Gasparilla kings were elected at City Hall when Bill Williams joined Ye Mystic Krewe in 1939. Pirates marked ballots, then hit the Tampa Terrace hotel bar across the street. Dues might have been 50 bucks in those days, a splurge for a farmer one year out of college.
Today, Williams has the longest membership in Tampa's most prominent krewe.
He has rarely missed Gasparilla, usually shooting a cannon from his perch on the ship, then nabbing a spot on a float. Only since his mid 80s has he ridden inside a tow truck, throwing beads through the window.
Thinking back over the past 70 years, he said, "I had good fun.''
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Besides the distinction of most senior pirate, Williams has a couple of other milestones to celebrate.
He turns 94 on Feb. 13, and that likely makes him the oldest former University of Florida football player, as far as the alumni office knows.
"I look at the lineup and this guy is gone, and that guy," said Williams, who played both offense center and defense linebacker in 1936 and 1937. "I'm the only one left. I don't know one that's alive."
He only got to play football and pirate with his college buddies for a few years before World War II intervened. Gasparilla high jinks went on hiatus until 1947, which may have been the year he rode the "Firestone float."
He and some pals "got inebriated on the boat,'' Williams said, and couldn't quite manage to get onto a float. "A Firestone tire truck came by and threw us in the back." When they awoke at one friend's house, the parade was long over.
These days, he says, the parade is too crowded and "the pistols bust your eardrums. Let the fools have it.''
Still, he's proud of the royal family tree he planted: daughter Lesley Williams Dobbins was Gasparilla queen in 1972; son-in-law Fred Dobbins captain, then king in 2005; their daughter Katherine, queen in 2006. Granddaughter Tracy Williams is a 2009 queen candidate.
At last month's Ye Mystic Krewe election party, Williams stood in line with his son Will and the other girls' fathers, shaking hands as members arrived at the yacht club to vote. He'll find out if his granddaughter got their support when the winner is crowned in two weeks.
"For Lesley, I invited them to dove shoots and fishing trips,'' said Williams. "She won by 17 votes."
Williams lived somewhat like a pirate, setting his own rules. He farmed tomatoes, cantaloupe, watermelon and cucumbers until 70, on land he leased in Immokalee and Ruskin. He enjoyed fishing and hunting and flew his Cessna Cardinal until he was 79.
"A man's man,'' Lesley calls him, quickly adding, "but he plays the piano beautifully and he's perfectly comfortable in a tux."
Macular degeneration, diabetes and high blood pressure don't keep him from driving from his home on Davis Islands to his Riverview ranch almost every day. He sprays the cattle, tinkers with a fence, helps his son Douglas who lives on the 90-acre property Williams' parents inherited in 1915.
Williams knew he wanted to farm when he graduated Hillsborough High with a football scholarship to UF. He still has the letter from coach Josh Cody telling him to report for practice Aug. 17, 1936.
Away games were the best, he said, because the team traveled by train. "On the way home, we could order anything we wanted in the dining car. I always got the most expensive steak on the menu."
His roommate, the late Julian Lane, charged the guys $1 for a ride home from Gainesville; "50 cents for Gordon Landers to straddle a headlight and ride on the fender," he chuckled. (Lane grew up to mayor of Tampa from 1959-1963.)
A recent encounter could have slowed Williams down, but he wouldn't allow it.
A cow jumped out of the trailer he and Douglas were loading. A wayward hoof knocked him down and ripped the skin off his hand.
The crusty pirate picked himself up and drove home.
Amy Scherzer can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3332.