TAMPA — Joe Kotvas rearranged his $17.99 paperbacks, his $30 hardcovers, his "military historian/author" business cards.
"It's my first book signing," he said. "I'm a little nervous."
Kotvas was standing Monday evening in the entryway of the Charles J. Fendig Public Library to promote his new book, Men of the Invisible War, a self-published history of the Japanese occupation of two Aleutian islands during World War II.
The book, Kotvas says, is a 25-year labor of love and testament to the power of second chances.
In 1983, Kotvas was one of three Hillsborough County commissioners arrested as part of a public corruption investigation. He served five years of a 12-year federal prison sentence for taking a bribe in exchange for a favorable zoning vote.
Since his release in 1990, he has posited other routes to redemption, mainly via elected office. He has run, and lost, three times for public office, most recently a 2004 run for Hillsborough's School Board. He said then that he wanted to inspire students. "I'm trying to show them no matter how bad things get, no matter how dark things get, you can turn your life around," he said in 2004.
But it's just as well he lost those races, he said Monday. He said everything that went into the book — combing through declassified military documents, interviewing veterans' families — is what really helped sustain him.
"I listened to other people's misery and suffering," said Kotvas, 69. "I didn't have time to feel sorry for myself."
The origins of the book can be found in his darker days. He was finishing up his prison sentence at a minimum security facility located at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama when a colonel asked him to go to the basement and find some documents on World War II Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, about whom the colonel was delivering a presentation.
Kotvas said that research led him to learn about the Japanese presence in the Aleutian chain of islands off the coast of Alaska.
He grew interested and kept researching after he got out, even as he struggled to find work — he's now an X-ray technician — and raise his youngest son. The about-the-author section of the book contains a paragraph about his time in federal prison in the public corruption case.
On Monday, former Tampa City Council member and Hillsborough County Commissioner Joe Chillura — also a friend — said he'd read the book and was impressed. "He's been at it for a long time," he said.
By early evening, only half a dozen people, all of them friends of Kotvas, had shown up at the book signing. They filed into a room to wait for Kotvas to make his presentation. The author was reluctant to leave his table.
"You want to give it a few more minutes?" he asked of Chillura. "People are just getting off work."
But after a while, no one else appeared to be coming. So Kotvas went into the room to talk about the men in his book. He said they'd been forgotten by history. "I'm trying," he said, "to give them a chance at a second life."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected].