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Local Harley-Davidson icon Bob Fletcher dies at 90

CLEARWATER — A generation ago, aficionados say, about the only kinds of people who rode Harley-Davidsons were police officers and outlaws.

The image started to change in the 1980s, when the manufacturer reached out to a wider audience and clothing began to take up more space in dealerships than motorcycles.

By the 1990s, the brand that once symbolized rebellion as depicted in the movie Easy Rider had become an entrenched status symbol, with CEOs joining Harley clubs and celebrated figures from Liz Taylor to presidential candidate Bill Clinton owning or at least posing astride Harleys.

Fletcher's Harley-Davidson, opened 48 years ago by a mechanic and former dirt track racer named Bob Fletcher, prospered on both ends of the ridership spectrum. Mr. Fletcher moved to Florida in 1954, a year after crushing an ankle in a race where Daytona International Speedway stands today, and opened Fletcher's Harley-Davidson in Clearwater a decade later.

Mr. Fletcher, an adventurer who advised friends and family to "enjoy it while you have it," died Saturday, a result of heart trouble, his family said. He was 90.

He was born in Belvidere, Ill., and grew up in nearby Harvard. A neighbor's loud exhaust pipes distracted and intrigued him, so at age 19 he paid $50 for a 1929 Harley JD. After a year and a half he was ready for something bigger, but spent the bike money marrying a woman named Lucille, who liked bikes too.

The Army gave him a Harley and had him train others, then shipped him to Germany, where he drove a tank for Gen. George S. Patton through the snow.

Back in Illinois, he and a partner opened Bob's Harley-Davidson, about an hour's drive from Harley's Milwaukee factory. He also competed in amateur motorcycle races, including the 200-mile event in Daytona Beach that ended his racing career when another rider slammed into him from behind.

After moving his family to Pinellas County and working at Puckett's Harley-Davidson for nearly 10 years, he opened Fletcher's Harley-Davidson on Missouri Avenue.

He taught his daughters to climb trees and ride motorcycles. Daughter Laura learned to ride at age 7 and to play "motorball," which is similar to soccer on dirt bikes, at age 10.

The store moved to Seminole Boulevard, then to U.S. 19 in 1980.

Mr. Fletcher retired in 1986 and turned the business over to his daughters: Laura Fletcher-Taylor, Peggy McFarland and Sherry Conder. Mr. Fletcher rode his motorcycle with the Florida Retreads and the Largo Roadrunners, scuba dived in Mexico and Aruba and flew his Cessna at every opportunity.

His daughters replaced the store's fluorescent lighting with softer light, installed carpeting, turned the white walls to a sandy beige and placed Adirondack chairs on the porch. The changes helped attract Harley's expanding customer base. The store grew to 30,000 square feet.

"It used to be, when people would say 'Harley-Davidson' they would think of biker gangs and the rough and tough," said Fletcher-Taylor, 46, the store's general manager. "Now it's more of a privilege to own a Harley-Davidson because you own a piece of American history."

Her father groused at first about the new "boutique look," but later said he was proud of what they had done. Longtime customer George Puopolo has mixed feelings.

"It used to be the place to go hang out. There would be a big industrial coffee pot going, a couple dozen doughnuts there," said Puopolo, 54, a member of the Warlocks Motorcycle Club. "You didn't have 50 different styles of leather jackets and 100 styles of T-shirts.

"Over the years that's kind of changed. They sell a lifestyle now. The motorcycle is secondary. Even Bob would maintain it lost something."

In 2007, at age 85, Mr. Fletcher rode to Milwaukee to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Harley-Davidson Motor Co.

Two years ago, his physician, concerned that Mr. Fletcher would lose consciousness while riding, recommended he lose his license. But from time to time, to widespread alarm, the founder of Fletcher's Harley-Davidson still took his bike out for laps around the dealership.

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

.BIOGRAPHY

Robert John Fletcher

Born: Dec. 19, 1921

Died: June 9, 2012

Survivors: wife Lucille; daughters Peggy McFarland, Sherry Conder and Laura Fletcher-Taylor; sister, Betty Collins; three grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.

Memorial ride: Gathering at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Fletcher's Harley-Davidson, 16485 U.S. 19 N. Ride starts at noon from Fletcher's to Anona United Methodist Church, 13233 Indian Rocks Road, Largo.

Celebration of life: 2 p.m. Saturday (memorial gathering starting at 1 p.m.) at the church.

Local Harley-Davidson icon Bob Fletcher dies at 90 06/14/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 14, 2012 10:59pm]

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