TAMPA — Three days before he died, Bill Poe Sr., whose health had been declining quickly, rallied briefly.
“He was super-lucid,” his youngest child, Charlie Poe, told the hundreds of people assembled Tuesday afternoon for his father’s memorial service.
Bill Poe called his children and grandchildren to his side, Charlie Poe said. He told them all he loved them.
“He said his good-byes,” Charlie Poe said. “He was ready.”
Bill Poe died Thursday night under hospice care. He was 82.
The Poe family -- wife, Betty, five children, 16 grandchildren and 3 great-granchildren -- laid their patriarch to rest with memories of his love for them and for his hometown. They were not alone.
As they had for so much of Bill Poe’s life, his family shared him with the rest of Tampa. Friends, former employees and regular city residents attended Poe’s graveside funeral service Tuesday morning at Myrtle Hills Cemetery. Hundreds more filled Bayshore Baptist Church to pay their respects, to laugh at family stories and to offer silent support when the memories of “Papa” brought tears.
While two Tampa Police Department honor guard officers stood at parade rest, Mayor Bob Buckhorn praised his predecessor for stepping up to serve his city when it needed leadership and for creating a vision of the future that still ripples across the city more than 30 years later.
“All the success I may or may not have had is based on the foundation he left me,” Buckhorn said. “He didn’t have to be mayor. He did it because he believed in the capacity of this city.”
Poe became mayor in 1974, won re-election in 1975 and served until 1979.
During his term, Poe built bridges to the city’s African-American community by hiring his one-time political opponent Alton White as his assistant mayor. He laid the groundwork for transforming downtown by assembling the “Quad Block,” the home of One Tampa City Center. He also laid the first planks of the Tampa Riverwalk in 1976. Nearly 40 years later, the Riverwalk will open its last major segment this fall.
After leaving public office, Poe built Poe & Associates, the insurance company he started in 1956, into the largest insurer in the state. Eventually, it merged with the next-largest insurer, Brown & Brown, to become Poe & Brown with Poe as chairman. He retired in 1994 and sold nearly all his stock in the company, 1.6 million shares, for what he estimated a few years after as between $35 million and $40 million.
He used some of that money in 1996 to create Southern Family Insurance Co. A decade later, the Poe Financial Group operated three insurance companies — Southern Family Insurance, Atlantic Preferred and Florida Preferred Insurance — with about 283,000 policy holders across the state. The insurers were undone when four hurricanes criss-crossed the state in 2004.
Poe also mounted a one-man campaign to block the use of public funds to build Raymond James Stadium, pitting him against thousands of voters who had approved the half-cent Community Investment Tax by referendum.
In 2004, Poe and his family founded the The Elizabeth B. & William F. Poe Sr. Center for Business Ethics Education and Research at the University of Florida, his alma mater.
“He knew there is more to life than making money,” his friend Pastor Tom Pinner said during the memorial service. “You have to learn how to live.”
Pinner said Poe learned the lessons that guided him growing up in the congregation of Seminole Heights Baptist Church.
“He was never the kind of person who put his faith in a showcase and said ‘look at me,’ ” said Pinner, one of Poe’s close friends and a frequent dining companion at the Tampa Yacht Club on Davis Islands. “All those accolades he’s received, all those things he’s done, they were informed by his faith.”
Despite his success in business and politics, Poe’s children and grandchildren remembered his love for a good party, the Florida Gators and his friends.
He was a big-hearted man, Charlie Poe said.
“He wasn’t afraid to leave his mark, and he always had your back,” Charlie Poe said. “Well done, Dad. Period.”