Sunday, December 17, 2017
News Roundup

From wartime to retirement, Frank Spatuzzi battled for his beliefs

CLEARWATER — The new span to the Clearwater Memorial Causeway, which took four years to build and opened in 2005, stirred admiration in some and discontent in others.

Among the project's harshest critics was Frank Spatuzzi, a decorated World War II veteran and president of the waterfront Pierce 100 Condominium Association. Mr. Spatuzzi fought for more than a dozen years, writing well-researched letters to the editor and participating in multiple lawsuits against the city of Clearwater.

"Some of these people get little or no sleep, listening to generators, backup vehicle noises, crane motors, back-and-forth yelling of these construction workers, and lights that cut through the night like 'Jedi lightsabers' onto our building," he wrote in 2003.

If city officials didn't know who Mr. Spatuzzi was before the project, they soon learned his name.

"Frank was an interesting guy, if you talked to him," said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard. "He always had a pretty good attitude toward me. I certainly know there were times when he frustrated those before me."

Mr. Spatuzzi, a retired developer who also acted on behalf of orphans and baseball, died Friday. He was 93.

Pierce 100 residents argued that the city should have put the project to a referendum and that it was a waste of taxpayer dollars. For Mr. Spatuzzi and his wife, Inge, there was an additional problem. The new bridge sits at eye level from their sixth-floor condominium — and a little more than a football field away, closer than the drawbridge it replaced.

Residents sued twice over the project's financing or its approval process, but lost those cases in court. The condo association sued in 2005, claiming that the waterfront view had been obstructed. That case has been settled.

The Spatuzzis, meanwhile, learned to live with constant traffic noises and the reflections of headlights, even after years of construction noises subsided.

"We have dinner with the bridge every night," Mr. Spatuzzi told the Times in 2010.

Overall, though, he won most of his battles.

Mr. Spatuzzi was born in Vauxhall, N.J., in 1918, and grew up in Newark. In an era when some of his peers bought cigarettes for a penny, he called baseball "my babysitter" and hustled his way to a scholarship at Seton Hall University. Playing first base, he hit for an average above .400 and was later named to the school's athletic hall of fame.

He entered the Coast Guard during World War II, and in 1944 was wounded when a Japanese suicide plane struck his ship. The lieutenant junior grade was awarded the Purple Heart for shrapnel wounds that left him with a limp the rest of his life.

"I live by three virtues," Mr. Spatuzzi said in a recent interview. "One is compassion. The other is sensitivity. And the third one is integrity. I don't need anything else."

He also made the most of chance encounters.

Helping baseball executive Branch Rickey, who was then in a wheelchair, at a New Jersey airport led to a friendship. Mr. Spatuzzi stayed close to baseball, sometimes doing color commentary at Philadelphia Phillies spring training games.

In the 1970s he met Inge, a paralegal in a lawyer's office. Each had been married and divorced, with eight children total. They married in 1985.

Mr. Spatuzzi later celebrated the match with a necklace he designed and commissioned, with cursive letters spelling "The Franchise." A diamond dotted the "i."

"In Frank's lexicon it has to do with baseball," said Inge Spatuzzi, 77.

A third encounter in a Newark restaurant helped generations of children. As his wife recalled, "He met some nuns he didn't know, but he paid for their lunch. After he left, they found out who he was and invited him to lunch."

As a result of that meeting, Mr. Spatuzzi assumed the mortgage to build an orphanage. Today, St. Peter's Orphanage in Denville, N.J., serves abused, abandoned or neglected adolescent boys.

He and Inge moved to Clearwater permanently in 1993 but traveled often. Mr. Spatuzzi took photos from their trips, which he turned into greeting cards.

In 2008 he donated his Purple Heart to the Armed Forces Military Museum in Largo, where it was displayed below the simulated bridge of an LST-205, the type of ship on which Mr. Spatuzzi served when he was wounded.

In 2011, Stand & Salute American Heroes, part of the nonprofit Our Fallen Soldier, honored Mr. Spatuzzi with its annual Stand & Salute American Heroes Award — the first one given to someone for service in the Coast Guard.

In recognition of the award, at a September Rays home game against the Red Sox, Mr. Spatuzzi climbed out of a wheelchair, walked shakily to the mound and threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

His health declined rapidly after a fall at home Dec. 24. He underwent surgery for a broken hip and was transferred to Suncoast Hospice House Brookside.

His death marks "the passing of more of that 'greatest generation,' " Hibbard said.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.

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