October 23, 2014

Florida Icon

Icon: Gary Mormino

Historian, author, USF St. Petersburg professor, age 65

Cynthia Barnett | 3/7/2012

Gary Mormino
[Photo: Michael Heape]
» I think if every Floridian would canoe a river, this really would be a better state.

» I thought it was tacky. Incredibly hot in summer. For the first three years, I would have gone back to Illinois in a second for a much-lesser job.

» I was in Italy on a Fulbright in 1980, maybe the most significant year in modern Florida history. You had the Miami race riot. The Haitian boat people washing ashore in Miami. Mariel. You had the English-only amendment on the ballot. I was in Rome, and I would read the newspapers and I said to myself: The greatest story of your life is unfolding every single day — in Florida.

» You could buy a Jim Walter home mid-1950s for $3,000. This was a generation willing to start out at the bottom. They didn't need a fancy house.

» I've never been the smartest lightbulb in the room, but I work really hard. The first draft is not very good. But the sixth draft can be pretty good.

» To be a Floridian I think you have to be an optimist. You hope you're going to live longer than anyone imagines and that you'll do all these things you probably won't do: Canoe a river, wrestle an alligator, marry again.

» Apparently Yeehaw Junction's location, halfway between Orlando and some southeast Florida metro areas, makes it an ideal place for separated couples to drop off and hand over children when the kids' visitation is over. The turnpike's welcome centers/fast-food establishments provide a place where out-of-control fathers or mothers will likely behave. A sad commentary.

» I cooked my way through college. The hardest job in America is short-order cook.

» My idealized Ybor City is the 1920s or 1930s. But it's still my favorite place in Florida. Still the most interesting, romantic, exotic place I've ever seen. The perfect example of the new and old worlds.

» Every book I wrote prior to about eight years ago, I wrote longhand.

» I've never been in agreement with my colleagues that you'll need to cut people off at the border. If you're at DeSoto Beach tonight and you see that sunset, you don't really care if there are 19 million other people in this state. There's something extraordinary about that communion of humans, a sunset and saltwater.

» I loved interviewing immigrants. Their stories were so amazing. José Vega Días was 95 years old, a Cuban immigrant, telling me stories about the late 19th century. He was here during the Spanish-American War. He was on a streetcar and the Rough Riders were on the streetcar giving the conductor a hard time. The conductor threw them off. They got out and lifted the trolley off the tracks. I interviewed him at the La Hacienda de Ybor retirement complex, one of the few promises the government kept to that generation. In '65, the home that he and his wife, Blanca, had lived in for more than 50 years was going to be knocked down by urban renewal. His wife died that night. She said we can't move.

» Present-mindedness can really drag you down.

» Our ability to persevere and endure is much greater than we think. But no one seems to have a plan of action. We need the alternative. The alternative is the new Florida dream. But no one has unveiled that. I don't think it's simply cutting back government and giving companies incentives to come here.

» The most hostile audience I ever had was Marco Island. Huge crowd. Hands raised. Someone said, 'Maybe you can settle this debate we've been having a long time.' And they are right about this — Marco Islanders live longer than any other people in Florida. They said, 'We're not sure why. Some of us think it's the water, and others think it's the air.' And I said, 'It's probably because you're rich. And, by the way, congratulations. You've won the lottery. Rich people have better medical care, better diets and so on.' They would have nothing of it. Only in America would you be insulted being called rich.

» The fact that the son of a fourth-grade dropout could become a college professor is just a miracle. What a great country.

» I love 'The Yearling' because you should read it as a child and you should read it as a mid-adult, the age of Ma and Pa Baxter. It's a book for the ages. There's a passage at the end that always has the students in tears. When Jody runs away, Pa has killed his deer, and he comes back. Pa sits him down and says 'You've done come back different. You ain't a yearlin' no longer.' That's Florida. Florida is no longer a yearling.

» The greatest ritual will always remain — having a good cup of coffee in the morning, reading a good newspaper and finding good stuff to clip out.

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