Hawes was consummate journalist, gentleman
To uncounted numbers of reporters and editors at The Tampa Tribune, Leland Hawes was a confidante, a friend and a personal guide to the community. To at least as many more outside the newspaper, he was the definitive source on Tampa's rich and often colorful history.
To others, he was a reserved man who spoke sparingly, but always with wisdom and authority backed up by decades of experience.
There was one thing everyone agreed on, though. In any circumstance, Leland Hawes was a gentleman.
That word was used repeatedly Saturday as friends and former colleagues absorbed the news that Hawes died around 4 o'clock in the morning. He was 83.
“He is not easy to sum up. He was one of a kind, a gentleman. He only wanted to be a journalist from the time he was 10 years old,” said former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, a close friend. “Along the way he became a historian because he understood that journalists write the first draft of history.
“If you ever wanted the story behind the story, you talked to Leland. People gave Leland information because they trusted him. He was invaluable, absolutely one of a kind. I could call him and say, 'About that mayor's race in 1935…' and he would respond, 'Oh yeah, that's a good story.' He would know exactly what happened. He was the Google search before Google.”
Hawes' professional journalism career began on July 22, 1950, when he joined the Tampa Times as a reporter. He joined the Tribune on Aug. 1, 1952, and reported on the police and schools along with general assignment work. He later became an editor in charge of, among other things, the features section before assuming the role of history and heritage reporter/editor.
He retired from full-time work at the Tribune in 2004 but continued writing history stories as a correspondent until 2007.
He had an endless fascination with the tales of Tampa emerging from a small southern town into a prominent city, and his meticulous attention to detail helped his work become the definitive source of Tampa's oft-tumultuous past.
Ace Atkins, a former Tribune reporter and now a best-selling novelist, said Hawes didn't care for labels.
“He hated being called a historian; he was a journalist,” Atkins said. “He was a very specific man because, in the end, what remains is true journalism. That's the only thing that will last.”
Atkins said Hawes befriended him when he began working at the newspaper in the mid-1990s.
“As a young journalist in Tampa, he invited me out to lunch and said, 'I like your stuff.' I really appreciated that. He was so dignified; his knowledge was unmatched by anyone.
“When I think of the Tribune, I think of Leland Hawes. He knew every neighborhood, every street and every story that happened there.”
The two stayed in touch after Atkins embarked on his successful career of writing novels. He is planning a trip to Tampa and hoped to catch up with Hawes when Saturday's news came.
“It just stopped me cold,” he said. “You expect Leland to live forever.”
He was born Leland Mosley Hawes Jr. June 18, 1929, and grew up in Thonotosassa. He later graduated from Plant High School and the University of Florida before beginning his professional career. Such was the respect he commanded that the Hillsborough County Bar Association gave him its Liberty Bell Award in 1989.
He served on the board of the Tampa Bay History Center.
He also served on a committee that selected the first six figures from Tampa's past to have bronze busts along the Tampa Riverwalk. The University of South Florida established the Leland Hawes Prize in Florida history.
Tribune Managing Editor Ken Koehn remembers Hawes as someone who was a fledgling reporter's best friend.
"We would ask Leland questions about the people we were writing about," Koehn said. "He would tell us about their relatives, family businesses and even their political connections. He had a phenomenal memory when it came to the people who built this town. And the gift he gave to all of us is that he didn't mind sharing that knowledge."
In an interview with UF in 2002, he told how his fascination with newspapers began early in life.
“By the time, I guess it was the summer of 1940, I happened to read an article in the Tribune about a fellow I knew from church, First Presbyterian Church in Tampa, who was putting out a little neighborhood newspaper in Temple Terrace, another suburban community, and I figured well, if that guy can do it, maybe I can too,” he said.
In that same interview, he was asked what makes a good reporter.
“Curiosity, an interest in people and an ability to persist,” he said.
That persistence was often put to the test, but probably never more so than when he was chased out of the woods by the Ku Klux Klan while investigating a story in 1956. But there were plenty of lighter moments as well.
Gary Mormino, a friend and emeritus professor at USF who shared Hawes' love of history, told of the time when a young entertainer named Elvis Presley came to Tampa.
“Leland was in the Civitan Club, I think, and they were selling tickets to this show in town for Elvis,” he said. “He wasn't much of a name at that point; I think this was his first trip out of Memphis. By the end of the tour he was a name, but not yet.
“Well, Leland's job during that show was to stand outside and guard Elvis' pink Cadillac so the girls wouldn't deface it or take mementoes. So that was Leland's brush with Elvis.”
Although he received 24/7 care at home, news of Hawes' passing still caught even close friends by surprise. One of them was Al Hutchison, who served multiple tours at the Tribune in various roles.
“The best word to describe him is gentleman. We stayed in touch right up to the last week,” he said. “I was planning on talking to him (today). I probably worked at the Tribune four or five different times, and I can't think of anybody like him at any one of those times. He was unique. I don't know anybody that didn't like him.”
Those relationships spanned generations and left impressions on those who knew him that will last forever.
“He was a very cultured man. He was always dressed professionally and had a great knowledge of books,” Ace Atkins said. “He thought that's what a well-rounded person should be, but he could be very funny, too. He had a wry sense of humor. When something came up that he disagreed with, he'd say, 'Oh well, that's how it goes.' ”
Then he stopped for a moment and said aloud what many now are thinking.
“I can't imagine Tampa without him.”