ST. PETERSBURG — A citation from the city drew even more attention to Maher Chevrolet than the American flags in front of the business, unfurling gracefully with the freedom of the wind.
The city's codes enforcement department said the 11 flags, which had stood along U.S. 19 since the early 1990s, violated a sign ordinance. Officials ordered Michael Meagher, the owner of Maher Chevrolet, to reduce the number of flags to three.
Mr. Meagher, a former Marine who frequently handed out copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to customers, was dumbfounded by the order. To him they represented the opportunity that had allowed him to buy one of the city's oldest and most prominent auto dealerships 25 years ago.
He refused to take down the flags.
In April, Mr. Meagher told the Tampa Bay Times that to comply with the citation, or pay the $143 fine without protest, went against everything he stood for,
"I'm very naive, but I couldn't imagine anyone would be talking about taking down the American flag," he said. "So put me in the naive category. It's just hard to believe."
Mr. Meagher died Tuesday of congestive heart failure. He was 69.
"He was a dear friend, a fellow cancer survivor and one of the last operators in the area of a family car business," said Lawrence Dimmitt III of Dimmitt Chevrolet. "There are only a few of us left."
Employees date back to before he acquired the dealership that was previously known as Ross Chevrolet at 2901 34th St. N.
"He believed that if you took care of customers and service, they would come back to you," said company spokesman Bob Towler, 63. That made him one of the top-performing Chevy dealers in the nation.
Of Mr. Meagher's management style, Towler summarized: "Hire the best people you can, get out of their way and let them do their jobs."
Office manager and payroll administrator Sharon Weemis, 50, said she counts Mr. Meagher as a major influence on her life, a sympathetic ear when each of her parents died and a son was born with a cleft palate.
"He was more than the man on a sign to me," said Weemis, a former Ross employee who stayed on. "He was caring and compassionate. I can never repay him for some of the life lessons."
Michael Meagher was born in Detroit and grew up in Beverly Hills, a Detroit suburb. He was trained to fly in the Marine Corps, a love he pursued all his life. He graduated from Lawrence Technological University and worked for General Motors from 1966 to 1978.
After running his own dealership in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., for 10 years, Mr. Meagher and his family moved to the Tampa Bay area in 1988. In September 1988 he opened Maher Chevrolet, a spelling he chose to avoid confusion.
"He said, 'I'll just spell it the way it's pronounced,' " Towler said.
In the early 1990s he put up 11 U.S. flags in front of the property. Over the next two decades he replaced each 4-foot-by-6-foot flag two or three times a year. Sometimes a passing motorist noticed a flag was getting battered. Other times it was a customer.
Mr. Meagher enjoyed boating with his wife, the former Nancy Smith, his vintage Corvettes and flying. He was proud of having qualified to fly the C500 corporate jet.
He gave generously to area hospitals and H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute; provided internships to residents of Boley Centers and vocational students; and remained active in the Florida Independent Automobile Dealers Association.
In 2010, General Motors recognized Maher Chevrolet as a top dealership, one of only about 50 such designations awarded nationally, his colleagues said.
After 20 years, the city finally noticed Mr. Meagher's flags. In the ensuing publicity, Mayor Bill Foster proposed tweaking the sign ordinance.
Maher Chevrolet passed muster under the new standard, passed in November. A few days ago, the city notified Mr. Meagher's lawyer that his ticket for violating the sign ordinance will be dismissed.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.