John F. Kennedy: A President, A Kid and His Camera
Fifty years ago, young people longed to get a glimpse of President Kennedy in person and even dreamed of shaking his hand. Both came true for me 50 years ago this month.
President John F. Kennedy came to Tampa November 18, 1963 to spend five hours among our people, to make a few speeches, and cruise through Tampa streets to get a good feel of our City in what was his second longest continuous exposure to the public, his appearance in Berlin earlier in that summer being the longest. It was to be his final major visit to an American city.
People of all political persuasions loved President Kennedy and young people were his biggest fans. My mother was quite smitten with him as a young Senator from Massachusetts and candidate for president. She spoke about him often. He was elected chief executive in one of the closest contests in the history of our country, by barely a hundred-thousand popular votes nationwide, on November 8, 1960.
I remember so well my mother, who was ill at the time, being so excited about his being the next President. She passed away five days after his election. It was a tragic loss for me and in my 13-year-old mind, the best way I could preserve the connection with my mom was to latch on to the guy she liked for president. I was very fond of him myself so it wasn’t difficult.
So enamored with the charismatic and widely admired chief executive, I would run home from school more than two miles every Wednesday to watch his regularly televised 3:30 p.m. press conference held in the old State Department auditorium. I was totally unfamiliar with most of the issues he discussed but, like many young people of the time, I just liked watching him and listening to his Boston accent. There was this lady reporter, a bit eccentric, who he’d always call on if things got dull and she would ask some bizarre question and he would give a like response and the whole press corps would crack up. That part itself was worth the tiring run home each week.
In 1962, I began taking sports photos at my school, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Academy. The coach there, Jerome Sierra, had connections at the Tampa Tribune and introduced me to the new sports editor, Tom McEwen. McEwen agreed to use some of my good photos and it wasn’t long before he was assigning me to shoot photos of sporting events at other schools…and even some professional events.
From sports to news, I became a free-lance fixture at the Tribune so in November of 1963 when I found out President Kennedy was coming to town I knew I just had to meet him–no matter what.
The announcement came about five days before his visit, apparently for security reasons. I found out that press credentials for the Presidential appearances were being issued by Jim Metcalf of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. I danced down Lafayette Street (now Kennedy Blvd.) to the Chamber offices. Metcalf explained that if I was to get credentials I’d have to be representing a legitimate media source. The Tribune already had their own people for the assignment.
I quickly sprang back to my school, Jefferson High (the old one, on Highland Avenue just off Columbus Drive and Tampa Street) and sought letters stating I would be representing the yearbook and school paper, the Jeffersonian. I figured that would work. Alexine Allen, Jeffersonian advisor, and Ethyl Schilling, chairman of the English Department and yearbook sponsor, were happy to write the letters–if only to get rid of me for a day.
Back at the Chamber, my heart pounded as I handed Metcalf the letters. He looked them over, shook his head in reluctance but finally caved in and gave me my “all areas” pass to wear around my neck. I accepted it as a professional, bounded out the door, and danced around town for an hour. I didn’t care that people might think I’d gone mad. It was a highlight of my life–just getting that pass.
For the best part of the last fifty years I have pondered on just what words I could use to convey the excitement, the thrill, and the exhilaration if seeing John F. Kennedy for the first time. Just the thought that I would soon be in his presence sent chills up my spine. More than that, I have wanted to find the right words to tell the many generations that followed, whose members would never know firsthand the Kennedy phenomenon, just what it felt like. I have always been for lack of words in communicating the fire that burned for Kennedy in the hearts of so many Americans who were just happy he was the President, no matter what he did, no matter what party he belonged to.
Yes, he had detractors and some of those were passionate. Their means of communicating what was in some cases hatred for JFK was limited in 1963. There was no Email, no Facebook. They had to settle for word of mouth, threatening letters and, eventually, gunfire. Most who disliked the President did so because of his politics or policies but liked him as a person. I cared not one bit what his politics were. At my age at the time, I saw no connection between them and me.
I was on cloud nine, waiting for the following Monday to come around. All I had to do was plan for that day; figure out how I was going to get around through the traffic and the crowds with the biggest consideration being that I had no car.
Gary Williams, a longtime school buddy who did have wheels, offered to shuttle me that day. We mapped out a strategy that included him taking me to each venue on the President’s itinerary, letting me out to wait for the President, take photos that I needed, and me returning to the car for a quick trip in advance of Kennedy’s next stop. The plan worked beautifully.
November 18, 1963 was a great morning with a crisp chill, absolutely perfect for a visit by the nation’s top banana. I sprung from bed with the energy of a nuclear power plant and was ready to go in no time. I don’t think I even had breakfast; unusual for me, food was the least of my priorities that day. My hunger, if there was any, never registered.
Gary picked me up at my home in Palmetto Beach, not far south of Ybor City, and we were off to MacDill Air Force Base where JFK was set to arrive at around 11:24 a.m. We zipped through the base’s Bayshore gate and were pointed in the direction of Hangar One where the press was being assembled. I found a place for Gary to park and he knew to remain with his car in that same spot until I returned.
Not long after our arrival, the press people were asked to board buses for a ride to the spot on the tarmac where Air Force One would land. There we were shown a flatbed truck that we could stand on that would give us the best vantage point to photograph the landing and arrival ceremonies.
My system was bubbling over with eagerness. I knew that within a short time I would see my hero–the man I watched each week on television–the President who appeared almost nightly on the evening news. He would be before me in the flesh. It seemed others were equally excited but I was too busy keeping control of my own self to be concerned with those around me.
I didn’t have a watch so I kept looking around at those of others’. I could see
Air Force One was within minutes of landing and suddenly it appeared in the sky. The Big Man was inside.
The huge aircraft came thundering from the sky onto the runway and taxied to our area within a hundred or so feet of where I was standing. The second it came to a halt, steps where wheeled up to its door, which immediately opened. The jet noise was still winding down when suddenly a herd of national press people emerged and made a beeline for the flatbed I was on.
They came with a vengeance and tried to edge me out of my place. They just took over the place but I fought for my vantage point and refused to budge–and I won.
It wasn’t but a minute or two later that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, in all his splendor, emerged from the Presidential aircraft. Seeing him for the first time, I had to pinch myself to make certain the moment was real. I was not at all disappointed, matter of fact he was more than I had imagined. Superman could have flown overhead at that moment and I wouldn’t have noticed.
Kennedy was flanked by military and political dignitaries including U.S. Senator George Smathers, who was an usher in his wedding and U.S. Representatives Sam Gibbons and Claude Pepper (D-Miami). They paused at attention while the Star Spangle Banner was played, followed by the traditional “Hail to the Chief.” Kennedy shook hands, as many as he could, and walked a few feet to formally review the colors.
Once past the flags, he disappeared to the other side of the military formation and out of my sight. “This is not good,” I thought to myself. “I’m here and he’s there–I’ve got to get there.” I had no idea what the President was doing but I bolted from the flat bed about six feet down to the tarmac and darted past the military formations to find out what was going on. I arrived just in time to photograph Kennedy shaking the hands of school children who had come to the base to see his arrival.
The President was famous for breaking away to shake hands, particularly if they were being extended by a group of young people.
The first hand he shook was that of Rosemary Weekley, an eight year old pupil at the Academy of the Holy Names and daughter of Robert and Rose Weekley. The Weekleys just happened to be friends of mine, part owners of Tampa Photo Supply, the place where I bought all my cameras, film and other equipment. They had sold me the film I was using that day.
I didn’t arrive in time to catch Rosemary and the President but an Associated Press photographer did and the photo was transmitted throughout the country within an hour.
After briefly greeting the crowds of school children and military families that came to see his arrival, JFK walked to an awaiting limousine that would whisk him to the base officer’s club for lunch and meetings with military staff.
While he was waiting for his limo to move, I ran towards him to shake his hand and to photograph him. He looked stunned by my swift movement–I slowed down. When he realized I was friendly he relaxed a bit. He was kind enough to wave as I took his photo, with base commander Paul D. Adams sitting next to him. Then I walked up to him and shook his hand, welcoming him to Tampa.
The Secret Service man sitting in the front seat was not happy with my exchange with the President and ordered the limo to move out and so it did, quite rapidly. My time with the President lasted less than ten seconds but it was truly worth it. My buddy from television station WTVT, Tim Moran, got the whole thing on film but he was standing behind the President unfortunately. Tim later became an attorney and recently retired from his Tampa law practice.
Kennedy spent about forty minutes on base, talking to military people and getting briefed on current operations. Then he was taken by limousine to an awaiting helicopter to be lifted to the former Al Lopez Field (demolished years ago to make way for Raymond James Stadium).
Three helicopters proceeded to the ball park, two of them bearing the President, accompanying local leaders and Tampa’s representatives in Washington plus the Secret Service and two of them decoys sent along for security reasons. If anybody wanted to target the President’s helicopter they would have to guess the one he was in. To show you how times have changed, today’s President has five decoys.
An enthusiastic, cheering crowd greeted the President’s party as it emerged from the helicopter about 200 feet from the staging area at Al Lopez Field. The occasion was the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the first commercial air flight in the nation, which took place between Tampa and St. Petersburg in 1914 piloted by Tony Jannus, also a posthumous honoree.
Among the politicos present on stage with the President was then Tampa Mayor Nick Nuccio, the iconic political leader in Hillsborough County who spoke somewhat broken English. You could easily understand him but his dialect was different. There were some who wanted to keep Nuccio away from Kennedy because of this but the President wouldn’t have it. JFK kept asking for “Mr. Nick” and wanted him nearby at all time. “Where’s Mr. Nick,” Kennedy would repeat.
It was at Al Lopez that I took one of my favorite photos and one that has been used so often in books and newspapers over the last half century. I was focusing in to take a close-up of JFK as he sat on the platform waiting to speak to the crowd. Suddenly he began to laugh at something one of the other speakers said and I quickly snapped. I didn’t know exactly what my exposure was, what the speed was–didn’t know much of anything at the time….but it turned out to be the best picture of the day.
Nine months later, I presented copies of the photos I took that day to the President’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy at his Department of Justice office. My favorite photo was his as well, although I could tell the sadness in his eyes when he looked over my work.
In 1963, there was no digital photography and cameras weren’t so automatic as they are today, requiring lots of technical skill on the part of the photographer if he wanted to get it right. I have to admit it was an accident but I did get it right in the case of the close-up. The photograph was used in the creation of a historical marker placed in downtown Tampa at Franklin Street and Kennedy Boulevard marking the spot Kennedy’s limousine turned north to proceed through what was then the city’s main retail business district. The historical plaque was set to be dedicated on November 22, 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination.
Over four decades later, a dear friend of mine and president of the cigar tobacco supply giant Oliva Tobacco Company, John E. Oliva, would be an accomplished Photoshop buff and generously offer to put my aged photos into better shape by removing scratches, spots and making other technical improvements. John once even took time from his administrative duties to work over some of my photos I needed quickly. Having him come into my life was a pure stroke of luck.
It struck me that the Al Lopez Field event had been concocted to give Kennedy something to do while thousands of people gawked in amazement that the chief executive of our entire nation took time to visit our southern City and spend unprecedented Presidential time here. In his usual inimitable Kennedy style, he read from a prepared speech about the commercial air flight the event was supposed to commemorate.
Once the festivities were complete, the President broke away and began shaking some of the hands of hundreds who challenged the fencing and leaned over to get his attention. This seemed to always be his favorite time at any occasion. Secret Service personnel were not amused with the challenges presented at the field when spectators began to lean so far over they came close to falling onto JFK. However, they did manage some mild form of decorum that precluded a disaster.
The President took time to speak briefly with Roland Manteiga, editor of Ybor’s La Gaceta tri-lingual newspaper, whom Congressman Sam Gibbons had introduced him to. In addition to exchanging the usual courtesies, Kennedy gave Manteiga assurances of his continued firm dealings with Fidel Castro, whose Cuba was then the subject of a Kennedy-imposed trade embargo placed after the Cuban Missile Crisis. That trade embargo is still in effect fifty years later.
From there, JFK was whisked to the main limousine for what would be a nearly eight mile ride, the long way, to Ft. Homer Hesterly Armory. Since the presidential party was exempt from stopping at red lights it took just over 20 minutes for the motorcade to proceed south on Dale Mabry to Grand Central Avenue (now Kennedy Blvd.), merging into Lafayette Street (also now Kennedy Blvd.) at the University of Tampa and on to downtown’s Franklin Street where it turned left and proceeded north.
I had arrived downtown about 15 minutes before the motorcade would pass through in order to find the best spot to make my photographs. There was heavy shade on Franklin Street because the buildings on both sides blocked the early afternoon sun. I knew the only hope for getting a decent photo was to catch the President’s car as it passed through an intersection where the sun would be shining through unobstructed.
I decided to place myself at the Zack Street intersection and take one photo with a 200mm telephoto lens as the motorcade passed through Twiggs, then quickly switch cameras to get a second shot as it went by me at Zack.
As I waited for the motorcade, I took some photos of the people waiting eagerly for a look at their hero. Kennedy at that time was as much a celebrity as he was President. He was charming, appealing to women, had a great sense of humor and a perfect television presence. He was a star and the people were waiting to see that star. There were foot police on each side of the street for crowd control. In 1963, the crowds were mannerly and remained where they were supposed to for the most part.
Occasionally a motorcycle officer would ride by just to assert a greater presence and to be sure the way was completely clear for the President.
Suddenly I began hearing sirens in the distance though I couldn’t tell just how far. Then it seemed like they were getting closer and closer at a pretty rapid clip.
Three good-sized blocks away I could see police cars, motorcycle patrolmen and automobiles rounding the corner at Layfayette and heading in my direction. I knew the President had to be very close behind. What surprised me was the speed. Somehow, in my naiveté, I had presumed the car bearing Kennedy would be going slow so everybody could get a good look at him. That wasn’t the case.
Once again, my heart began pumping because I quickly realized that I had only ONE chance to get a good shot of the motorcade coming through the chosen intersection. If I didn’t hit the button at exactly the right moment, all bets would be off. The newspaper editors would be peeved at me and probably never trust me again.
Finally, I could see what looked like a limousine that the President would be in. It was coming fast. I steadied my camera at the intersection and when I saw his car I hit the shutter button. Without any thinking, I grabbed my other camera, pointed it in front of me and took a second picture. At that point I had absolutely no idea what I had gotten.
At the same time, a motorcycle patrolman brushed my arms and elbows in a seeming effort to get me off to the side. I had already gotten the picture but I was stunned by being grazed by the cycle. I quickly recovered and was not injured–just a bit shaken. I couldn’t believe someone would do that.
Forty-three years later that officer, Russell Groover, looked me up seeking a copy of the motorcade photo for the cover of a book he wrote on his Tampa police career. Sure enough, he was on the right side of the photo and was headed directly for me. He told me that during a briefing that morning the officers were ordered to mow anybody down who was on the street along the motorcade route when the President went by. It was only because he had seen me often around the police station and knew of my harmlessness that he let me get by with a scratch. I thanked him for sparing my life and gave him the photo to use free of charge.
The first picture turned out perfect. The President was standing on the right side of the car, Gibbons was sitting on the left. You could see the crowds, the police, even the bank building in the background that decades later would become the current headquarters of the Tampa Police Department. In the second photo, taken directly in front of me with another camera and a normal lens and which came out slightly blurred, showed the back of the President’s head as he was sitting and waving at the people line on the opposite (east) side of the street.
The limousine used in the Tampa motorcade was the same one he would be riding at the time of his assassination in Dallas, Texas four days later.
What I didn’t realize until more than 40 years had passed that it was practically a miracle I had gotten a usable motorcade picture at all. In addition to the technical challenges I faced, Kennedy had been sitting in his car for most of the long trip and only decided to stand intermittently while he was in the downtown area. Had he been sitting as he crossed Twiggs Street he would have been totally blocked by a Secret Service agent in the front seat and glare from the windshield. I would have gotten NOTHING! Thanks for standing for me, Mr. President.
Once I had the two pictures in camera I raced back to a spot in the next block on Tampa Street where Gary was waiting to speed us off to Ft. Homer Hesterly Armory. By the time we got through the traffic and he dropped me off, the President had already arrived. He was still behind the stage, though, so I was there when he came out into the public.
It was supposed to be the annual meeting of the Florida Chamber of Commerce but I learned it was scheduled hastily and the audience was composed mostly of members of the public who wanted to see the President.
At one point I had my camera zeroed in on Kennedy as he sat waiting to speak. I was ready to snap a photo when he suddenly reached down to tie his shoe. WOW, what a great photo this would be and I instinctively hit the shutter button and lit the stage with a quick flash–alerting the President he’d been had. He stopped what he was doing, starred me right in the eyes, and gave me the meanest look anybody had ever attempted. He was mad. I was embarrassed and ashamed. Further, I didn’t know if he was going to have me thrown in prison or executed on the spot.
The moment passed but there hasn’t been a day that’s gone by since that I haven’t remembered that look and realized how few people get the undivided attention of the President of the United States for five or ten seconds in such a pissed off way.
I was soon approached by JFK’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, who very kindly asked me not to publish the photo. He never told me why but I was scared after the President’s facial rebuke and promised to keep the photo to myself. Over the years, I learned that his shoelaces often came loose because the severe pain in his back from war injuries precluded him from bending over long enough to tie them properly. I have continued to honor the promise.
As I was set to leave the huge armory hall, I thought it would be a good thing to take an overall picture of the crowd and the President as he spoke. There were steps in the northeast corner of the room so I headed in that direction. I climbed up halfway, got my camera focused and aimed where I wanted, and heard footsteps coming rapidly from above. I snapped a photo very quickly, just one, and moved on down to the main floor. It was a police officer and he was pointing for me to continue back to ground level.
Following Kennedy’s talk to those assembled, mostly about the economy, deficits, inflation–all the same things presidents talk about today–he departed in his limo with then Florida Gov. Farris Bryant, Gibbons and Smathers for the old International Inn where he was to talk to the United Steelworkers local union about labor matters.
His party entered onto Gray Street, then to Armenia and south to Grand Central. They proceeded west about four or five miles to the next venue.
The International Inn, at that time on the southwest corner of Westshore Boulevard and Grand Central Avenue, was packed with people there for one purpose only–to see President Kennedy. It didn’t appear that the Secret Service had planned for the President to be mobbed as he moved through the hallways and to be touched, poked, goosed and moved about as he was. The chief executive took it gracefully, likely used to being subjected to such close encounters from time to time.
Inside the room, hundreds of invited guests and labor executives sat to listen to what the President had to say. Most, however, didn’t hear his words for concentrating on the accent, the mannerisms and the style he had become so famous for. Prior to his talk, Ybor City Alcalde Marcelo Maseda presented Kennedy, an avid cigar smoker, with a box of premium cigars handmade in Ybor. The President looked especially pleased with the gift. Maseda had brought his young daughter, Marlene, along to give JFK a Latin doll for daughter Caroline. Marlene, now Marlene Maseda Lee, recently retired after a 35-year career with Delta Airlines.
The talk before the labor union was the last stop on the President’s schedule before returning to MacDill and Air Force One for his return trip to Washington.
His limousine headed east on Grand Central for Dale Mabry where his entourage would go right and south all the way to the air base. Once there they took the shortest route, straight across the expansive tarmac and on to final ceremonies before his right-on-time departure, 4:25p.m.
There were no microphones and the President had no final words. However, he insisted that all the motorcycle patrolmen who had assisted with the motorcades that day line up so he could shake their hands and thank each one of them personally. Tampa Police Chief J. P. Mullin and Hillsborough County Sheriff Ed Blackburn stood proudly off to the side as Kennedy edged along the line of officers and greeted each one.
A few of the lawmen became so nervous they forgot their names. JFK seemed to understand and gave them time to gather their thoughts. The meeting with the motorcycle officers was pleasant and appreciated by all. From there, the President headed straight to his airplane, waved enthusiastically when he got to the top of the steps and boarded. That very same second, the engines started. His pilots didn’t waste a second.
I felt a sense of sadness as his jet went airborne and disappeared into the sky. I would never see him again. The man I grabbed onto after the death of my mother was now gone also.
Over the years, I’ve felt great frustration in not being able to convey the feeling of having someone like Kennedy as head of our country. He was intelligent, witty, sensitive, poetic, classy, humorous, royal yet very quick to apologize for mistakes–and he made a few.
Exactly one week to the hour that I shook his hand, I was watching his funeral on television with millions of others. The world had stopped for four entire days. Humanity was numbed. We had all lost our very best friend. Nobody knew what the next step would be but somehow we got through it.
John F. Kennedy left a mark on America that will not soon fade away, if ever. He sparked a mindset of courage, sacrifice and excellence in so many areas of American life–a mindset that survives today as part of his legacy.
Like many others, I still miss the man and I’m saddened that so many people who came before and after him were never afforded a personal dose of the greatness he apportioned to those he touched with his ideas and his wit, and who were influenced by his ideals of equality and openness.
The most we can do now is develop and demonstrate our own style of the greatness within us, aspiring to do the very best we can at all we do, and keeping in mind the final words President Kennedy spoke so eloquently and simply in his 1961 inaugural address:
“… with a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
Featured in Cigar City - Issue 45 - 2013
Read more details about the author’s experience with President Kennedy with text and photos in his new book: John F. Kennedy: A President, A Kid and His Camera available in bookstores soon or now by going to jfktampa.com.