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Last presidential visit came 16 years ago

For Sun Dome Inc. president Michael LaPan, welcoming a presidential visitor to USF is not a new adventure.

LaPan, then director for the Sun Dome, worked to prepare the facility for President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 visit.

But even as he leaves most of the preparations to others in his office, he can offer a unique perspective on welcoming a guest of this magnitude.

LaPan said then, as now, the week of buildup to the visit is exciting. He said, however, the work this time around is more hectic.

“Things are changing a lot quicker than they were then,” LaPan said. “We don’t have a lot of time.”

LaPan said in 1986, he spent two solid weeks preparing for the event. Saturday’s visit, however, arose relatively quickly, forcing Sun Dome staff members to spend this week in what LaPan called “constant meetings.”

But while much of the emphasis this week has been on building up dome security, LaPan spent the weeks before Reagan’s visit improving aesthetics.

Reagan’s Oct. 24, 1986 visit was meant to aid the re-election campaign for U.S. Senator Paula Hawkins. Running against Hawkins was then governor, and current senator, Bob Graham. In addition, Reagan stumped for Bob Martinez, who would become Florida governor.

To prepare for that event, the Sun Dome underwent a major facelift. In addition to landscaping and painting, 150 phone lines were added to the building to handle the national media. All of this was done for a building rental price of $1,500.

As for the actual event, LaPan said he recalls Reagan’s unusual arrival. The president flew in by helicopter, landing on the USF intramural fields. He was then escorted to a motorcade and driven the few-hundred-yard distance to the Sun Dome.

LaPan said, as he marveled at the short motorcade, he was told by a secret service agent that he had seen shorter ones in which a president was literally moved across the street.

Reagan took to the Sun Dome stage in front of 7,000 people and lashed into Graham’s policies. Graham may, 16 years later, be a target for yet another president at the Sun Dome Saturday as he tries to push through the much-debated Amendment 11.

For Reagan’s visit, the Sun Dome was bathed in red, white and blue, starkly contrasting its normal hues of green and gold. Balloons, confetti and enormous banners decorated the interior.

The visit was marked by a guest appearance from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders, then known as the Swashbucklers.

While Bush enters Saturday’s Republican rally with his brother in the lead, albeit a narrow one, for Reagan, his candidate was hopelessly doomed.

Hawkins, who had reportedly accused Graham’s camp of receiving help from Communists, lost to the Democrat.

LaPan said, as he prepares for his second time around, the excitement is tempered by a desire to make sure everything is handled correctly.

And while Reagan was a popular draw in his own right, this weekend features a different sort of visit. Not only will a sitting president visit USF, but arguably the most famous family in politics will see its two political brothers together on a Sun Dome stage.