One of the best records of President Kennedy's visit to Tampa on November 18, 1963 is a stunning collection of black and white photographs that captured virtually every move the president made. What's most surprising, even to the photographer who took them, is that the photos were the work of a 16-year-old boy.
His name is Tony Zappone, a retired photographer who went on to work at WTVT Channel 13. But when he took the pictures, he was just a student at Jefferson High School.
IT TAKES NERVE
How did a kid get into position for such clear photos of the president? The week before the visit, he walked up to an official organizer and asked for a press pass. Zappone recalled the response.
"He said, 'Well, who are you representing?' I said, 'Uh, my school paper.' He said, 'Get me a letter from your school paper and we'll take care of you.'"
Zappone got the letter from a faculty advisor and walked away with an official press pass for a presidential visit.
KEEPING UP WITH KENNEDY
President Kennedy would give speeches all over town, but at 16, Zappone didn't have a license or a car.
"But I've always had a mind for strategy," he recalled. He made an arrangement with a friend to drive him from one stop to another while he took photographs.
"President Kennedy came right through that door," Zappone told me when we visited the old National Guard Armory a couple of years ago.
"Can you remember what the energy was like?" I asked.
Zappone's eyes swept the now-empty auditorium. "Total excitement. He was a rock star."
Zappone credits youth for some of his success snapping dozens of photos of President Kennedy at numerous Tampa venues. At MacDill Air Force Base, he broke from the line of professional news photographers and ran toward the president to get a photo.
"If that were today I would have been shot," Zappone mused.
On Franklin Street in Downtown Tampa, the motorcade was speeding toward him as he positioned to take a photo. The best view was off the sidewalk and on the road.
"And I saw the motorcycle headed straight for me. I didn't think he would run into me, but I felt it. He sideswiped me."
Now we know the officer on that motorcycle was retired Tampa policeman Russell Groover, who planned to hit anyone who ran toward the president.
"I knew that kid was Tony," he told me. "I'd seen him with his camera at other news events."
That's lucky because Zappone was able to snap what some think is the best picture in his collection - President Kennedy standing up in the limousine, waving at the crowd.
THE DAY THAT LASTS A LIFETIME
Zappone sometimes visits the John F. Kennedy Memorial at the University of Tampa. He knows his enthusiasm getting those photos was fueled by more than a desire for good pictures. President Kennedy was his hero.
"The direction of the country would have been so much different," he offered.
Long ago, he accepted that Kennedy's Camelot will never return. Now he focuses on what his lens captured 50 years ago when a boy's good luck and lots of nerve got him so close to Kennedy.
FOURTH 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.
Tony 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/