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Epilogue | Dewey Leigh

Dewey Leigh called 'em like he saw 'em as umpire, commissioner

Dewey Leigh stepped down in 1993, saying his work as a commissioner was ruining his golf game.

Dewey Leigh stepped down in 1993, saying his work as a commissioner was ruining his golf game.

MADEIRA BEACH — As a city commissioner, Dewey Leigh never minded taking a stand, and often wound up on the losing end of votes by himself.

Between 1991 and 1993, the retired data processor voted to allow liveaboards, whom many regarded as tax-dodging polluters, to remain in marinas.

Mr. Leigh also voted to let a noisy airboat contractor remain.

He lost both times, 4-1.

The jovial politician stepped down in 1993, saying his work as a commissioner was ruining his golf game. He would re-emerge in 1994 and 1997 to run for mayor and commissioner, losing narrowly both times.

He will likely be remembered best for the work he did later, including getting flags erected along Gulf Boulevard. He also helped secure a twisted steel beam from the World Trade Center, the core of a Sept. 11 memorial to the fallen that is near completion.

Mr. Leigh, the city's Citizen of the Year in 2001 and a candidate for the same honor in several other years, died at home July 14, the result of heart failure, his family said. He was 84.

Friends and family describe him as an easy talker who bantered with checkout clerks in the grocery store as if he had known them for years.

Former Madeira Beach Mayor Tom DeCesare, who defeated Mr. Leigh in 1994, recalled standing in front of City Hall with his opponent.

"We held each other's signs when one of us had to go to the bathroom," said DeCesare, 81. "It was that kind of relationship."

The town of 4,200 widely divergent residents, from retirees living in high-rises to commercial fishermen, can heat up quickly.

"It could get very intense," said Mike Maxemo, who served for 36 years in Madeira Beach as community services director and interim city manager before taking over as operations manager for St. Pete Beach. "Neighbors were known to knock on his door (to argue political issues). He stood on his own convictions."

The city eventually banished airboats, but not before creating an even larger controversy. Three commissioners, including the mayor, voted to quash the rights of nonresidents to speak at their meetings, an action taken after an airboat mechanic who didn't live in the city had spoken up.

In protest, Mr. Leigh, who had proposed the resolution guaranteeing the right to participate in public meetings regardless of where the speakers live, held up a passage from the state Government-in-the-Sunshine manual quoting the Florida Supreme Court.

"Dewey and I both said, 'We're going to be the laughingstock of the New York Times. This is the First Amendment,' " said DeCesare, who voted with Mr. Leigh in a 3-2 losing effort.

Dewey Joseph Leigh was born in Cincinnati in 1928.

He worked in data processing for IBM at the dawn of the computer age. Mr. Leigh and the former Delores Smith had six children.

Mr. Leigh retired to Madeira Beach in 1979 and ended up working for the city of St. Petersburg for several years.

"He was a special gift and a special friend to Madeira Beach," said commissioner and former Mayor Pat Shontz.

A longtime softball umpire with the Greater Pinellas County Officials Association, Mr. Leigh was famous for calling it like he saw it — or, in at least one case, as he felt was right.

When one pitcher struggled to get the ball over the plate, recalled Mr. Leigh's daughter Diane Smerling, batters stopped swinging. Pretty soon they loaded the bases, then walked home on another ball four.

Mr. Leigh decided to put an end to the one-sided play.

"The ball came in wide," said Smerling. "Dad looked straight at it and called, 'Strike!' ''

To the astonished batter, "Dad said, 'You get your bat off your shoulder and play.' "

In 2002, Mr. Leigh decided he didn't like the name of his street. "Bland Way" had been named for its developer. Mr. Leigh and a neighbor collected signatures. The new name: Sunset Cove.

An even prouder accomplishment: In 2007, after years of lobbying, Mr. Leigh succeeded in getting all cities from St. Pete Beach to Belleair Beach to mount American flags on light posts for Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Veterans Day. The tradition Mr. Leigh called "the Star-Spangled Boulevard" continues, as does his legacy.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248.

Dewey Joseph Leigh

Born: Nov. 13, 1928

Died: July 14, 2013

Survivors: wife, Dolores "Dee" Leigh; sons, David, Daniel and Doug Leigh; daughters, Denise "Nese" Leigh, Diane Smerling and Debbie Friedman; brother, Walter Leigh; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Dewey Leigh called 'em like he saw 'em as umpire, commissioner 07/23/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 24, 2013 7:52am]
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