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Former GTE of Florida president George H. Gage, who helped shape Tampa, dies at 87

TAMPA — George Gage started his career with General Telephone digging holes for telephone poles. He ended it as president of General Telephone Co. of Florida, in a corner office in One Tampa City Center. Mr. Gage spearheaded erecting the 39-story headquarters in the early 1980s.

For a few years it was the tallest building on the west coast of Florida, and the heart of the office and hotel "quad block" complex credited with infusing a sagging downtown with new life.

One Tampa City Center brought GenTel's seven offices into one building and staked the company's future firmly in Tampa. It was one of many progressive decisions attributed to Mr. Gage, who guided GenTel through a shrinking economy, deregulation and competition from other phone providers. He served as president from 1971 to 1985, retiring at age 59.

Mr. Gage, a significant figure in the development of downtown Tampa and a prominent civic activist, died Tuesday after an illness. He was 87.

"From a morale standpoint, (the building) was wonderful for downtown folks," said former Mayor Bill Poe. One Tampa City Center, still one of Tampa's tallest buildings, set the pace for growth.

"If GTE can put in a building like that and use it appropriately and be practical, then others can do it," Poe said. "And others did come in, and we built some other large buildings in that area. George was a catalyst for those issues."

Mr. Gage came to Tampa from New York, where he had served as a vice president of GTE Service Corp. After taking the helm of GenTel Florida, he confronted crushing problems, including widespread customer complaints and low employee morale.

He responded by creating a department devoted to customer satisfaction. Mr. Gage also rode on service trucks, visited plants and created a committee of employees and managers. He solicited, then read, more than 10,000 pages of employee questionnaires. He downsized from GenTel's 14,000 employees through attrition and technology, not layoffs.

It was all part of his outgoing personality and his desire to make the workplace more fun. "The telephone business at that time was exploding," said Joan Gage, his daughter. "It was a growth business, and he had a blast."

Born Bradley Ewers in Portland, Ore., Mr. Gage later took the first and last names of his adoptive father, George Gage Sr. He served in the U.S. Naval Air Corps during World War II. In 1946 he married Denzell Bartlett, who he had met on a blind date.

After a year of college, he started work with General Telephone in the Los Angeles area in 1947, where he worked his way up from groundman to lineman. Mr. Gage then held various engineering jobs, then switched to public relations and marketing. He was named vice president of GTE Service Corp. in 1962, and lived with his family in New York for eight years.

After being promoted to president of GenTel Florida, Mr. Gage decided to keep the company's headquarters in Tampa despite overtures from St. Petersburg.

"That was the first major commitment from a company that size," said Joan Gage, 59, who also spent a career with GTE and Verizon. "That's what changed downtown Tampa."

Mr. Gage had to juggle regulators, company revenues and the public. He warned of $100-a-month phone bills if the company was forced to comply with various demands, including lower monthly rates for people on fixed incomes and more pay phones accessible to wheelchair users.

"On the surface, these suggestions sound just great … until you ask someone who will pay for them," he told a Kiwanis audience in 1976. "These consumer champions are pushing your phone bill out of sight."

Mr. Gage retired in 1985 and expanded his volunteer work. He held numerous leadership positions over the years, including serving as president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the Committee of 100, and on the boards of the Bolesta Center at USF and the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony.

A willingness to walk the streets, greet people and make his pitch in person coupled with his name recognition helped his charitable fund raising.

"He was working as a volunteer, but you would have thought he was a superintendent all over," said Poe. "Everybody knew he had operated GTE. All of us like to be behind a big desk, but George got out of that position and really, really helped Tampa."

Mr. Gage was also intimately involved with the Boy Scouts, which led young men into nature and shaped character as his adoptive father had once done for him.

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

.Biography

George Halsey Gage Jr.

Born: June 14, 1925

Died: Oct. 2, 2012

Survivors: wife, Denzell Gage; daughters Janet Schweitzer, Joan Gage and Jeri Smith; son George Gage; 13 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Memorial service: 11 a.m. Oct. 13; Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church, 3501 W San Jose St., Tampa.

Former GTE of Florida president George H. Gage, who helped shape Tampa, dies at 87 10/05/12 [Last modified: Friday, October 5, 2012 9:12pm]
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