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Phone pioneer's recognition no longer on hold

Emmett Clary, a GTE retiree, has done his part to keep his love and knowledge of telecommunication history alive.

An active member of the Independent Telecommunications Pioneer Association, Clary, along with other telephone enthusiasts, started a project to commemorate Almon B. Strowger, inventor of the Strowger Switch, which ultimately led to modern telephone dialing.

Strowger is buried in St. Petersburg's Greenwood Cemetery and has been commemorated there twice. Although Clary's efforts have been great, he had not seen the results he hoped for, until now.

A permanent display honoring Strowger will go up in the Safety Harbor Museum of Regional History later this year, but the road to this success has been long and tedious for Clary.

In 2002, Clary approached Verizon and proposed a memorial renovation of the Greenwood Cemetery to honor Strowger.

Verizon's external affairs director toured the cemetery and eventually approved a $10,000 grant for the rejuvenation of the cemetery.

Although it had the money, the memorial was rejected by the Roser Park Preservation Association because it did not want alterations to the historic site of the cemetery.

Chris Kelly, president of the Roser Park Preservation Association at the time, did refuse the changes in the cemetery but believed that Strowger was a great historic figure and deserved to be remembered.

Kelly proposed to Clary that Strowger's life and work was local history and should be celebrated in the St. Petersburg Museum of History. Clary said, "He figured it was the proper place for it, and I did too."

Clary and Kelly started a project to get a display put up in the St. Petersburg Museum of History but were turned down after six months of hard work. Those six months included many meetings with museum officials, working with the museum's freelance designer and a few long months awaiting an answer. Finally, Mary Wyatt Allen, a museum volunteer, told Clary and Kelly that the museum would not house the exhibit, despite the $10,000 grant from Verizon.

"There was much more to it than we were able to handle at the time," Allen said. "Some people believe museums are simple, but they are not."

The museum did not move quickly on this proposal, according to Allen, but they gave it a great deal of consideration before deciding that it was not a good or reasonable choice for the museum.

Allen said she "wondered if there would be as much interest in it as the committee believed there would be."

After the project was declined, efforts slowed. The Museum of Science and Industry and the Tampa History Museum rejected Clary's idea.

The attempt to memorialize Almon B. Strowger as a part of local history became dormant for more than four years.

Two months ago, Clary received a phone call from Glen Caristinos, a promoter and volunteer for the Safety Harbor Museum of Regional History, asking for some historical telephone equipment for a communications display set to begin in August.

As an active member of the Independent Telecommunications Pioneer Association, Clary had access to many items, which led to another opportunity to promote the Strowger exhibit.

This time it paid off. Caristinos found the suggestion intriguing and has begun planning the exhibit. The "Evolution of Technology" display, set to open in mid August, was inspired by Verizon's FiOS system and will examine the progression of communication, beginning with historic alarm systems.

Caristinos plans to tie in a separate display of Strowger's equipment and hopes to finish a permanent exhibit dedicated to him before the new year.

"Because of the technology we have today, if we don't continue to house this type of equipment, it will disappear, and our grandchildren will never get to see it," Caristinos said.

Clary finally got a museum to recognize what he considers to be important history. Even though the site was not his first choice, he is pleased with how it turned out.

"We're hoping to have our state assembly at the Safety Harbor Spa; I think it would be ideal to get people down here," Clary said of the Independent Pioneers.

Despite getting a commitment for the exhibit, Clary said he thinks some kind of recognition is needed in St. Petersburg.

Though Clary got his exhibit, he says, "I do think we need something over here," referring to St. Petersburg.

Having worked in telecommunications for many years, Clary dealt mostly with Strowger equipment and said he realizes that without it, we might still be using switchboard operators.

Emily Rieman can be reached at 893-8215 or

Phone pioneer's recognition no longer on hold 08/02/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 2, 2008 4:32am]
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