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Dreamer's work for Tampa Bay History Center will endure for generations

He helped pull the idea of a history center out of mothballs 20 years ago.

Everybody asked, "Where would it go? How big should it be? Can we afford it?"

He simply said it was a necessity. He offered to begin small, eventually finding the artifacts a temporary home in the Tampa Convention Center.

"We'll walk before we run," he said optimistically.

Still, support ebbed and flowed. The County Commission pledged $17 million and then questioned the decision. Some used words like "lavish." Others called history center supporters "dreamers."

In the end, you could call J. Thomas Touchton a dreamer — a dreamer who delivered.

A month after watching him realize the vision of the Tampa Bay History Center, the Tampa Metro Civitan Club named Touchton its Outstanding Citizen of the Year.

A surprised Touchton accepted the award at the Florida State Fair's Governor's Day Luncheon Monday while his wife Lee, son John and daughter Lavinia — who secretly flew in from Seattle — looked on.

"It doesn't happen alone," a teary-eyed Touchton said as he called Lee, his wife of 45 years, to the dais. "I had a partner the whole way, and I want her to come up and share this."

Touchton, a native of Dade City, now joins an illustrious group of winners during the 82-year span of the award, including George Steinbrenner, Monsignor Laurence Higgins, James and Hinks Shimberg, George and Leonard Levy and the Rev. Abe Brown.

Current history center chairman George Howell, who introduced Touchton, also noted that he was the founding president of the St. Joseph's Hospital Development Council, a longtime TECO Energy board member and a former University of Tampa board member.

His perseverance stands out, especially in helping the center raise $29 million.

"He believes that history is part of what defines us and by knowing it, we can contribute to each generation more responsibly," Lavinia Touchton said of her father.

The passion for history and the vision of sharing it kept him going through the uncertain moments.

"I would say, 'What's not to like?' " Touchton explained. "It's a great history. It's a great story. It's a great location. It was just so obvious to me, as I got to know the stories more and more, how important it was to tell them. It took a lot of people to help us do it."

Touchton laughs that he doesn't hunt, fish, follow sports or play golf. But he does collect maps, including what may be the first map to ever bear the name "Tampa."

Mayor Pam Iorio, another history buff, said it's not uncommon for Touchton to bring maps and artifacts when they have lunch.

"He has a real intellectual understanding of the past and he really wants to share it with everybody," Iorio said. "Everything he does, he does for love of the community. He never does anything for himself. He doesn't even think like that."

His maps will be on display in a special history center gallery that bears the family's name, but that's just part of the Touchton legacy.

When today's schoolchildren turn 20 or 30, they will recall with fondness those field trips they took to the new museum in Channelside.

They will bring their kids.

And maybe they will tell them that dreamers can make history.

That's all I'm saying.

Dreamer's work for Tampa Bay History Center will endure for generations 02/09/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 9, 2009 11:59pm]
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