TAMPA — Friends and family have a saying about Lee Thornton Davis Jr. Once you met him, even for just a moment, you knew him forever.
"He was the most outgoing person I’d ever met," Dick Greco said, which is something coming from Tampa’s gregarious, 84-year-old, four-time mayor. "He believed in friendship to the nth degree and made everyone his friend in an instant. He had a personality that was impossible to forget."
Mr. Davis died Feb. 12 at 92.
He was a World War II pilot who test-flew fighter planes and a former secretary-treasurer of Florida Trend magazine who in the mid-1970s helped Harris Mullen, his friend and boss at the publication, develop an Ybor City cigar factory into Ybor Square — the Latin district’s first modern retail attraction.
In the 1960s, Mr. Davis was commodore of the Davis Islands Yacht Club and president of Tampa Bay Estate Planning Council. As chairman of the Metropolitan YMCA in the late-1970s, he spearheaded the merging of that organization with the city’s YWCA.
Despite his business and civic success, it was Mr. Davis’ personality and adventurous spirit that distinguished him.
One example is his journey by boat to Cuba in 1965 to rescue the family of a Tampa man he’d only just met.
Fidel Castro was allowing those with a boat ride to leave the island. But by the time Mr. Davis and his rescue crew arrived, the window of opportunity had closed. Cuban military detained Mr. Davis on his yacht for nearly two weeks and contemplated imprisoning him.
By tricking his would-be captors into believing he was an important American, and by sharing his collection of Playboy magazines, Mr. Davis turned the tables on them. They brought him beer and eventually freed the crew. But before they did, Mr. Davis managed to send rare U.S. news reports from inside communist Cuba.
"My friends in college would beg to come home with me to go boating with my dad," said his daughter Sharon Davis, 69. "They loved playing cards with him, singing, hearing his dirty jokes and listening to his stories."
Among favorite tales told by the Richmond native was the secret staging of B-17 bomber dogfights over the Gulf of Mexico with a fellow pilot while they were stationed in Victoria, Texas.
That daredevil attitude never left him.
Mr. Davis would take his personal plane to family reunions in Virginia.
"He’d fly just over electrical lines, drop down quick to land on a small path between cornfields, and stop right before the pool," his daughter said.
Even into his late-70s, he would captain his granddaughter and her friends on boating trips featuring his alcohol-laced "Captain’s Artillery Punch."
For his daughter, one childhood memory stood above all others.
While vacationing in Utah, the family came upon a crowd on a mountain daring one another to brave a rope swing that would send them over the canyon.
Davis’ daughter boasted, "My daddy will do it," and he did.
"He later told me he was petrified," Sharon Davis said. "But he wouldn’t let me down."