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Epilogue: Gene Davis, a liquor man who lived with vigor

TAMPA — Back up in Brooklyn, during the Depression, his Russian immigrant parents rented rooms to tenants in their building. When the tenants couldn't pay, his parents left bags of eggs and bread by their doors, saying nothing. The son saw that.

Down here in Tampa, many years later, he and his wife and their three grown children were out to dinner at Bern's on Thanksgiving night, and he noticed a man eating alone a few tables away and approached him.

"Come sit with us," Gene Davis said. "Come join my family."

Mr. Davis, 90, was a gentleman and a salesman, a big-tipping workaholic with a deep, booming voice. For more than half a century, he was a fixture in the South Tampa social scene and the local Jewish community, the husband of former Democratic state Sen. Helen Gordon Davis and a liquor man who sold it and drank it with comparable vigor.

He started selling shirts and socks for his father's haberdashery business in upstate New York. After serving in the Army Air Corps, he came to Tampa after World War II, throwing in the back of a used Cadillac a couple of cases of Kentucky Cardinal whiskey. He worked six days a week, Saturdays too, and did it for 60 years strong. National Distributors grew to become one of the country's biggest businesses of its kind.

"Spirits," he said in 1989, are a "part of gracious living."

He drank martinis, first with Bombay or Tanqueray gin, later with Kettle One vodka, after his doctor told him the latter might be better for his belly. He was loyal always to the brands of booze that put his children through school.

He wore silk suits, and managed to look debonair, people said, rather than foolish or ostentatious. Certain men can pull off a pocket square, and certain men can't.

He was married for 65 years to Helen Gordon Davis, the glamorous champion of civil rights and women's rights, who was the first woman in Florida to get elected to the state House and then later the state Senate. They danced Friday nights at the Columbia, the samba and the rumba and the cha cha, so silver-screen elegant that people stopped to watch. To many, he was Mr. Helen Gordon Davis, and most of the time he relished that role.

He played poker, weekly games on Tuesday nights, a good player but a bad poker face. "You knew when Gene had a good hand," his poker partner Les Barnett said. When he started to lose his sight, he brought to the game a magnifying glass, then binoculars. Then he stopped playing poker.

He ate lunch on Tuesdays with the same group of men, at Pach's Place on Bay to Bay Boulevard, always at the table up near the front, looking out over the water. They called themselves the ROMEOs, which stands for Retired Old Men Eating Out or Raunchy Old Men Eating Out, depending on the day and the mood.

He always asked about the family and the children of their regular waitress, Mary McDonald, "right till the end," she said.

When he smoked, he smoked two to three packs a day, and he kept Kettle One miniatures in his pockets, even later on, which he drank on the rocks with very little water.

"He was no angel, believe me," said Garry Freid, his friend for more than 60 years, "but everybody liked him. Because he was normal. The truck drivers in his company loved him for a reason."

Over the last few years, he went from walking, to walker, to wheelchair.

Sundays were for phone calls to family.

Not long ago, there was an auction to clear out the Davis home of 55 years — Venetian mirrors, Grecian sculptures and Anne Klein mink coats — before he and his wife moved to an assisted-living high-rise.

Last fall, he had his 90th birthday, and family, friends and colleagues celebrated with a StarShip dinner cruise out of Channelside.

Last week, his friend Morty Gould picked him up for ROMEOs and said maybe he should stay home and rest, but Mr. Davis said no. He wanted to be with the guys. McDonald, the waitress, cut his barbecue ribs into pieces, and he ate about half and also some asparagus and said he was going to take the rest home to Helen. His eyes looked different, his friends thought, and he was having trouble breathing even with the extra oxygen.

"Gene, are you feeling all right?" Freid asked.

"Just don't talk to me," Mr. Davis said to his friend.

Born Nov. 15, 1919, dead March 13, 2010, he is survived by his wife, his son the successful restaurateur Gordon Davis of Tampa, his daughter Stephanie Davis of Atlanta, his daughter Karen Davis of Philadelphia, and nieces, nephews and grandchildren.

On Tuesday, at Congregation Schaarai Zedek, his rabbi called him an icon, his financial adviser called him a steward for his family, and his son asked that everybody raise an imaginary glass. The people held their hands high, martinis in their minds, and toasted Gene Davis.

Times news researcher Will Short Gorham contributed to this report.

Epilogue: Gene Davis, a liquor man who lived with vigor 03/17/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 11:03pm]
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