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Manuel Menendez | 1920-2008

A cigar industry leader of Ybor City dies

WELLSWOOD — His early experiences in the Tampa Bay area were inauspicious at best. Ten-year-old Manuel Menendez was sent, all alone, from Colombia to live with an uncle in Tampa. His parents thought the educational opportunities were better in the United States.

But the uncle lived in a boardinghouse for bachelors in Ybor City. He couldn't keep a kid there. So he sent Manuel, who spoke no English, to a boarding school in Pasco County.

"He was miserable there," said his son Adrian. "His aunt and uncle drove down from Georgia to see him, an aunt and uncle he had never laid eyes on before. He hugged one of the wooden spokes of their car and begged them not to leave him there. He was just miserable."

They took him to rural Georgia, where he spent an idyllic childhood. But within 10 years he returned to Tampa to join the family business.

He was significantly happier this time. Tampa became his home for more than six decades, and Mr. Menendez became one of the leaders of Tampa's cigar industry.

Mr. Menendez passed away on April 23, after having suffered from pulmonary problems for many years. He was 88.

His uncles owned and operated J.A. Suarez Tobacco Leaf Co., which at the time imported tobacco from Cuba. As a young man, Mr. Menendez learned to type so he could work in the company's office. But he spent a lot of his time in Cuba, working in tobacco fields and literally learning the tobacco business from the ground up.

In the early 1940s, a friend arranged for Mr. Menendez to go on a blind date, to a dance at Centro Asturiano, with a young woman visiting from New York. He was reluctant to go at first, but his date would become his wife of 64 years.

"He didn't want to take me to the dance because his friend had played a lot of practical jokes on him and he thought this was another one," Viola Menendez said. "But he saw me and he liked me."

She returned to New York but they kept in touch. Mr. Menendez joined the military during World War II and, because of his typing skills, was assigned to assist the officer in charge of all the prisoner of war camps in Florida. During the war years, he married Viola. They started their married life on a North Florida military base.

They came back to Tampa after the war, and eventually Mr. Menendez assumed the helm of the J.A. Suarez Tobacco Leaf Co., which operated out of a building on Franklin Street.

The company concentrated on importing tobacco from Cuba. But after Fidel Castro took over and trade with Cuba was prohibited, the company had to find another way to do business.

"They still did some importing but mostly they became a tobacco storage company," his son said. "They had the first cold storage facility for tobacco in Tampa."

The company expanded under Mr. Menendez, and eventually owned or rented buildings from West Tampa to Ybor City.

"They had a chance to buy Ybor Square for $50,000," his son said, "but that was a lot of money and they were very conservative so they passed on it."

Mr. Menendez was a regular at Centro Asturiano, where he played dominoes every Saturday, but his life centered on his family: his wife, sons, his aunt and uncle in Georgia, his cousins in Tampa, and his parents and other relatives who remained in Colombia.

"He was a great family man and a great provider," his wife said. "Even now, his family in Colombia say they can't believe how much love he had for them."

Besides his wife and son Adrian, Mr. Menendez is survived by son Davian, seven grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and two sisters.

Marty Clear is a freelance writer who writes life stories of Tampa residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at maclear@tampabay.rr.com.

A cigar industry leader of Ybor City dies 05/01/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 7, 2008 3:55pm]

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