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Mayor packed ideas, pipe tobacco in rich public life

ST. PETERSBURG — Herman Goldner had a habit of smoking a pipe as he talked, allowing tendrils of blue smoke to drift from his mayoral office into the hall. It gave his hands something to do as his mind raced.

A lawyer with a Harvard MBA, Mr. Goldner packed a lot of ideas into four terms as mayor, including some that have endured decades after he left office. He believed the Tampa Bay area needed to plan its growth. He founded the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council and flirted with consolidation of municipalities and unincorporated areas in South Pinellas County.

He sought other political office, losing bids for the U.S. Senate and the Pinellas County Commission.

Some may also remember Mr. Goldner as the mayor who angered Omali Yeshitela — known in 1966 as Joe Waller — with a seemingly aloof reply to Waller's letter about a mural in City Hall. Waller later tore down the mural, which depicted black musicians serenading white partygoers, and served two years in prison.

Mr. Goldner, a big-picture mayor for three terms in the 1960s and another in the early 1970s, died Sept. 9, at his home in Virginia Beach, Va. He was 93.

"I thought of Herman as a man who was politically ahead of his time," said former Pinellas County Commissioner Bob Stewart, who helped manage Mr. Goldner's Senate campaign. "He wasn't the prototype of the Republican candidate. He wasn't the prototype of a St. Petersburg mayor, either."

Mr. Goldner was born in Detroit and grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Tests would later show an IQ near 160. At age 8, he built a small platform and began giving speeches to his family.

He got a law degree from Case Western Reserve University in 1942; served four years with the Navy during World War II; then studied business at Harvard.

He moved to St. Petersburg in 1947 with his wife, Winifred, and sons Brian and Michael. He set up a law practice with Bill Cramer, a future Republican U.S. representative. Though brought up Jewish, he converted to his wife's Episcopalian religion.

In 1960, Mr. Goldner, also a Republican, won the nonpartisan mayor's race in a landslide. According to his family, a still-segregated city told Mr. Goldner that his African-American supporters would not be permitted to attend his inaugural ball.

So Mr. Goldner paid for his own ball, inviting all his supporters. He founded the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council in 1962, which still brings government leaders together in 43 jurisdictions to envision the future of the area. He was re-elected mayor in 1963 and 1965.

The issue of race surfaced again in 1966, when Waller wrote asking that the City Hall mural be removed. "I find nothing offensive in the portrayal of strolling troubadours and picnickers at Pass-a-Grille Beach," Mr. Goldner replied. "I think you know that I, personally, am not a racist. I think … that all of our minority groups must mature to the point where self-consciousness is not a motivating factor for complaints."

Yeshitela, who could not be reached for comment, called the response arrogant.

Mr. Goldner ran for the Senate in 1968 with a campaign finance war chest of $300,000. Republican incumbent Ed Gurney had more than $7 million.

Apart from his status as a relative unknown, Mr. Goldner's vocal support of Hubert Humphrey over Richard Nixon did nothing to endear him to the Republican Party. On the campaign trail, according to a St. Petersburg Times account, he told supporters that local government officials had "no desire to face inevitable changes in American society."

Stewart still recalls meeting with the Miami Herald editorial board.

When the board asked just how he would propose evacuating troops from Vietnam, he took a studious puff of his pipe.

"Well, let's see," Mr. Goldner replied. "We could get out by air. We could get out by boat. And I think we could get out by land."

Mr. Goldner won the Herald's endorsement but lost that election. He later changed his party affiliation to Democrat. In 1971 he returned for another term as mayor and advocated for the use of public funds to overhaul blighted areas. He worried about the consequences of growth from drainage to traffic on U.S. 19 to hurricanes.

After a near-miss by Hurricane Agnes flooded the Tampa Bay area, Mr. Goldner proposed using computers at the University of South Florida to come up with an early warning system for severe weather. The proposal died when municipalities refused to kick in $1,000 each to research it.

He could not part with his pipe. When a doctor told him about the precancerous lesions in his mouth, Mr. Goldner left the pipe in his mouth; he just didn't light it.

By 1991, the year Winifred died, Mr. Goldner had begun to lose some of his vaunted memory. He moved to Panama to be with his son, then to Virginia Beach in 1999.

The planning council still honors a community leader each year with the Herman Goldner Award for Regional Leadership.

Though saddened by his death, his family said Mr. Goldner was ready to go.

"He always did pretty much did whatever he wanted," said Michael Goldner, 63. "And this was what he wanted this time."

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

.Biography

Herman Wilson Goldner

Born: Nov. 12, 1916.

Died: Sept. 9, 2010.

Survivors: Son Michael Goldner and his wife Gilda; sisters Fay Fuldauer, Carrie Weiss and her husband Edward Weiss; nine grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

Service: 10:30 a.m. Saturday; Our Savior Lutheran Church, 301 58th St. S, St. Petersburg.

Mayor packed ideas, pipe tobacco in rich public life 09/15/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 9:40pm]
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