Tampa Says Goodbye to
John F. Kennedy
by Arch Deal
Arch Deal was WFLA-TV's anchorman for the 6 and 11pm news. On November 18, 1963, he performed double duty as a field reporter during President John F. Kennedy's visit to Tampa.
There is at least one event that
stands out in the career of any newsman who worked in Tampa news media in
November of 1963. It was the
day-long visit of America’s youthful 35th President of the United
States, John F. Kennedy.
Up to that point The Gasparilla
Pirate Invasion and Parade had been the biggest news gathering project for us.
But Gasparilla happened every year and was very predictable.
A visit like this from John F. Kennedy was once in a lifetime, as we
later found out. Even though
reporters had his schedule we really didn’t know exactly what to expect.
Everybody looked forward to
Kennedy’s trip here. It was the
first time an American president had ever come to Tampa to spend nearly an
entire day and with so many different appearances scheduled.
President Kennedy's afternoon in
Tampa would be much different from the campaign stop he made here in October of
1960. I was assigned as a WFLA
reporter to cover Kennedy's speech on the west (Pierce Street) side of the old
Hillsborough County Courthouse, which at that time housed most county government
offices. I was pretty neutral about
his visit then although lots of others influenced by the national media were
beginning to be enamored with the youthful energy of the rising political star.
There was a sizeable crowd of people there and we covered his stop live.
By the fall of 1963, we in the
news business knew Kennedy had some political vulnerability in Florida and the
1964 presidential campaign was closing in.
I think Kennedy and his political advisors sensed there were many voters who
were smitten by the JFK
persona but were not keen on him politically and felt he had made some serious
blunders, particularly in his failure to back CIA-trained invaders from the
United States during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion designed to liberate Cuba
from the rule of Fidel Castro. His trip to Tampa and Miami early that week was
designed to strengthen some political alliances, somewhat the same purpose as
was his trip to Dallas at the end of that week.
Kennedy’s November 18, 1963
visit did not require us to spend a great deal of time with logistical
planning…just making sure that close to a dozen staffers were planted in the
right places, got their film shot, and returned to the station in time to ease
production of the evening news. We
gathered in reporters and stringers from every bureau to help in the effort that
However, getting ready for the
evening news coverage of the President’s activities would be somewhat more complex than we were used to and required extraordinary coordination.
We were not only preparing coverage of the visit for the 6 o’clock
report but we were producing a half hour special on his visit to be broadcast at
7:30 that evening.
My reportorial responsibility in the field that day was
to cover President Kennedy's arrival at MacDill Air Force Base.
I arrived at the Officer’s Club about 15 minutes before him, just
before noon. At that time, there
was hardly anybody outside waiting for him.
He was driven up to the front curb, got out of his limo, and said to me,
‘Hi, nice day.’ At first, I was
in awe of being in the presence of this legendary President but he quickly put
me at ease. It was an extremely
casual encounter where he got away from everybody for a while.
I was the only newsman there, had my camera with me, but he totally
disarmed me with his comments and during the few minutes of talking to him I
sort of forgot why I was there. It’s
very rare to be able to speak personally to a man like John Kennedy, and we
continued our brief talk before his handlers moved him on.
I found he was just a great guy who had a much better job that I did.
I was in the right place at the right time, basically. I didn’t wait for him to come out of the Officer’s Club. Since I had my chat and got my film, I headed directly back to WFLA, where we started coordinating all our other field people to put the 6 o’clock news show together…that night a bit more complicated to do than usual.
Photo: Tony Zappone
Tampa residents anxiously await
Kennedy's assassination four days
later was devastating. I was at
home getting ready for work when I got a call from the station that he had been
shot. I was paralyzed by the news,
it really threw me. You’re never
ready for something like that. Suddenly
there was an urgency to get to the station so I threw myself together and took
There was an incredible air of
sadness that sort of settled on the city, like a fog that had moved in rapidly.
The general mood of everyone shifted quickly as the news of the
President’s being shot and later announcement of his death moved through the
populace with the speed of lightening. Within
an hour, Tampa went from a vibrant business center to a city that was shut down
and in mourning. I’ve never
experienced that again, even to this day. I
always imagined that our experience that day may have been similar to that of
Britons when they heard of the passing of Princess Diana in 1997.
We prepared a whole local show
for the evening of November 22, 1963 but it never aired.
In its place was NBC’s continuous coverage of the assassination which,
to me at the time, was pretty pathetic and slow moving in gathering facts.
But the pace picked up once things shifted from Dallas to Washington.
I’d have to say the coverage of all three networks, even the distant-third and poorly staffed ABC, rose to new heights during that time. All of us who worked that weekend matured in ways we would never have otherwise imagined. It was the first time for many of us to be such a part of history, covering the assassination of a President who had just walked and talked in our city four days before.
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