The man tapped to oversee the Gulf Coast's recovery from the BP oil spill is a Florida native who grew up swimming in the Gulf of Mexico off St. Pete Beach.
"I remember swimming in the gulf, seeing little sea horses floating in on the seaweed," said John H. Hankinson Jr. "It's unfortunate that it's taken this tremendously destructive event in the gulf to wake people up to how important the gulf is."
Hankinson, 62, now a St. Augustine resident, was recently chosen by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson to serve as executive director of the Gulf Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, the clearinghouse organization President Barack Obama has put in charge of fixing the economic, environmental and emotional damage done by this summer's Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Hankinson, who was sworn in Monday at the group's first meeting in Pensacola, will oversee a staff of a dozen or so people borrowed from various federal agencies. There's no set budget or dedicated funding source.
He will have to work with federal, state and local government officials, as well as university scientists, environmental activists and business groups. He can't order any of them to do anything, but he's supposed to coordinate everything from scientific research to restoration programs, and produce a plan for how it will work within a year.
Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of a Louisiana-based environmental group called the Gulf Restoration Network, compares it to being named chief cat herder.
"It's a tall order," said Sarthou, who is skeptical of the way the organization was set up. "But maybe if anybody can do it, he can."
Hankinson said he hopes the alarm generated by the spill "will give us the political will and the resources to do the job."
Hankinson, a heavyset man with a folksy manner and a thick mop of hair, hails originally from Ocala. His parents were teachers who frequently took him and his siblings to the Ocala National Forest so "I got plugged into the woods at an early age," he said.
His father was one of the few Ocala residents opposed to building the Cross Florida Barge Canal, he said, so he wound up being recruited into that early environmental battle, meeting the legendary activist Marjorie Harris Carr. Once the canal was halted, much of the route was later converted into a greenway that bears her name.
But it was his Sunday school teacher who influenced him more: future Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay.
After Hankinson earned a bachelor's degree from Florida Presbyterian (now Eckerd) College in 1970, he was working as a parole officer and his bosses wanted to reassign him. He told his woes to MacKay, who suggested he go to the University of Florida law school to learn how to fight battles for the environment in the courtroom. He graduated with his law degree in 1979.
He also met his wife, Gail, at law school. They have been married for 32 years and have two sons.
Thanks to MacKay's prodding him toward a career in public service, Hankinson went to work in Tallahassee. He toiled for a legislative committee, for then-Gov. Bob Graham and for an environmental group.
From 1986 to 1993 he worked at what he described as his favorite job, buying environmentally sensitive land for the St. Johns River Water Management District.
Then, when Florida native Carol Browner took over the EPA during the Clinton administration, she tapped Hankinson to run the agency's Atlanta regional office. That put him in charge of federal environmental programs in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Hankinson joked that his experience as a parole officer came in handy there. However, even though it was during the era of Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" when the EPA and all environmental regulations were targeted for reduction or elimination, Hankinson persuaded even the EPA's critics to respect him for his fairness, Sarthou said.
The staff liked him too.
"He listened to every level of the staff equally," recalled Haynes Johnson, who retired from the EPA's Atlanta office five years ago. "He gave everybody a fair shake, the public too. I think he was about as fair a person as I ever worked for."
As a result of his seven years running the Atlanta EPA office, "he knows the politics of the South," said Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida, who has known Hankinson since the 1980s. That's something that will come in handy with his new job, Draper said.
His ability to relate to the common man will serve him well too, Draper said, explaining, "If you didn't know him, you'd say he's another Bubba."
Hankinson said his work on Everglades restoration at EPA, as well as on St. Johns River restoration at the water district, helped equip him for the issues he'll deal with in his new job.
When Clinton left office, Hankinson had to resign as well — the regional director's post is a political appointment. Since leaving the EPA, he has been doing freelance consulting work and, for the past two years, serving as chairman of the board of Audubon of Florida.
He has also focused on his harmonica playing, which he judges is "okay." Last year his group put out a self-titled CD, Johnny Matanzas and the Hombres.
Ask if he's Johnny Matanzas, and he'll say, "I deny it."
However, he does admit that that's one reason he's excited about his new job — because it's based in New Orleans, famous for its music scene.
"This is definitely going to improve my musical resume," he joked.
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com.