Kennedy charisma overwhelms in last visit

Those who witnessed the president's Tampa visit remember how his confidence mesmerized the crowds.

By MARY EVERTZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 11, 1999


It's been 36 years, but St. Petersburg lawyer William Davenport remembers the day as if it were yesterday. As president of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, Davenport was invited to be on the platform with the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, at two of his speaking engagements in Tampa on Nov. 18, 1963.

Kennedy was the first president Davenport had ever seen. "He was certainly charismatic," Davenport recalls.

The Tampa Bay area was in a festive mood that Monday. It was the kind of day the Chamber of Commerce prays for: blue skies, balmy breezes, lots of sunshine. Everyone, no matter their political preference, was excited that the president was here. It was four days before Kennedy's fateful trip to Dallas.

Davenport was on the flag-draped stage at Al Lopez Field with Kennedy, Gov. Farris Bryant, Florida's U.S. Sen. George Smathers (he had been an usher in Kennedy's wedding), U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons, St. Petersburg Mayor Herman Goldner and Tampa Mayor Nick Nuccio.

"As soon as the President finished his talk, he surged out into the crowd, which immediately engulfed him. The Secret Service men with him went crazy," Davenport recalls.

Davenport, 72, was part of the motorcade that traveled Grand Central Avenue (now known as Kennedy Boulevard) to Fort Homer Hesterly Armory for Kennedy's speech before the Florida State Chamber of Commerce.

"It was weird being in the motorcade and we commented at every overpass (that) there were police officers with rifles on alert," Davenport recalls.

He said the Secret Service was so cautious that when the invitation for him to sit on the platform was delivered to his home, the courier would not leave it with his wife. "They had to see me in person so I could be identified before they would allow me on the platform," he recalls.

At 2 p.m. the band from the U.S. Naval Air Station in Jacksonville began to play. At 2:45 p.m. Gov. Bryant delivered the words everyone was waiting for: "Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States."

Kennedy entered -- handsome, tan and smiling -- to a standing ovation. He was wearing a dark suit (I was there and remember it being a midnight blue), a conservative tie and a white shirt, which showed a wide expanse of cuffs and cufflinks. Though he spoke on the economic conditions of the country for 20 minutes instead of the scheduled five, no one really heard what he said -- only how he said it. The audience was mesmerized.

Davenport says his friend Raleigh W. Greene Jr., a lawyer and savings and loan executive, had hired an off-duty St. Petersburg police officer to escort his family to the armory. "They let the officer in wearing his gun," says Davenport. Greene's widow Nancy doesn't remember the police officer, but she remembers the rushed nature of the day.

Kennedy was the second president the Greenes had seen. They once met President Harry Truman at an S&L conference. "When President Kennedy was elected, I was skeptical because I felt he was not sensitive to the problems of the South," Nancy Greene says. But when she saw him, she changed her mind.

"He looked so young and was so handsome . . . a knight in shining armor," she recalls.

Their son, Lee Greene, now a lawyer in St. Petersburg, turned 14 on Nov. 18 and as soon as the president finished speaking, his father took him and his brother Mike, 11, backstage to meet the chief executive. "I remember him smiling and saying, "Hi Lee. It is nice to meet you,' " says Greene, who will turn 50 on Nov. 18. "He shook my hand, and all I kept saying was "Yes, sir.' "

Before Lee Greene was allowed backstage, the Secret Service took his Brownie box camera away from him for security reasons. After the visit, they gave it back.

Sanford M. Goldman, 64, an architect in Brooksville, was working in St. Petersburg in 1963 when he and his sister Jane Silverberg attended the Kennedy speech. Goldman recalls that it was "so exciting . . . the dynamics . . . especially if you basically agreed with his philosophy of government.

"I had my camera, and I know I was standing at the side because of the angle of the pictures I took," Goldman says.

James R. Lyle, 79, was a trust officer for Exchange National Bank and was living in Tampa in November 1963. He also attended the armory speech.

"His talk was very impressive," says Lyle. Kennedy was the second president he had seen. The first was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, when Lyle was a cadet at Greenbriar Military School in West Virginia.

"I also remember how concerned everyone was when (Kennedy) stood up in the car as he rode through the streets of Tampa after his talk," Lyle remembers.

Many St. Petersburg residents who had traveled to Tampa to see Kennedy were lucky enough to see him again that day. As the bumper-to-bumper traffic moved slowly west toward the Howard Frankland Bridge, Kennedy's motorcade was traveling east on Grand Central.

By this time, he had made his third speech of the day, at the steelworkers' meeting at the International Inn at Tampa International Airport, and was heading for MacDill Air Force Base in south Tampa to board Air Force One.

Among the Tampa Police Deparment officers escorting the presidential motorcade throughout the day was Donald D. Hill. A motorcycle officer, Hill rode in front of the limo.

"We met the president at MacDill Air Force Base and escorted him everywhere he went that day," recalls Hill, 70, of Gulfport.

"When we returned to MacDill, the Chief of Police J.P. Mullins introduced each of us to the president. I remember as he shook our hands he looked us in the eye and said each of our names. It was thrilling. I didn't wash my hand for a week," he recalls.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.