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The remarkable Michael Gannon: His history is Florida's history

GAINESVILLE

So far it's been quite a life.

Writer Michael Gannon has been everywhere, seen everything and known everybody in Florida. Well, maybe not everybody. Ponce de Leon and Andrew Jackson died before Gannon could talk them up.

He did converse with John F. Kennedy. And King Carlos I of Spain declared him a knight. He counted Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings among his friends, too. The author of The Yearling and Cross Creek poured him a stiff belt of her favorite adult beverage, bourbon.

"She was a nice lady,'' Gannon says.

So, yes, it has been an adventure for the retired University of Florida history professor, who was a child during the Depression, came of age during World War II-era Florida and toiled as a bellboy in a St. Augustine hotel that also saw service as a brothel.

Let's see, what else? As a high school student he wrote a sports column for the town newspaper. Then he moved on to a job that paid a salary, broadcasting University of South Carolina football games over the radio. One night he was dancing with an Army nurse when it occurred to him that he ought to become a priest.

And so he did.

He was appointed pastor at St. Augustine, the Catholic Student Center across the street from the UF campus. Pastoring, remember, was a challenging full-time job — the sexual revolution was under way and the confessional was always full.

Yet somehow he found time to earn a doctorate, teach Florida history to generations of students, witness the civil rights movement and work as a war correspondent for a Catholic journal in Vietnam, where duties included administering last rites to dying soldiers.

Back in Gainesville, he became known as the antiwar priest, spoke during student demonstrations, and played peacemaker between long-haired campus denizens and buttoned-down administrators in Tigert Hall.

Interesting enough. But here's a famous Michael Gannon story:

It's 1972.

Students block an intersection. The Gainesville city manager calls on police and National Guardsmen to restore order. Frightened demonstrators escape to the hamburger joint down on University Avenue.

Krystal Hamburgers is an all-glass building.

An enormous policeman wearing a helmet and carrying a shield takes out a tear-gas grenade. The officer yanks open the door to the glass building and prepares to throw.

Father Gannon is afraid for the students. What if they panic and crash through the glass? It'll be another Kent State. So he grabs the officer's throwing arm.

Another officer whacks Father Gannon's head with a baton. The priest sees stars and goes down hard. He is dragged across the street and arrested.

The tear-gas grenade? It's never thrown.

"It could have turned into a great tragedy,'' Gannon says. Even now he chokes up when recalling the moment.

Yes, it's been quite a life.

In 1976 he left the priesthood to devote his time to historical research. He married Gigi, a schoolteacher from Sarasota. He wrote a passel of books including Operation Drumbeat, an account of Germany's World War II U-boat operations along the American coast. It joined his earlier Cross in the Sand: The Early Catholic Church in Florida, 1513-1870 as a must-read for historians. A World War II novel, Secret Missions, became a Reader's Digest Condensed Book. In 2003, he penned — "pen" is the proper word — Florida: A Short History, a 180-page all-you-need-to-know-about-the-state bestseller.

Last March, Gov. Charlie Crist gave him Florida's first Lifetime Literary Achievement Award.

He plans to write more books.

After all, he is only 83.

• • •

Contrary to popular belief, Michael Gannon can work a computer. To find the electronic notebook thingamajig on his desk, he has to shove aside papers and pens and lots and lots of books. He prefers library stacks, moldy tomes, papers turning yellow, and stubby pencils. In a pinch, or when he is feeling contemporary, he'll use a pen. In the Twitter Age he still writes books in longhand.

"I can feel the words going from my mind to the page better,'' he says. "I can feel the rhythms of the words and the pacing of the sentences I can't feel when tapping on keys.''

He learned to read Greek in college. He can read and write Latin. He speaks French, German and Spanish. In 1990, Spain's King Juan Carlos I declared him a "knight commander of the Order of Isabella the Catholic" for his Spanish Florida scholarship.

In the past half-century he has shaken hands with most of Florida's governors and U.S. senators. In 1963, he lobbied John F. Kennedy to visit the town of St. Augustine for its upcoming 400th birthday.

"I'll keep in touch,'' Kennedy told him. Four days later, from a book repository in Dallas, shots rang out.

Gannon listens to Gregorian chants and still enjoys a glass of bourbon.

Azaleas line his driveway. He isn't a TV person, but he follows the Gators. His favorite all-time sportswriter was Red Smith. He says he learned to write by studying Smith's columns in the New York Herald Tribune in the 1940s. "Red Smith avoided excessive adverbs and adjectives and wrote in a clear, spare style,'' he says.

After Red, his favorite writers are T. E. Lawrence, better known as "Lawrence of Arabia" and author of the 1922 autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and G.K. Chesterton, a historian, playwright, poet, novelist and philosopher famous for his defense of Catholicism in the early 20th century. Gannon remains a devout Catholic.

He speaks in a James Earl Jones baritone. Back when he was delivering homilies in church, it was a voice that snapped hungover students to attention. "He has the voice of God,'' says Gary Mormino, a University of South Florida historian and close friend.

For decades, Gannon traveled the state giving a lecture he called "Florida in 40 Minutes.'' In 2007, he published a book with the same title that an average person should be able to read in about 40 minutes. Modern Floridians can pop the accompanying CD into their stereos and listen to Gannon lecture in full throat.

• • •

Gannon's favorite place in the world? Well, he enjoys visiting the city that shaped him, St. Augustine, which was founded one year after Michelangelo's death and Shakespeare's birth. His favorite year may be 1565.

He likes Florida schoolchildren to know that St. Augustine, and not the famous rock in Massachusetts, was the site of the first Thanksgiving. "By the time the Pilgrims came to Plymouth,'' he booms, "St. Augustine was up for urban renewal.''

He becomes a boy again during his St. Augustine visits. He remembers riding his bicycle on the coquina streets and pretending to be a helmeted horseman serving the Spanish crown. He remembers netting mullet and bringing them to his mother.

He remembers his first grownup job. He was a 15-year-old bellhop at a popular hotel during the war years. Servicemen from the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville and the Army Training Center at Camp Blanding flocked to St. Augustine. One evening a voluptuous female guest checked in. "Want to make a few extra dollars?'' she whispered after he had carried her empty suitcase up to her room. All he had to do was encourage lonely soldiers to pay her a visit. He fled downstairs, where the hotel manager had to explain the mysterious transaction to the future priest.

It's been quite a life.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, lived in St. Augustine then. She and Gannon's mother, Mary Lee, became close friends. Sometimes Mary Lee visited Rawlings and her husband at home and sometimes Rawlings visited Mary Lee at the Gannon Victorian at No. 1 Palm Row.

In her 1942 memoir, Cross Creek, Rawlings had described a friend, Zelma Cason, as "an ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary.''

Cason filed a $100,000 lawsuit for invasion of privacy that dragged on seven years and gave the author a terrible case of writer's block. The Florida Supreme Court ruled against Rawlings but awarded Cason only $1. Rawlings never wrote about Florida again, and drank heavily.

She began a novel set in New York, she told Mary Lee Gannon and her son. One character, Rawlings said, was considering a career in the ministry — just like Michael. Perhaps Michael might share his thoughts with her.

Michael and his mother visited Mrs. Rawlings at home. The author poured bourbon for everyone. They talked for hours with Mrs. Rawlings drinking all the while. When she began slurring, Mary Lee Gannon said, "Michael, I think we have exhausted Mrs. Rawlings. We must go home.''

Mrs. Rawlings died of a stroke in St. Augustine in 1953. Her last novel was called The Sojourners. Gannon raced through the pages looking for a reference to their talk. But nothing from the bourbon-soaked interview made it into the book.

• • •

It's been quite a life.

Gannon has never stopped thinking about Rawlings. In 1987, he wrote a play about the trial called My Friend Zelma: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings on Trial. He took dialogue from the trial transcripts and letters of the participants. His play recently was produced in St. Augustine.

Gannon and his wife took their seats in the front row of the Limelight Theater.

On stage, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was alive again. At play's end, Rawlings read something from Cross Creek about Florida belonging to the redbirds and the whip-poor-wills and time itself.

The audience gave the cast a standing ovation. Gannon needed help rising from his chair. He has circulation problems. He has arthritis. He walks with a cane.

Someone asked for an autograph. He found a pen and with his arthritic hand slowly wrote his name.

The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. If he writes another book in longhand, it will take a while.

"Oh, yes, I have ideas,'' he says. "But I don't like to talk about future books. Books you talk about are the ones that never get written.''

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727. His latest book is "Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators.''

on the web

In his words

Go to video.tampabay.com to see Michael Gannon talk about his friendship with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

The remarkable Michael Gannon: His history is Florida's history 05/28/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 28, 2010 7:05pm]

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