GULFPORT — The crowd of more than 200 sat in silence as Lori Rosso spoke of the gray-haired man standing behind her in a dark suit and tie.
"You can't think of Gulfport and not think of Mayor Mike," she said.
Rosso said those words at a ceremony held late last month to change the name of the Gulfport Recreation Center to the "Michael J. Yakes Recreation Complex."
Earlier, U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young's chief of staff had presented a pair of flags that had flown in Yakes' honor over the U.S. Capitol. Later, someone read a resolution passed by the Florida League of Cities recognizing his accomplishments.
The gathering was more than a building dedication. It was a tribute to a man who had led this city of 12,000 for more a quarter of its history. In 1986, Mike Yakes joined the City Council. Five years later, he became mayor, a position he has held ever since.
After a series of hospitalizations — caused by what he would only describe as "cardiac problems" — the 69-year-old decided a few months ago not to seek re-election.
"It's the right decision," he said. "I haven't enjoyed the quiet in the boat fishing for a long time."
A native of Michigan, Yakes moved to Gulfport as a boy in the 1940s. His father and grandfather built many homes in the city at a time when the area was little more than a coastal village surrounded by snakes and palmetto fields. As a kid, he gigged mullet from a johnboat with his dad and brother.
His school years here, he said, shaped him.
"Everything I needed to know about politics I learned at Gulfport Elementary," he said.
He'll soon retire from a lengthy career for the second time. He worked a variety of jobs at the Florida Department of Transportation for more than 37 years.
But most people in Gulfport will remember him just as Rosso does: Mayor Mike.
"I've watched him for 10 years, and he never ceases to amaze me," Rosso, Gulfport Chamber of Commerce president, said recently. "He has left a real legacy here."
He has served in multiple roles, including president, of both the Suncoast League of Cities and the Pinellas County Mayors' Council. He also was a board member of the Florida League of Cities and, through the years, has implemented several youth programs in Gulfport.
Still, to those who know Yakes best, he doesn't act like a man who has spent more than a third of his life in public office.
"He's the anti-politician," Rosso said.
"He's a steward of the citizens of Gulfport," said Jeri Reed, president of 49th Street South Business Association. "He is not a politician."
"He is the most selfless person and politician who I have ever met," said Maddy Guenther, owner of O'Maddy's Bar & Grille.
He has a quiet smile and Coke-bottle glasses. He believes party affiliation has no place in local government. He sometimes rambles, but mostly about his adoration for Gulfport — or for his idol, Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Some friends describe him as quirky, others as mild-mannered.
Both descriptions suit him, he said, but one attribute above all others has guided his political success: patience.
Yakes always believed he was meant to do the will of his constituents, not think for them.
"I'm willing to listen before I speak," he said. "I didn't come here to fight. I came here to compromise."
Many people say he was instrumental in Gulfport's evolution as a tourist destination during the 1990s and 2000s. He was an unswerving supporter of the burgeoning art scene, which now draws thousands of visitors here each year. He almost never missed a council meeting or a city event, often at the expense of time with his family.
Now, he said, that's going to change.
In 2008, his wife of 29 years, Darlene, died of cancer. Her death placed the responsibility of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — about a dozen in all — solely on him.
To most people, he'll always be Mayor Mike, but soon he expects to be called another name a bit more often:
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]