Florida Keys News
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
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Final visit, final salute from our president
JFK's jaunt to Key West in Air Force One, 50 years later

It wasn't a long trip.

It wasn't even a particularly important visit, strictly speaking. Yet for many Key Westers of a certain age, the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's final appearance in the Southernmost City is bound to evoke fond memories of a time when anything seemed possible and optimism reigned supreme, despite the diplomatic hangover from the recent Cuban Missile Crisis.

One-half century ago Monday, in the early afternoon, the ill-fated president stepped off Air Force One at the Boca Chica Naval Air Station, offered a smart salute to the receiving officers, and set off on a whirlwind tour of local military installations.

"The whole thing was really just a military P.R. exercise," said Monroe County historian Tom Hambright. "He landed at Boca and reviewed troops there. Then he drove down to the Naval Station, present day Truman Annex, where he boarded a submarine. Throughout his trip he was thanking the military for their participation in the missile crisis."

It was the first -- and last -- look at the youthful president for Percy Curry, then a Key West Citizen pressman.

"It was a big day," said Curry, who later served as a city commissioner. "I remember my son, my wife, and myself drove to the south side of the boulevard to watch the motorcade. He was in the open-air car, just like you see in the old photos. It was all over in a minute."

The quick sojourn stood in stark contrast to Kennedy's earlier visit to Key West, in March 1962, where he actually conducted business with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. During that trip, the Little White House in Key West was chosen as a convenient, and neutral, location for a meeting between the two men to discuss the deteriorating situation in Southeast Asia, specifically Laos, which would, in part, lead to the Vietnam War.

"During the first trip I was standing outside the Presidential Gates at Caroline Street as he was driving out," said Liz Lear, then a young employee at the Sun and Sands Club. "I called out 'Jack, Jack' and he turned and gave me a beaming smile. It was a glorious time. I remember [then-Sheriff] John Spottswood was on the car's running board, providing security."

But the president's post-missile crisis trip, quick though it was, did include a certain amount of color.

In February 2001, the late, former County Mayor Wilhelmina Harvey recalled meeting the president along with her husband, then city Mayor C.B. Harvey, for The Citizen.

"When Kennedy was here the second time, C.B., who was going to present him with the key to the city, bent the key in a towel to symbolize the fact that the economy of Key West was bent, because of the military buildup during the crisis. And the president laughed and told him that he had contributed to the economy" through his visit, though he admitted he had "sent Jackie and the kids to Palm Beach so that they'd be safe."

Less than a year later, Kennedy was killed, and the mood of the country hardened. History turned a corner.

But the memories JFK left behind in Key West that day in November of '62 have lasted a lifetime.

tschmida@keysnews.com

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