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By Pam Iorio / Our Journey via TBO.com

Lunch with Jack Espinosa is always funny; he is by nature a jokester, a man of endless quips, a real comic.  Actually he is a real standup comic.  He’s been on stage for decades – at one time he was BIG – so big in pre- Castro Cuba that he was mobbed by fans wherever he went.

In Tampa we know him from the 1970s and 1980s as a former assistant county administrator in Hillsborough County and the former information director for the Sheriff’s Office. For years he gave information to reporters with compassion and integrity – and yes, occasionally with a punch-line.

After he finished his career on stage, but before he worked for the county, Espinosa was a public school teacher. He taught American history and government with a passion – convinced that the key to maintaining our form of government was to first understand its origins.

Recently, we ate at the Lincoln Restaurant in West Tampa, sharing laughs over Cuban sandwiches. But the conversation turned sober when I asked him to recount his meeting of President John F. Kennedy when he came to Tampa just four days before his assassination in Dallas in November of 1963. Our mutual friend, Lynn Marvin, is working on a documentary of the President’s Tampa visit, and his interview had stirred powerful memories.

Espinosa had supported the president in 1960 and had already signed on for the 1964 re-election campaign. Tampa school children with a note from their parents could be excused from classes to witness this presidential visit – the first of a sitting President to our city. Espinosa was with Congressman Sam Gibbons backstage at Fort Homer Hesterly Armory where the president was slated to speak before the Florida State Chamber of Commerce. Introduced to the president by Gibbons as a high school history teacher, the President smiled warmly and placed his left hand on top of Espinosa’s right hand and squeezed it tight. “You people are the ones that are going to save this country,” he said.

“I was inspired,” says Espinosa, moved by that moment and the memory.

Four days later, as he was in the middle of teaching American history to his class at King High School, a knock on the door brought the news that the president had been shot in Dallas. Next came the dreaded confirmation of his death. Espinosa’s class fell silent. Finally, a young man, Ralph, a student who had not uttered a word all semester, raised his hand and broke the silence. “What are we going to do now?” he asked.

“That question,” Espinosa related, “seemed to speak for the world.”

Fifty years later, the emotion overwhelmed Espinosa as he recounted the story. The tears flowed like a fresh memory.

Five decades is a lifetime for our relatively young city. Prior to our final incorporation as a city in 1887, and the coming of the railroad that same decade, Tampa’s population stayed stubbornly under 1,000 residents. Fifty years ago we had no cultural centers or sports franchises. The commercial core was downtown, but the 1963 skyline was modest and small town in appearance compared to today’s robust mix of commercial and residential towers.

Looking back on those black-and-white photos of the president’s visit harkens back to a simpler place and time. It was another place and time altogether.

The very notion that a president would ride in a lengthy motorcade through a city in an open convertible is outlandish by today’s high security standards.

The idea that schools would give students time off to celebrate a visiting president is unthinkable today.

Today, Fort Homer Hesterly Armory, the site of the presidential speech to the Chamber and once a thriving venue for entertainers including Elvis Presley, is currently planned to become the Tampa Jewish Community Center South Campus.

And a president, telling a high school history teacher that his work was “going to save this country,” well, with all the emphasis on STEM education and jobs, I doubt those words would be uttered today.

What hasn’t changed for Espinosa is the sense of loss – Kennedy’s promise and potential never fully realized. The trajectory of a nation changed in a split second. Espinosa is still haunted by not knowing what might have been.

The upcoming anniversary in November will bring forth much historical context and analysis – and memories. For me, it is summed up in Jack Espinosa’s tears, still raw and uncontrollable, five decades later.

To hear about Jack’s JFK memories & more … you wont want to miss our documentary “JFK in Tampa: The 50th Anniversary” on WUSF TV!

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