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Litschgi, who transformed downtown and Metropolitan Ministries, dead at 96

More than any individual, Byrne Litschgi, an attorney and developer who died Jan. 31 at 96, was responsible for transforming wide swaths of downtown Tampa, many current and former city leaders say. [Times file, 1992]

More than any individual, Byrne Litschgi, an attorney and developer who died Jan. 31 at 96, was responsible for transforming wide swaths of downtown Tampa, many current and former city leaders say. [Times file, 1992]

TAMPA — In 1973, mulling a career decision, former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco took a stroll from City Hall to the west side of the Hillsborough River and gazed back toward downtown.

"There wasn't much there, a couple of buildings and that was it," Greco said.

Fifteen years later, lawyer Byrne Litschgi could look out the window of his 14th floor office window along Ashley Drive and see a very different picture — half a dozen new skyscrapers including Tampa City Center and what was then the Hyatt Regency hotel, along with the Performing Arts Center and with Harbour Island and the Tampa Convention Center on the way.

More than any individual, Mr. Litschgi, who died last week at 96, was responsible for that transformation, many current and former Tampa leaders say.

"What's happening now wouldn't have happened without that foundation being laid," said Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

But a lot of people who knew Mr. Litschgi don't see tall buildings as his most prominent legacy.

When Mr. Litschgi got involved with Metropolitan Ministries in 1982, said former director the Rev. Morris Hintzman, it had one paid staff member and worked out of three old houses on North Florida Avenue, offering food and temporary shelter to about 200 families a year.

By the time Mr. Litschgi withdrew for health reasons 30 years later, Metropolitan Ministries occupied four city blocks with satellite locations in three counties. Its 180 employees and 17,000 volunteers now provide shelter for 135 families a night, almost 1.2 million meals a year and services from day care to job training and athletic teams for 150 to 200 families a day.

Besides Mr. Litschgi's thousands of hours of free legal service, Hintzman said, "He actually helped establish the board with credibility and transparency. With those kinds of individuals on your board, it validates your mission and integrity."

Mr. Litschgi, his friends say, was the prototype of a Greatest-Generation civic leader.

He grew up in the Depression, fought German tanks and Japanese kamikazes from a Navy ship in World War II, and came back wanting to make the world a better place.

He ultimately became a confidante and adviser to Democratic presidents including John F. Kennedy and Florida governors including Bob Graham; a senior partner at one of the nation's biggest law firms, Holland & Knight; and a philanthropist recognized by the pope for his service to local Catholic schools and churches.

"With what that generation went through, they had perspective on what was important," said his son, Al Litschgi Jr.

"One of his favorite sayings was, 'Unless someone is shooting at you, you really don't have a problem that can't be solved.' "

Another was, "Wherever you go, whatever you do, leave it better than you found it."

Mr. Litschgi was born in 1920 in Charleston, S.C., the son of a well-to-do family whose furniture business was about to be ruined by the Depression. They moved to Tampa when he was 5, decidedly less prosperous — first to Seminole Heights and then New Suburb Beautiful, and his father went into the insurance business.

Mr. Litschgi graduated from Plant High and headed off to the University of Florida, majoring in business and ending up as 1941 class president and a member of Blue Key. He enlisted in the Navy immediately after graduation, and for the next five years was employed shooting the guns on a light cruiser.

He fought German tanks on the shores of North Africa and Italy to prevent them from driving U.S. invasion troops off the beaches, then went with an aircraft carrier battle group to the Pacific, where the war rolled from island to island — New Guinea, the Philippines, Okinawa, Iwo Jima and Japan.

Mr. Litschgi's fleet, he later wrote in a memoir, launched the first carrier-based bombing raids on Tokyo. It also sustained 469 attacks by kamikaze planes. His ship on the periphery of the group was charged with protecting the carrier from the flying suicide bombs.

He came home in December 1945. "One wondered what to do now," he wrote.

He'd been accepted at Harvard University business school, but went to the law school instead.

That was because the business school was crowded with returning servicemen, Al Litschgi said, but the memoir offered a more Florida-inspired reason: The business school was a long walk over the frozen Charles River from the subway station, while the law school was nearby, "and all I had was a raincoat from the Navy."

Mr. Litschgi began his career in Washington, D.C., working briefly for one of Florida's most infamous political figures, the McCarthyite Sen. George Smathers, but that didn't reflect his politics, said former Rep. Jim Davis, a colleague later at Holland & Knight and on charitable boards.

"He operated off a deep sense of conviction and faith, a very clear sense of right and wrong," and was a strong civil rights proponent, Davis said.

Mr. Litschgi moved to the Treasury Department to learn tax law, then began practicing law.

One night he went to a costume party dressed as Snow White, with his roommates as the dwarves. At 6-foot-1, Mr. Litschgi was the tallest, Al Litschgi said. There he met Mary Elaine Herring, a Louisiana State University graduate and Cherry Blossom queen who worked for a Louisiana congress member.

They married in 1952, raising two children — Al Litschgi and his sister, Kathy Litschgi McElwaney of Tampa — and staying together until his wife's death in September.

He became a prominent Democratic political supporter and was about to be offered a post on the Federal Communications Commission by Kennedy when the couple decided to move to Tampa to be near family, his son said. Instead, Kennedy named him a director of COMSAT, the organization that launched the nation's first communications satellites.

Litschgi's Tampa career covered an astonishing variety of businesses and undertakings.

"He did a lot of things and everything he did, he did well," Greco said.

Litschgi headed two law firms before joining Holland & Knight. He was also a founder of what is now Fort Brooke Bank, CEO of Manatee Terminals Inc., and board member with several other companies.

He was credited with laying the foundation for the growth of Port Tampa Bay by engineering a deal for the Navy to turn over its former Naval Yard property.

He was a donor, fundraiser and volunteer campaign "advance man" — the person who handles arrangements for campaign visits — for Adlai Stevenson, Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He was also active in a number of civic groups and charities.

At the request of the late Mayor Bill Poe, he served during the redevelopment boom of the 1980s as chairman of the Tampa Downtown Development Authority, and was credited with redeveloping "the Quad Block" where the Hyatt Regency — now the Hilton Downtown — and Tampa City Center were built.

That "decision with generational impact" started the rebirth of downtown Tampa, Buckhorn said.

Litschgi left the downtown post after a conflict with former Mayor Bob Martinez, who negotiated a deal to build the cylindrical building now named Rivergate Tower. Litschgi believed the riverfront should be left open.

Litschgi continued going to his Holland & Knight office well into his 80s, but began cutting back on his activities after a fall 10 years ago began a series of health problems, his son said.

Still, Buckhorn said, he would see Litschgi and his wife at Christ the King Catholic Church every Sunday in their wheelchairs.

Asked whether he could single out one most important contribution by Litschgi to the community, Greco demurred.

"That might be the one thing you remember, but he managed to do a lot of things that gave back to the community," he said. "Byrne loved Tampa, and he left it better than he found it."

Contact William March at

Byrne Litschgi

Born: Dec. 31, 1920

Died: Jan. 31, 2017

Survivors include: Children Albert Byrne Litschgi, Jr. and Kathy Litschgi McElwaney; daughter-in-law Valerie Stoker Litschgi; grandchildren Victoria Litschgi, Byrne Litschgi, Brett Litschgi, David McElwaney and Daniel McElwaney.

Donations: Metropolitan Ministries, Jesuit High School, Christ the King Church.

Litschgi, who transformed downtown and Metropolitan Ministries, dead at 96 02/09/17 [Last modified: Thursday, February 9, 2017 5:59am]
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