Several times a week, Warren "Snapper" Godbolt holds court under a shady oak tree along the U.S. 98 bypass, sharing stories and dispensing advice over the noisy rush of traffic and freight trains.
From the mismatched chairs around a white plastic table, Snapper, 62, offers soft-spoken encouragement to the young men who are down on their luck. He's slightly more forceful with the youth who've lost their way.
"One child saved is a citizen produced," Snapper said.
Snapper used to make his living as a junkman, salvaging other's castoffs to redeem the pieces that still have value. He's done the same with people, from his stint as a Dade City police officer to his years as a Tampa brick mason and a mentor of youth and community leaders alike. When the SWAT team killed Army veteran Justin Plaza during a standoff in April, Dade City Police Chief Ray Velboom worried the shooting of the young black man could spark a violent community response. Velboom's first call was to Snapper.
"Our officers go by (the oak tree) all the time so that everybody there knows that we're approachable," Velboom said. "Snapper will tell me what's right and what's wrong. He's one of many informal representatives who help us to make plans."
This week Snapper has bigger plans: He's in Charlotte, N.C., as part of Pasco's delegation at the Democratic National Convention, an honor he earned by registering the most new voters in Pasco County for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.
"He is one of the great examples of someone who has given his all," said Alison Morano, vice chairman of the Florida Democratic Party.
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Snapper grew up in Dade City and credits his father Warren "Pusher" Williams for his serious work ethic. Williams was a construction worker, a driver for Union cab in Dade City and was nicknamed for all the right reasons. In turn, he had affectionate pet names for each of his kids.
"Daddy called my brother Herbert 'Gator,' my sister Carol Ann was 'Gopher' and I became 'Snapper,' " he recalled. His father also gave him lasting advice: "One of the last things he said to me was to stay in school before life gets too complicated."
And it did: His mother Carrie died during childbirth when Snapper was 11. Seven years later, his father suffered a fatal heart attack. And the same year that Snapper graduated from Moore Academy and Mickens High School, he was drafted into the Army.
"That's when I understood what my father meant," he said.
Even at a young age, Snapper was unflappable, said his good friend Zollie Smith.
"Snapper would drive his dad's beat up old '50 Chevy," Smith recalled. "It had a stick shift and Snapper showed us how to use it on the hills in front of Saint Leo (university). One night the pack of us started screaming 'what's going on' when the hood blew off onto the windshield and then completely off the car.
"Snapper didn't panic," he added. "And for a teenager that was significant."
Spared deployment to Vietnam, Snapper served two years on a medevac helicopter crew at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. He said the military was the best thing that ever happened to him. It gave him discipline and goal-oriented training.
When he was honorably discharged in 1973, Snapper felt hopeful the racial tides were turning in the South. Under the tutelage of Charles Arnade, a University of South Florida professor of international studies and renowned crusader against racial injustice, Snapper became the youngest member of the first NAACP chapter in Pasco County.
Snapper studied criminal justice at Pasco-Hernando Community College and earned a state grant to accomplish a dream of police officer certification. In 1980 he started working patrol for the Dade City Police Department.
He maintained hope that he could make a difference as a black officer and role model, but Snapper said he endured disrespect on the streets. It compounded his pet peeve for "people who try to make others feel small."
"The first time I wrote a speeding ticket was to a lady in a big old Lincoln," he said. "I decided to give her a break and wrote up a warning for driving recklessly instead.
"That's when she warns me with 'Don't you know who I am?'" he said. She belonged to a rich, well-connected family. "I turned in the ticket and watched my chief rip it up. I learned that day about a good ole boy network and that I wasn't in the right police station at all."
He remembers one morning on patrol when he was having breakfast at a restaurant where the owner threw out two young black men for harassing the waiter.
"I calmly walked them outside and listened to their 'You're just an Uncle Tom' nonsense," he said. "When one of them backhanded me in the face with a chocolate milk carton, I took loose. He went to running and I shot him in the arm.
"He's lucky that I didn't have a nightstick."
Snapper was placed on leave. A month later he submitted his resignation.
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Snapper looked for law enforcement jobs elsewhere — Plant City, Pompano Beach and Houston — but nothing panned out. By then he had been married and divorced, and had fathered two of the four children he would have out of wedlock.
"They all should've been in one basket," Snapper said. "But there are no regrets. We all have a beautiful relationship."
He changed gears and joined Tampa Labor Union 1 as a brick layer. He enjoyed working with his hands and seeing a tangible product at the end of his day.
"I worked hard as a mason," Snapper said, "and then started moving industrial scrap metal. That did me well for many years."
Along the way he also took people under his wing.
"I was a little boy and felt a void in my life without my mother," he explained. "I had to be the big brother and the protector. I started my own thing."
Nearly 30 years ago, he mentored Thomas "Cat Man-The Junk Man" Gainey in the junk business. Snapper handed over his business to Gainey four years ago.
"We junked, joked and jobbed together," said Gainey, 49. "I was knee high to a duck when he said stay out of trouble and earn your keep."
John Pryor was just a teenager when Snapper first took him to the labor union in Tampa, helping him land a job and learn a trade.
" 'Let the man learn,' he told the foreman," recalled Pryor, now 42. "Since the '80s, he taught me. I tell the young guys today that if you're not doin' wrong, then Snap is the cat who will help you."
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In recent years, scrapping has become a tough living for honest people. The market is now flooded with stolen scrap metal, so it's hard for Snapper to get a decent price on his finds.
"These days the thieves have ruined the integrity of independent dealers," he said. "I had to give it all up."
So Snapper has focused on helping others at the place he calls "Oak Tree University," a kind of "conference center for black folks." And he has stepped up his political activism in the past two presidential campaigns, believing the Democrats are making an important push for green jobs and alternative energy policies.
"They can keep a man busy," Snapper said. "Only they can create an alternative program or product that can be sold and maintained for this country's benefit. Things thrown away can still be used. Why not reuse the thrown away tire and find landfills to clean?"
Friends and local volunteers have donated much of the $2,000 Snapper needed for his trip to Charlotte. Last week he packed an old plaid suitcase with one suit, some conservative slacks and shirts, an iron, and five pairs of shoes. On a bad day he walks with a cane to ease his lower back injury from the military and his arthritic knees.
"When they give you shoes in the military, you wear them," he said, smiling. "That experience and these sore ol' bones teach me — my feet got to feel good. And when I feel good, I can make others feel good, too."