TEMPLE TERRACE — In the mid 1930s, Ray Knopke couldn't help but notice the funeral trains as they drove by his scrap yard to east Tampa.
He thought about his own tract of land and put two and two together.
In 1937, Mr. Knopke co-founded Garden of Memories Cemetery, closer to downtown Tampa than the competition.
His would become a cemetery without upright monuments, only flat markers. The idea, barely gaining traction at the time, was to create a parklike effect — a clean, unobstructed open space — and cut down on tombstone one-upsmanship.
Mr. Knopke applied the same practical thinking to his 28 years in elected office, from city council member to state senator, where he chaired the Senate's natural resources committee.
Mr. Knopke, the first citizen-elected mayor of Temple Terrace and a significant player in statewide environmental issues, died Sept. 19. He was 97.
The Ohio native moved to the area with his family in the 1930s. He tried his hand at an auto dealership and the scrap yard before opening Garden of Memories. It was the first local "perpetual care" cemetery, his family said, meaning families did not have to maintain plots themselves.
It was a cemetery with an aesthetic vision.
"Many days, people would say, 'Where are your monuments?' And he would say, 'There aren't any,' " said Keenan Knopke, the president and CEO of Curlew Hills Memory Gardens and Mr. Knopke's son. "It was a big chance."
After military service in World War II, he was elected to the City Council in 1948. At the time, Temple Terrace consisted of a gas station, a grocery store and about 400 people.
He served as vice mayor until 1956, when he was elected mayor. For the first time, residents elected the mayor rather than the council, a move Mr. Knopke helped make possible. His advocacy before the Hillsborough County Commission led to the 56th Street bridge over the Hillsborough River and Temple Terrace Elementary School.
Mr. Knopke served as a state representative from 1963 to 1967, the first Temple Terrace resident to do so. In his first year, after the boxing-related death of Davey Moore, he proposed a statewide ban on professional boxing.
"I don't see that boxing accomplishes a thing," he said.
He was elected to the state Senate in 1967, representing District 23. For four straight years, he proposed the creation of a Department of Community Affairs, which would help give smaller and poorer counties the means to secure federal funds, mount antipollution campaigns and plan for growth in ways they could not afford on their own.
"The public is more on the side of conservation now than before," he said in 1969. "Most people have the feeling that we've got to do something this session or go backward."
Among other things, the natural resources committee was responsible for legislation over marine waters and wildlife, parks and recreation and environmental projects. The early 1970s brought several environmental incidents, including a 21,000-gallon oil spill into Tampa Bay in 1970 and a billion-gallon phosphate waste spill into the Peace River in 1971.
Mr. Knopke presided over reduced bag limits for fishermen, stuck up for a Girl Scout camp bordering a proposed sewage plant and called for studies of the strength of phosphate levees and the effect of boiling water discharged from nuclear power plants on fish.
After losing re-election to the Senate, Mr. Knopke returned to the House in 1974. Disillusioned with what he saw as the demise of handshake diplomacy, he stepped down in 1976.
"He felt that the integrity of the process had changed, and he couldn't work in that environment," said Keenan Knopke, 60.
In 1984, Mr. Knopke sold Garden of Memories to Stewart Enterprises. For many years, he played golf three times week.
Asked what he had learned from his father, Keenan Knopke replied, "Slow down and think before you react."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or email@example.com.