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Epilogue | Helen Chavez

Helen Chavez, former Tampa council member who fought shirtless Bucs fans, dies at 89

Helen Chavez, a restaurateur of fine-dining landmarks who as a former Tampa City Council member famously campaigned against drunken, shirtless football fans at the old Tampa Stadium in the 1980s, died Saturday.

The cause was organ failure, a daughter said. She was 89.

Mrs. Chavez got her start in the food business as a caterer, making asparagus sandwiches as a way of supplementing the family income.

"Mother thought, 'Well, we can make a business expanding this,' " said her daughter Denise Chavez.

From there, she went on to open a catering business, own several popular Tampa restaurants and serve on the Tampa City Council from 1979 to 1987, where she championed historic preservation, the revival of Hyde Park and toning down debauchery at Tampa Bay Buccaneers games.

"She was one of the most entrepreneurial women I've ever met," said former Florida governor and Tampa mayor Bob Martinez.

Her restaurants catered to Tampa's civil upper crust and included Chavez at the Royal, Chavez Windows on the Park and the Tea Room in Old Hyde Park.

"She was one of the hardest-working women I've ever known," said former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco. "She was always doing something."

Mrs. Chavez was born in 1924 in Kansas City, Mo., where she grew up with a father who owned a diner-style restaurant and a family interested in politics. Those two interests would follow her to Tampa, where she moved with her husband, George, in 1960.

After starting the catering business, Mrs. Chavez opened the Tea Room and Chavez at the Royal on Bayshore.

"It looked like it was out of New York," Denise said. "She and Bern's were the only ones at that time that were producing fine dining."

When she won the seat on the nonpartisan Tampa City Council in 1979, she did so as an open Republican when that wasn't the norm for politicians in Florida.

Her denunciation of shirtless Bucs fans at the old Tampa Stadium, and her idea of creating a family section, or in the alternate a "primitive section" for drunken louts, arguably garnered her the most attention.

But she also fought to preserve Tampa's brick streets, pushed for an ordinance prohibiting the transport of toxic waste through the city and helped get trash bins on Bayshore Boulevard. She supported the redevelopment of Hyde Park, where she herself invested.

"I'll probably go to my grave and it'll be on my tombstone, the shirtless thing," Mrs. Chavez once said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.

However, Denise said she was able to keep a sense of humor about the situation.

"She has a framed photo of her in a 1920s bathing suit and these shirtless men surrounding her," she said.

In 1987, Mrs. Chavez left the Tampa City Council and ran for mayor, where she competed against her former City Council colleague Sandy Freedman, who won.

"She definitely was outspoken, and she wouldn't let things go if she was passionate about them," Freedman said.

Even though they didn't always agree, she said, she appreciated her tenacity, particularly on issues they did agree about such as historic preservation and fostering more women in government and business.

"She was one of the few Republicans who really went out of the way to support women," Freedman said.

Mrs. Chavez's loss in the mayoral race didn't deter her from politics. She made an unsuccessful bid in 1988 for the Hillsborough County Commission, and another run for Tampa City Council in 1995, when she lost to current Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

She also continued to work in the restaurant business. In 2001, she took over the restaurant of the Don Vicente de Ybor Inn. And she served as a partner when Denise Chavez opened her own restaurant, Chavez at Home.

Denise, who sold Chavez at Home a year ago and now caters, said her mother was an influence in ways beside her choice of career. She ran herself for Tampa City Council in 2007, which delighted her mother, she said.

And although arthritis had slowed her down in the last years of her life, her mother would do any job she could for Denise sitting down.

"If you would've asked her, she never retired," Denise said.


Helen Chavez

Born: Oct. 18, 1924

Died: Aug. 2, 2014

Survivors: Daughters Denise and Mary Chavez and Michelle Harris

Helen Chavez, former Tampa council member who fought shirtless Bucs fans, dies at 89 08/03/14 [Last modified: Monday, August 4, 2014 12:25am]
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