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Eddie Gonzalez was great police chief, even better party guest

The packed news conference in the mayor’s office was nearly anticlimactic, a simple confirmation of what then-Mayor Sandy Freedman said she had known for a long time: that Eddie Gonzalez was the right choice.

The packed news conference in the mayor’s office was nearly anticlimactic, a simple confirmation of what then-Mayor Sandy Freedman said she had known for a long time: that Eddie Gonzalez was the right choice.

Eddie Gonzalez, who died March 14 at 73 of a heart attack in South Florida, wasn't Tampa's longest-serving police chief, but he may have been its most relaxed.

Then-Mayor Sandy Freedman hired Gonzalez, Tampa's chief from March 1992 through June 1993, to return to his hometown from his job as second-in-command at the Metro-Dade Police Department.

As a reporter, my first look at Gonzalez was not in person, but on videotape, and it was telling. Before he arrived in Tampa, I borrowed the tape of the city's interviews with each of the finalists for the chief's job.

At one point, I ran through the tape on fast-forward, and one thing jumped out: The other finalists were accomplished police administrators. Their gestures were tight. They pointed. Ticked off lists on their fingers. Used their palms flatly, like spades, to push unseen things around in short, straight lines.

Gonzalez, by contrast, lounged in his chair as if on a shady front porch. As befits a son of West Tampa, his gestures rose and swooped and curved away from his body. He had story-telling hands. He looked open to conversation and he laughed. A lot.

On the job, Gonzalez proved no different. He spent his first day chatting up rank-and-file officers, drinking eight cups of coffee and giving thanks that he could get an authentic Ybor City Cuban sandwich, not the version he put up with in Miami.

Two months on, Tampa's College Hill erupted in a night of rock- and bottle-throwing. Some fires were lit, some shots fired. The next night, as officers in riot gear massed at a nearby school, Gonzalez left the command post and drove into the neighborhood with a couple of members of his staff. He stopped to chat up about two dozen people at a barbecue. Moving on, he paused to light someone's cigarette and caught some grief for wearing a Miami Hurricanes ball cap. College Hill stayed quiet that night. As he left one house, someone yelled, "See ya, Eddie."

A little more than a year later, he was hired away as director of the U.S. Marshals Service. At his swearing-in in Washington D.C., the crowd included a Who's Who from Tampa: former Mayor Dick Greco, former Hillsborough State Attorney E.J. Salcines and then-Hillsborough Chief Judge Dennis Alvarez — but also Gonzalez's mom, who had worked as a cigarmaker, raised him alone after a divorce and taught him to respect the sisters at St. Joseph's Elementary and Jesuit High.

The lesson took.

"There was not a more cheerful boy than Eddie," said his eighth-grade teacher at St. Joseph's, Sister Philomena Martorana, who also went to Washington for the swearing-in. "He worked hard. He tried. Everyone loved him."

And he had a wicked sense of humor. As chief, Gonzalez once dropped by a Times staff party and pulled off a prank that reporters still talk and laugh about.

Party host Bill Duryea, then a Times general assignment reporter in Tampa, now the paper's enterprise editor, had a pool table in his garage and recalled that Gonzalez shot a very good game.

At one point, Gonzalez was moving around the pool table, and as he passed a Times staffer sitting on the couch, he leaned down in one smooth motion and placed a little piece of soap in clear plastic wrap at the guy's feet as if he were stooping to pick it up.

"Did you drop this?" Gonzalez asked.

With that, the guy "elevated off the couch like he had been snatched by a hook," Duryea said. "With his hands in the air, he shouted, 'I never touched that!' "

Duryea and another reporter, the late Paul de la Garza, had put Gonzalez up to the joke. While they roared with laughter, the victim jabbered in panic. After a bit, Gonzalez genially doubled back. He paused, shook the guy's hand and tried to calm him down.

He was like that.

Eddie Gonzalez was great police chief, even better party guest 04/01/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2014 5:26pm]

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