President Kennedy's visit to Tampa on November 18, 1963, four days before Dallas, can be viewed as just one day in time. But it can also be seen as the culmination of a friendship that led, in part, to the city that Tampa has become.
The friendship was between two decorated heroes of World War II, John F. Kennedy and Sam Gibbons. After the war, Kennedy would return to Massachusetts and Gibbons would come home to Tampa. Both Democrats, they would go into politics and form a political and personal bond that reached a zenith on a happy day in Sam's hometown.
CELEBRATING AND CAMPAIGNING
President Kennedy needed votes in Florida for his 1964 re-election bid. He knew that Sam could help get them. The visit to Tampa, a Democratic stronghold at the time, turned into a celebration of the young, charismatic president.
"All the way, there were people jumping up and down screaming and hollering," recalled Sam, who rode in the limousine with President Kennedy.
Sam was 91, about a year before his death, when he told me about their friendship and the visit.
"Because of that friendship, I was able to do more for the people in this area," continued Sam.
Much of what the two did together still stands today. They helped establish USF and the Haley Veteran's Hospital. They were able to channel millions of federal dollars to deepen and expand the Port of Tampa. The first Head Start program in the nation was established in Tampa.
Back then, heavy rains flooded downtown Tampa.
"He (Kennedy) asked me what would it take to stop it. I said about $4 million. He said, 'You got it,'" recalled Sam.
The money began construction of the Tampa Bypass Canal and the beginning of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Clearly, Sam's relationship with the president paid many dividends.
THE LOST FRIEND AND PRESIDENT
"He and Sam really had quite a relationship," offered Clifford Gibbons, Sam's son, who lives in suburban Washington.
As a child, Clifford and his siblings played with the Kennedy children. The Gibbonses were at their home in Washington when the news came from Dallas. Sam was in his office.
"And some guy came running out of his office yelling, 'The president's been shot!' and I said, 'What president?,' And he said, 'President Kennedy.' I said, 'My god.'"
Sam's eyes went to the floor as he talked about it. He lost a friend. The nation lost a president.
"I do remember going as a family to see the president's casket in the Rotunda of the Capitol," said Clifford, his voice cracking. "It was a very moving experience."
Sam would go on to serve more than 30 years in Congress. But he never forgot the joy of hosting his friend in Tampa or the profound sadness of losing him in Dallas.
THIRD IN A SERIES: President John F. Kennedy visited Tampa on November 18, 1963, just four days before he was assassinated in Dallas. Lloyd Sowers interviewed seven people with special stories of the Tampa visit and how they were affected when the tragic news came from Dallas.
Many of the photos used in our series were taken by Tony Zappone, who was a 16-year-old high school student who managed to get a press pass for the Kennedy visit. Zappone's photos and memories are in a new book marking the 50th anniversary of JFK's 1963 visit to Tampa: http://www.jfktampa.com/
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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