Historian Rodney Kite-Powell actively lives in the past

Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center, poses for a portrait inside the museum on Feb. 6. In addition to being the center’s curator, he is working on a book about D.P. Davis, developer of Davis Islands.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center, poses for a portrait inside the museum on Feb. 6. In addition to being the center’s curator, he is working on a book about D.P. Davis, developer of Davis Islands.

TAMPA

D.P. Davis, the original developer of Davis Islands, was a troubled visionary who disappeared during an ocean cruise in 1926. He has long been a source of fascination for Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center. Kite-Powell, 39, wrote his master's degree thesis on the colorful Tampa character and currently is working on a book about him and Davis Islands.

Having grown up in Tampa, Kite-Powell recalls being interested in history at an early age. It may have started in fifth grade at Dale Mabry Elementary, when he worked on a project about Henry Plant, who brought the railroad to Tampa.

Kite-Powell earned his bachelor's degree in American history at the University of Florida before focusing on Florida history during graduate work at the University of South Florida. Basically, he loves history, so he had no trouble talking up the past during a recent interview with Tampa Bay Times staff writer Philip Morgan.

Many people say that their history courses in high school were boring. Why do you think that is?

Good teachers have to be able to tell a story, and not everybody can do that. Just because you're interested in history doesn't mean you can relate it well. And that, I think more than anything else, could be the problem with people who enjoy history but they have a hard time conveying history to people in an engaging way.

Why do we need to know history?

Everybody has their own personal history. Everybody, you would hope, learns from the mistakes that they have made in their personal lives. That's what history is.

For Florida history or American history or world history, it's the collective memory of people and what we've done that's good and what we've done that's bad and what we've done that's in the middle somewhere.

And so I think the most fundamental point is you have to know what has happened in the past so that you can make an informed decision about the future. Nobody will convince me that that isn't the case.

What reaction do you get from tourists who visit the Tampa Bay History Center?

It's surprise that our history goes back so far and it's as in-depth and varied as it is. Even people who are from here, but certainly people who aren't from here, have an idea that Florida is new — Florida has only existed since either air conditioning or Disney or maybe the end of World War II. ...

We have our subtle, good-natured digs at Plymouth and Jamestown, with Florida being older, St. Augustine being older. So those are fun things to kind of poke at people from that part of the country. They are rightly proud of their history, their stories go back a very long way, and they are incredibly important to American history. But so is ours. Our story goes back further, and our story is equally important to American history. I mean, we're about to celebrate (in 2013) 500 years as a known thing, with Ponce de Leon ... naming Florida.

So you've been researching developer D.P. Davis a long time. Tell us, what really happened to him?

The story that was most often repeated was that he went out a porthole. But he was on the Majestic, which was a ship similar to the Titanic. ... And he would have been in first class. ... They don't have portholes; they've got ... big windows, so he was in a window. He may have been just sitting in the window talking ... to his mistress. They're having an argument, allegedly. ... So he was quite likely either drunk or suicidal and was arguing, and the argument just got to the point where he just said that's enough, and just went out.

He just "went out"? Where was the ship at the time?

In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

If you could go back in time in Tampa, what would you like to see?

I'd love to see three different things. I'd love to come back and see Fort Brooke (military post). That would be the most incredible thing, to see what that looked like, because there were very few drawings of it and who knows how stylized they were? So to come back during the Seminole Wars and to see all of what was going on.

To see the first train come in 1889 — that would be incredible.

And then, of course, to see Davis Islands and to meet D.P. Davis.

Philip Morgan can be reached at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.

Historian Rodney Kite-Powell actively lives in the past 03/03/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 3, 2012 3:30am]

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