I had left the Armory halfway through his speech so I could get back to the base for his departure. He arrived exactly on time. The Tampa police officers who had assisted with his motorcade and traffic control that day lined the side of Air Force One. He took the time to shake hands and talk to each individual officer before boarding his plane for a trip to Miami, where he was to attend a political fundraiser and spend the night before returning to Washington on Tuesday.
For reasons I do not know, I remained on the flat bed truck until his plane took off and flew out of sight. Fellow newsmen had to call me to come to the bus to be taken back to the hangar where Gary was waiting to take me to the Tribune building. There, I delivered only the roll of film with pictures of the motorcade, waited for the pictures to be printed, and got my negatives back.
Ive covered many visits by other presidents since then. None have ever been so anticipated or caused nearly the excitement as Kennedys. Of course, Tampa was a much smaller town in 1963 and humbled by the visit of such an esteemed and charismatic sitting president. No president since Kennedy has inspired young people the way he did.
Four days later, I still had images of his visit on a roll of film I hadnt taken out of the camera yet. I was sitting in Miss Allens journalism class at Jefferson High. I remember exactly the seat, the angle. Somebody ran into the class, whispered something in her ear, she started tearing and made the dreadful announcement that the President had been shot.
I've never seen a somber mood overtake a room so quickly. There were no sounds. The entire class went numb. It was as if a bolt of psychic Novocain had whipped over the whole student body. There was no discussion, no reaction, except from a few nonbelievers who refused to acknowledge what they heard was real. Others didnt want to accept it. There was, however, a great immediate sense in our minds that the President would be taken to the hospital and be just fine. John F. Kennedy could not die. He just couldnt. Many people, male and female, just cried. What was happening in America was something that just didnt happen.
There are many who feel the shooting and subsequent death of John Kennedy had more emotional impact than the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on New York's World Trade Center. Almost everybody had an emotional connection of some sort to President Kennedy. He was a father, a brother, a frienda special person who could always be counted upon to be there.
The world stopped. Everybody in the school was immediately dismissed and I took a city bus downtown. I remember filling in the bus driver on what I knew about the shooting, which wasnt much at that point. When I got off the bus downtown at Polk and Tampa Streets, groups of people were huddled around portable radios on street corners. Stores started to close. There were hardly any cars on the streetsanywhere. In less than a half hour, all of Tampa was totally silent. What a major difference from four days before, when Kennedy had stirred the spirits of crowds who lined his downtown travel route.