travel destination before his assassination.

  • Today marks the 60th anniversary of the president's death.

Flashback: Kennedy touched down at MacDill Air Force Base, where Tampa Mayor Nick Nuccio, U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons and U.S. Sen. George Smathers stood at hand to welcome him.

  • He gave speeches at Al Lopez Field, the International Inn, and Fort Homer Hesterly Armory, then drove through Dale Mabry, Grand Central, Franklin and a road now called Kennedy Boulevard.
  • Public schools allowed students to go and see Kennedy if they carried a note from their parents. Some closed for a half day, the Tampa Tribune reported.

What they said: "President Kennedy, looking fit and tanned, displayed an awesome political weapon — a witty needle — and his usual Irish charm during a whirlwind tour of Tampa," the Tampa Bay Times wrote.

  • One writer said Kennedy's visit "marked the growing maturity" of "the St. Petersburg-Tampa area." Another said the "Suncoast smiled on the president."

Days later, in its coverage of the assassination, the Tampa Bay Times pondered a "chilling" thought: "Could it have happened in Tampa?"

  • "Was there someone in that crowd at Al Lopez Field… along the streets… at the armory… at any spot along the way… with the thought of killing the president?" journalist Don Meiklejohn wrote.
  • The Times reported that a Santa Claus parade planned for the day after the killing was postponed a week, while some stores closed up shop and religious groups hosted local memorials.

Of note: Signs of Tampa's brush with history linger to this day.

  • The most noticeable, Kennedy Boulevard, was named in the president's honor the year after his death. And a statue of the president facing the street sits on the University of Tampa campus.
  • A plaque in JFK's honor was installed at Lykes Gaslight Park a decade ago to mark the 50th anniversary of his visit.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that Tampa was Kennedy's last travel destination prior to his assassination. He visited other Texas cities on his tour of the state prior to Dallas.

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