Because I still plan to be around awhile and with any luck get someone to buy me coffee now and then, I’m going to limit the people in this column to those who no longer are around.
When you write about a place and its people for more than four decades, you run across some unforgettable characters — especially around here.
I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the water. Maybe it’s the oppressive heat that tends to muddle the mind. Maybe it’s the salt from all those margarita glasses. Whatever the cause, you are special.
I can’t begin to remember all the people I’ve been privileged to encounter, if only briefly, in my time here. That’s why I’m not even going to attempt to talk about the living as I wind up things this weekend.
The common denominator among all of these departed characters is they either were good people or at least believed they were, no matter how discombobulated they seemed.
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Take Jim Fair. He was the zaniest. The last time I spoke with him was during a call he made from the mental institution in Chattahoochee. He told me he was getting out and coming back to sue, and he offered a laundry list of names and institutions he was going after as soon as he was free.
Born James Searcy Farrior, he graduated from the Naval Academy and served honorably in the Pacific during World War II. If you’ve been around awhile, you might remember the old building he bought for his “Salvation Navy” street people. He kept running for public office and — pay attention, those of you who think voting doesn’t matter — finally he was elected supervisor of elections. It took months to unscramble the mess he left.
Cesar Gonzmart was the sultan of suave. Think Ricky Ricardo with a violin instead of conga drums. Cesar could charm the ropa off the vieja. He also swept the lovely Adela Hernandez off her feet and helped turn the Columbia Restaurant into an empire.
There was Charlie Smith. His talent was getting old. I’m not sure he was the 127 years he claimed to be when I wrote about him from his small house in Bartow, but he looked ancient. Tall and lean, he polished his bald head to a sheen. He talked about being a boy on the African coast when slavers, with tales of pancake trees, convinced him to come aboard their ship. He claimed to have cooked for the James Gang. Who knows?
Doyle Harvill was my boss at the afternoon Tampa Times and later as publisher at Mother Trib. We loosely toss around the word “legendary” in the newspaper business, but Doyle was that. He once sent a reporter to the Middle East because he thought war was coming. After a week or so of interviewing goat herders, the paper’s owners made him come home. The Six Day War started the next week.
When Doyle returned to the Trib after going elsewhere, he told me he had changed — given up smoking and drinking to focus on news. We went out on a drive around Tampa to see what was going on. Twenty minutes out, he told me to stop at a convenience store so he could pick up a pack of cigarettes. Lighting up, he puffed for a few minutes until we got to a South Tampa dive called the Tiny Tap where he could get a beer. He could terrorize reporters and editors, but he made things happen.
Phyllis Busansky called me one day and said she wanted to show me some Hillsborough County senior centers she was running.
Expecting Mary Worth — a fictional senior from the comic pages — in a Nash Rambler, Phyllis showed up with a giant Afro and had me squeeze into a battered sports car. She took off with Bob Marley blasting on the car’s sound system and one hand on the wheel as we tooled up and down I-75. You rode with her one time, then volunteered to drive on subsequent excursions.
She became one of our great county commissioners and led the charge for the county’s historic health care plan.
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More than once it was said Leland Hawes was the last gentleman in our business. Leland grew up on the shores of Lake Thonotosassa and to indulge his journalistic instincts published his own newsletter as a boy. His hobby was collecting printing presses.
In 1984, the company asked me to drive to San Francisco to the Democratic convention, and then to Dallas for the Republicans. The idea was to write about America along the way. Leland hitched a ride as he was headed to Denver for a hobby printers convention. It was a little like traveling with your mother-in-law, but Leland was great. He knew people everywhere, from the owner of the Tabasco company in Louisiana who invited us to lunch to the guy who selected the corn cob coverings every year at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. Our only argument came on a Saturday night when he wanted to brave the mosquitoes for the double feature at a prisoner-of-war film festival being shown outdoors at Andersonville National Cemetery in Americus, Georgia. All 25 or so other visitors had long since gone and the projectionist looked at Leland with pleading eyes before he sighed and we called it a night.
There were a few saints, including Adrienne Brennan, a former nun who at various times headed the food bank and directed the Big Brothers program in Tampa.
She forever was dragging me out to causes that needed to be written about. I never will forget the rainy afternoon we stood at the pauper’s cemetery where a baby was being buried in a shoebox while the teenaged mother stood alone crying in the rain.
I’m only scratching the surface. There are so many faces, so many stories, and I owe all of you so much for allowing me to share them. I’m planning on doing an occasional column beginning in about a month following my last regular column this Sunday.