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Saturday, Jun 23, 2018
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Steve Otto retires after writing about, making Tampa history

­­— There was the Frau. The Screamer. The Exploding Chicken. The Big Guava.

There were Palio’s fried chicken, Mel’s hot dogs and the deviled crabs on Boliche Boulevard. The road trips, the struggling do-gooders trying to make Tampa better, the famous long johns, and Tennessee the rescued dog.

Steve Otto has given them nicknames and told us about them for almost 45 years. Now his career as a full-time Tribune columnist is ending.

As of Sunday, Otto will leave to pursue other interests, including writing, and will scale back to one or two columns a week as a Trib freelancer.

In his columns, we’ve learned about corrupt county commissioners who didn’t care whether their landfill was poisoning poor people’s wells until Otto sneaked out to Taylor Road after midnight with a hydrologist to prove it.

There were veterans returning from our wars, and some who didn’t return.

There was a 16-year-old with cancer, abandoned by his parents, who just wanted to tell his story while he still had time. It turned out he didn’t have much.

There was the tacky Mama Guava of the Guava­ween parade, rescued by Otto in a feat of derring-do when the Tribune’s parade float caught fire. Or maybe he rescued her drink and the security guys rescued her. That column wasn’t entirely clear.

And of course, there was the chili.

There was The Quivering Rhythm Hounds Mojo Hand Chili, the Luckenbach Ladies Lynching League Chili, the Bottom Burners chili, chilis of unexpected colors, some not made of traditional livestock, some chilis the luckless judges of Otto’s annual chili cook-off claimed they only narrowly survived.

What there mainly was in those columns, though, was Tampa, written by a Tampa guy.

“He’s been the heart and the face of the Tribune for decades,” said former Mayor Pam Iorio. “He’s out in the public, he senses what people are feeling, he’s able to put into words what most of us feel about our community.”

“His departure represents a huge loss to journalism in the community.”

Otto, said longtime friend George Levy, “was always willing to do what he could to help. He’d respond to people if they asked him to show up and speak somewhere.

“He had a passion about writing about people nobody every heard of,” Levy said. “Other people wrote about the Steinbrenners and celebrities. He wrote about people who were unknown.”

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One who will miss him is Tribune editorial page editor Joe Guidry, one of Otto’s best friends despite the time Otto stuffed him upside-down in a trash can in an argument over the editing of a story. Diminutive Guidry and economy-sized Otto were classmates at Ed Maley’s judo school at the time.

“He’s the kind of newspaperman who can’t be replaced, a hometown boy but with a broader vision,” Guidry said. “What always came through in his writing was decency. He can be a curmudgeon, but he’s got a great heart.”

Otto will stay in South Tampa, and he says he wouldn’t feel at home anywhere else.

“I feel lucky and privileged to have been allowed to go to so many places and be allowed into so many homes,” he said of his Tribune career. “I feel like I belong to one big family, although there are a few relatives I won’t miss.”

Author of two books of local history, he’s now writing a novel.

“I feel good,” Otto said. “I feel like I’m at the top of my game.”

Otto, 69, was a military brat whose Air Force father moved the family from Tampa to South Dakota, Nebraska and Germany, travels that gave him what Guidry called “broader vision.”

Returning to Tampa to 1950s-era Plant High School was a culture shock. At his international high school in Munich, he’d had a black roommate.

He went to the University of South Florida — “I was what you would call an indifferent student” — but had to drop out when his parents broke up. Facing the Vietnam-era draft, he joined the Air Force.

“I came from a pretty conservative background, and I would have gladly gone” to Vietnam, he said. “But the Air Force promised to send me to language school.”

Then they put his entire basic training class into the MPs, where he ended up seeing some combat after all.

“I’ve been shot at, hit over the head with a bottle, I’ve been stabbed,” he said. “My first night I had to cover a decapitation — a guy on a motorcycle slid under a truck. It took us a while to find the head.”

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While serving in Germany, England and Africa, Otto decided he loved newspapers.

“When you’re overseas in the military, you lose contact, you get disillusioned,” he said. “My grandfather would send us newspapers. That’s how we kept in touch.”

When he came home, he had what he described in his official Tampa Tribune resume as “dozens of dumb little jobs,” all of which he hated.

In 1969, he got a job in the circulation department of the Tribune and its former afternoon paper, the Tampa Times, with the promise of a newsroom job to come.

It came when the late Doyle Harvill, then Times editor and later Tribune publisher, decided that tennis was the coming thing and told Otto he would be the paper’s tennis expert.

“I didn’t even know how to keep score,” Otto said.

That didn’t stop him from traveling all over the country covering tennis tournaments, and then the Buccaneers. It was the post-Watergate, pre-Internet era when newspapers were flush with money.

In 1977, married and less interested in traveling, he moved to the features section, and when the Times folded in 1982, to the Tribune.

“The Tribune decided they needed a columnist, so they held a staff contest,” he said. “Nobody won.”

But soon afterward, former managing editor Paul Hogan “came over to my desk and said, ‘You’re the new columnist.’ ”

Hogan told him he could write about anything he wanted but he had to stay completely away from politics.

Then Hogan assigned him to do a column on the mayor.

“I quickly realized they didn’t know what they wanted, so I decided to get away with anything I could,” Otto said.

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He’s done roughly that since, in columns that wandered from personal experiences to public issues — public education was a big one — to investigations and politicians.

In summer of 1984, a series of columns on a road trip to the two national party conventions in San Francisco and Dallas helped cement Otto’s reputation.

He described people and places along the way, but he also focused on his odd-couple relationship with fastidious traveling companion Leland Hawes, the Tribune’s late history writer.

Hawes, we learned, always had to eat dinner at 5 p.m. sharp and nagged Otto endlessly for driving too fast. Then, Otto gleefully reported, Hawes ended up getting a speeding ticket, doing a comparatively placid 70 mph when he took the wheel in Wyoming after Otto had been nudging 100.

That set a pattern of road trip columns for Otto, often on his own family travels.

“He loves putting his entire family a van, driving them across the country and then writing about it,” Guidry said. “Then he’ll stop and pick up a dog off the side of the road.”

Tribune readers rode along with Otto, the Frau (his wife), the Screamer (either of his two oldest sons, as babies), the Colonel (his father-in-law) and various pets, including Tennessee the foundling pooch.

As Otto’s reputation grew, he was asked to help with local causes. Could he make a speech for a charity? Emcee a fundraising dinner? Judge a contest? An average of once or twice a week for years, he said yes, and never took money for it.

He’s slowed down lately, but there he was at Skipper’s Smokehouse on a recent Sunday evening — instead of home on his sofa with a beer and the TV — for the Friends of Hillsborough County Animal Services.

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Asked to pick some of his own favorite columns over the years, Otto got serious.

In 1982, he investigated the Taylor Road landfill, along with local residents who said it was being mismanaged and contaminated with illegal hazardous wastes leaching into their wells.

Back then, “The people out there in east Hillsborough didn’t have any money or any resources, and nobody cared about them,” Otto said.

For months, they were stiff-armed by a three-member majority of county commissioners, the same three who were later led out of the county building in handcuffs on bribery charges.

After Otto publicized their crusade and shared in some of the threats and vandalism they suffered, they actually won. A decade later, he celebrated the awarding of the county’s Moral Courage Award to their leader, Cam Oberting.

Otto also mentioned his columns on Bobby Holton, a kid who called him out of the blue in 1982. Little had gone right in life for Bobby — his father in prison, given up to foster care by his mother, and at 16, told he had lymphoma.

He wanted Otto to write about the USF Children’s Cancer Center where, Otto wrote, Holton for the first time “found people who cared whether he lived or died.”

Five months later, Bobby was dead. Otto supported the center’s work and remembered Holton’s life in columns for years.

Readers looked forward to the annual Steve Otto Chili Cook-Off columns, featuring such characters as the contest judge who drove a golf cart into the reflecting pool at the Tampa Museum of Art while wearing a gas mask, or the Sleazettes team that tried to “borrow” a patrol car.

A Tribune editor allegedly was involved, but names were omitted to protect the guilty.

For some Tribune staffers, however, especially those who travel for work and have to get expense accounts approved, their favorite Otto column had to be the one about the long johns.

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In January 2003, the Tribune sent Otto to Philadelphia for a Bucs game where it was, he reported, “bone-shaking, nose-numbing cold.” So he put a cheap set of thermal underwear on his expense account.

The Tribune business office, which didn’t mind the ridiculously expensive hotels, food and rental cars, balked at $6 long johns.

Mother Trib eventually agreed to fund the undies but decided that meant they belonged to the company and asked for them back. Otto speculated in print on what journalistic function the used, Otto-sized underwear would fill.

“About the only thing that comes to mind is that we have a helicopter landing pad on top of the parking garage, and I’ve noticed the windsock needs some repair,” he wrote, “although it might take a pretty big wind to get those things flapping.”

As he leaves journalism, at least the daily kind, the accomplishments Otto claims are simple: “I’m proud of always telling the truth. I never tried to hide anything.”

He remains the optimist he’s always been, but he is worried about Tampa and the nation.

He believes public education is “one of the things that’s made this country strong — I see it disappearing.”

Diane Otto, a public school teacher, made him an advocate of public schools but also tipped him about bumbling in the bureaucracy. He occasionally used the famous Mark Twain quote: “In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made school boards.”

He’s also concerned that the nation’s quality of life is not what it used to be.

“People are stretched to the limit,” he said. “Salaries of CEOs are criminal, and other people are losing salary, losing benefits, losing homes. The middle class is disappearing.”

From now on, with that and whatever else comes up, we’ll have to handle it with less Otto.

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