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USF professor retires with a storehouse of Florida knowledge, colorful stories

Gary Mormino, who retired from his University of South Florida history department in St. Petersburg on Monday, will have time to work in his garden now. I would like to think the professor emeritus will discover a way to grow olives in his back yard. Perhaps he will have time to work harder on his tennis game. Finally, I hope he will develop a new recipe for his already outstanding meat sauce, using sausage from Mazzaro Italian Market.

Of course, he will continue to collect stories and to tell them. After 35 years at the university he will write more books, perhaps something even more accomplished than his iconic social history of the peninsula, Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams. I hope he writes one about Florida food or World War II-era Florida. He is passionate about everything, so maybe he will write a book about butterfly gardening that will help all of us attract monarchs to our tormented shrubbery.

More than likely he will swallow the bitter bill and write his books on a machine he has never mastered, a computer. He is much better writing on manual typewriters. Truth is, not long ago he wrote everything in longhand. I always wondered whether he was hiding a quill pen somewhere in the messiest office I have ever seen.

Gary Mormino, who is 65, is anything but modern. Close friends say he barely qualifies as a 20th century guy. "He's a throwback," says Ray Arsenault, who with Mormino founded the Florida Studies Program on the St. Petersburg campus in 2003. "He has this great faith in small-town America and its values. For years he prided himself on never locking his front door."

He may be a Yankee, but I consider him Mister Florida. As a college professor, he helped shape the interests of hundreds of historians. He's not what I'd call an accomplished naturalist, but nobody works harder at identifying Florida flora and fauna. He also runs fast. He once leaped a fence to escape a bull.

A perpetual student, he tries to learn from anyone who can teach something about Florida, even if it's a recipe for mullet roe. He knows governors and senators, but he is acquainted with alligator wrestlers, too.

If you aren't a historian but need someone to put an event into an interesting Florida perspective, ask Gary. Everyone does, including reporters from the New York Times, the New Yorker and National Public Radio.

"Florida is now the capital of weirdness," he told the Huffington Post recently. "The rationale used to be that America tilted toward the west and all the nuts rolled to California. Now, perhaps, there's been a tectonic shift and America tilts toward the Southeast."

• • •

Mister Florida, who has raised storytelling to an art form, tilts toward the Midwest.

"I was born in Wood River, Ill., which is across the river from St. Louis. My mother, Mabel Dingle, had a very hard life. Her father was a coal miner who was killed in a family argument. My dad was a fourth-grade dropout, a second-generation Sicilian, the hardest working man I ever knew. He was a cabin boy on a Mississippi River barge, hopped trains and learned to fix anything that moved. When I was a boy he was a machinist at Shell Oil, a union man who would work a double shift and then come home and work in the garden, fix the cars of our neighbors or repair a small home that housed the eight of us. Everybody called him Barney. When I was 4 he took me to my Uncle Sammy's shoe repair shop, put an arm around me and said, 'Son, it's never too early to start thinking about learning a trade.' "

Gary never became a cobbler. After school he delivered newspapers, poured root beer and mowed the lawn of his intriguing grandfather, Phil Stassi.

"Phil told me he had lost his arm in a bus accident while on the way to a baseball tryout for the Chicago White Sox. I was a devoted St. Louis Cardinal fan, but my grandfather's hard-luck story was enough for me to renounce my beloved Cardinals and root for the White Sox.

"Years later I asked him for more details about the baseball tryout. 'What baseball tryout?' he asked. I reminded him. 'Oh, I made that up. I was actually a bootlegger and lost my arm in a shootout.' In 2005, the year the White Sox won the World Series, I called my dad to talk about old times. I had a question about Phil. Why had he been shot? Was he a 'made' man? My dad patiently explained that Phil had lost his arm when a cabbage truck smashed into his car."

Gary's frugal parents never went out to eat or to parties. Their six children never saw them kiss. Gary wasn't sure his dad was literate until he discovered old love letters written during World War II.

"A far as I know, my dad only went to movies twice in his life, and only because my sisters took him. One was West Side Story. At one point during the film he shouted, 'These two gangs fight for a while and then they sing and dance? What the hell is this?' My sisters didn't give up. Years later they took him to see Jesus Christ Superstar. He fell asleep and snored so loudly an usher expelled him from the theater. That incident may be why my sister, Carol, decided to join the convent. She's Sister Mary Rose now."

Barney Mormino thought boys, especially his oldest son, should join the Army or work in a factory. Go to college if you want, he said, but pay for it yourself. Gary worked on a road crew and in the sewers. He cooked at a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise and met Col. Sanders, who thought the smart boy had a future in the poultry business. Gary saved enough money for his first year of college.

• • •

Students who take classes from Gary Mormino or Ray Arsenault read many books and write many reports. Arsenault teaches through the Socratic method, asking penetrating questions and challenging the replies. Mormino has a gentler approach. Sometimes he treats students to fresh-squeezed orange juice, which may lead to a history of citrus in Pinellas County even if the night's topic was supposed to be Depression Florida. His lectures seldom flow in a straight line because he is likely to be excited about some newly discovered fact he wants to share. His conversations over cafe latte are crooked, too.

"I met Lynne Wheeler at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., where we both were undergraduates,'' he says. "We couldn't have been more different. I was a Catholic with a blue-collar, union background and she was a Presbyterian farmer's daughter. Really, her parents could have posed for American Gothic."

Lynne says: "We went to the Chinese Tea Garden for our first date. I had never had Chinese food so I ordered a fish sandwich."

Gary: "I was a little more sophisticated and ordered chop suey. Afterwards we went bowling."

They married on June 14, 1969.

Lynne's parents were unimpressed with their son-in-law. Men were supposed to work with their hands and grow corn. What could be more useless than teaching college?

Lynne: "We were newly married when we went for Sunday dinner at the farm. We sat at a table on the side porch from where Daddy could see his corn. We said grace and started eating."

Gary: "My father-in-law suddenly told Lynne's brother, 'John, bring me the rifle.' Of course, I thought a loaded rifle at the dinner table was somewhat alarming. My father-in-law leaned across the table near me and fired out the window. I was pretty shaken up. John, Lynne's brother, ran outside and held up some kind of varmint.

"But I always thought the gun was all about me. It was a message that I'd better take care of his daughter."

The Morminos landed in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1969. Lynne worked for the Social Security Administration while Gary studied history with a specialty in Italian-American immigration. On campus one day he saw a gnomelike creature playing tennis with a stunning young woman. The gnome turned out to be Mario Puzo, whose bestselling novel had just been made into a film, The Godfather.

Heart pounding, Mormino approached the great man during a break in their game.

"Mr. Puzo, my name is Gary Mormino and I am studying Italian …" The author cut him off.

"Hey, kid. I'm hustling this broad. F--- off!"

• • •

He joined the USF history faculty in 1977. He loved Ybor City, the community founded by Spanish, Cuban and Italian cigar workers in the 19th century. The Immigrant World of Ybor City, the prize-winning book that he wrote with George E. Pozzetta, is still in print.

In 1980 he met Ray Arsenault, who became his great friend, colleague and teller of Gary stories. They both had smart wives and precociously bright daughters. They both loved baseball, stories and research. Arsenault more or less embraced new technology; Mormino abhorred it. Gary "dearly loved the contemplative process of writing with an ink pen on yellow legal pad."

Gary's favorite modern technology had been invented at Harvard in 1938. It was a machine that made it easy to read reels of microfilm that stored public records and newspaper pages. Few modern researchers enjoy the experience of working through a reel of microfilm. Most of us develop a headache.

Not Gary. For decades he has practically lived among library microfilm files from which he extracts old newspaper stories. If he finds something exceptional, he prints multiple copies for friends and students. If you are interested in food, for example, Gary might send vintage clips about mullet catches. Cat people like USF colleague Sudsy Tschiderer might look in mailboxes for old clips about bird-eating felines. "Activity of the Audubon Society Spells Death for Vagrant Cats Slinking About Saint Petersburg,'' shrieks Gary's favorite banner headline from Jan. 10, 1915.

Desks across America are cluttered with his paper gifts.

I remember the time we drove to Miami for a speaking engagement. Afterward we checked into a historic bed-and-breakfast, a charming place in a high-crime area. After dinner, Gary announced plans to walk downtown to the public library for some microfilm high jinks.

"Really?" I asked. "It's pretty far. And it's dark."

He was gone for two hours but returned whistling.

The next morning he asked if we might walk back to the library. In daylight, the neighborhood looked even creepier than I feared. Broken whiskey bottles and crack pipes littered the sidewalk next to urine-stained mattresses on which men had passed out facedown.

Gary, oblivious, didn't take notice. Or didn't want to notice. There was a place, after all, he wanted to take me for some great Cuban coffee before we got to the library.

In 2003, he moved from USF in Tampa to USF in St. Petersburg to help direct the Florida Studies Program. Secretaries often found his keys dangling from the front door. Sometimes the buttons on his shirt didn't line up with the holes. Sometimes he arrived in class with ripped trousers. If Lynne needed their only car for the day, Gary ponied up $10 for a "Rent-a-Wreck."

I once took him to a cane grinding at a Dade City farm. Everyone standing at the bubbling cauldron seemed to be dressed in jeans or overalls. In his sweater vest, Gary looked like he'd wandered off the set of Father Knows Best.

• • •

Pam Iorio was one of his best students. She was supervisor of elections for Hillsborough County when she began working with Gary on her master's thesis. It was 2000. The chad hit the fan. Gary called her. "You're going to write a thesis describing what went wrong with this election from the perspective of the supervisors of elections. You are uniquely qualified to do this."

"Gary was like that," says Iorio, who later served as Tampa mayor. "He was able to see the bigger picture and opportunities."

Cynthia Mott was "quaking in my muddy boots" about her thesis. "Gary took a day out of his life and went with me to see the collection of artifacts I was researching. He didn't have to go himself, but he did, and then he brainstormed in the car all the way from Fort Myers to St. Pete about how to approach the massive project."

Dr. Jack E. Davis, another favorite Mormino graduate student, is now a history professor at the University of Florida and the author of An Everglades Providence about the life of Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Mormino warned Davis he never awarded A's. Davis protested. Hadn't Gary lost an important Davis paper in his messy office? Perhaps that paper would change Gary's mind about awarding an A.

Davis says, "I looked despairingly at his desk and the mound of news clippings, documents and anonymous papers, edges curling and bent, mounds piled high and merging into each other. My final grade in the course was a B+, the only B I would receive in graduate school."

A few years later Davis received a package in the mail. Gary had found that lost paper and awarded it an A+. And he was now happy to go back and change the course grade to A.

• • •

He's a great Italian cook. I eat his pasta, his salads, his desserts, his experiments. Sometimes I encounter him selecting supper ingredients at Mazzaro's, the Italian market that is his home away from home. The Sopranos might be his favorite television series ever. He cries during Frank Capra movies. He loved Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken: a World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption for reasons that surely included its Italian hero, Louis Zamperini. His favorite band, of course, is Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, nice Italian boys.

Last year I invited friends to dinner at a Greek nightclub mostly because I wanted them to hear a hotshot bouzouki player I know.

While we waited for our food, a voluptuous belly dancer slunk from the kitchen and homed in on the slightly dowdy college professor. Gary could not escape her undulating navel until he slipped a crisp dollar bill into her waistband.

I took a photograph of the moment.

I emailed it to Gary.

Delighted, he emailed the naughty picture to dozens of friends and students with a hilarious note, expressing regret for scandalizing USF with some vulgar nightclub behavior. Of course, he wrote, he had resigned in disgrace.

One thing. Gary Mormino is bad at computers.

His email arrived in dozens of in-baskets all over America — but without the photograph that would have made clear the joke.

As far as friends and students were concerned, Gary Mormino — old-fashioned, sweater-vest-wearing Gary Mormino — was resigning because of a mysterious scandal. Arsenault's phone rang off the hook. Mine, too. What had Gary done?

The next morning I emailed the belly dancing photograph to all of Gary's fans. It was the best thing I ever did.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8727.

USF professor retires with a storehouse of Florida knowledge, colorful stories 10/05/12 [Last modified: Friday, October 5, 2012 4:30am]

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