TAMPA — Nelson A. Italiano, the founder of Italiano Insurance and a Tampa icon, died Thursday. He was 85.
A line Sunday afternoon stretched through the inside of the Blount & Curry Funeral Home MacDill Avenue Chapel and spilled onto the sidewalk as family, friends and colleagues waited to pay their respects to the man described as a born leader with a big heart.
"It was a turnout fit for someone like him," son Jeff Italiano said. "He was an incredible man and incredible father."
Mr. Italiano, a Tampa native, competed in varsity football, basketball and track at Plant High School. From an early age, he learned to strike a balance between working hard and having fun, said his friend Sam Salario, who knew him for 70 years.
"He has a great personality, and he didn't take himself too seriously," Salario said. "He was fun to be around. When he was serious, he was very serious, but it was always at the right time."
Mr. Italiano was once one of the most powerful Democrats in Hillsborough County, serving as patronage chief in the county for then-Gov. Reubin Askew, a college friend. Acting as Askew's local political appointments chief, he placed candidates in nearly a dozen influential positions in Hillsborough.
The next decade, Mr. Italiano became caught up in a massive federal corruption investigation into county government. He was convicted of passing bribes to secure a cable television contract in 1987 and again in a 1988 retrial. He served nine weeks in prison before returning to the insurance business.
Mr. Italiano and his wife, Jane, married in 1955 and had four children. Family was everything to him, his son said. He was always there for his children, encouraging them in all of their pursuits. He was a Scoutmaster for the Boy Scouts, founder of the Palma Ceia Little League and an athletic rep and president of Robinson High School Parents Association.
"He was very proud of all the children and who we've become," Jeff Italiano said. "He always told us relationships were the most important thing. Be honest, have integrity and always do the right thing. He said if we did that, we'd be successful."
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Mr. Italiano had briefly attended the University of Florida before transferring to Florida State University, where he received an honorable mention Little All-American playing football.
"Florida State football was his love," Jeff Italiano said. "He spent a lot of time recruiting for the team and fundraising for Florida State. There's a big email going around now from ex-football players talking about how they signed their scholarships at our house."
Mr. Italiano served in the U.S. Air Force and was an agent at Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. He formed the Baldwin-Italiano Insurance Agency in 1960 with his childhood friend, Walter Baldwin. In 1984, he created Italiano Insurance Services, a family-owned business now run by his sons, Jeff and Nat.
"No matter how important the job he was doing was or how busy he was, he always had time for his family and he always had time to give back to others," Jeff Italiano said. "He accepted everybody. He didn't judge people. He had a heart that was open to love."
Mr. Italiano was the sports chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, an eight-year member of the Tampa Sports Authority and a West Coast Bowl Association member.
Mr. Italiano also served as secretary to the Florida State Board of Business Regulation, was a Florida Freshwater Fish & Game commissioner and a board member of the Greater Tampa Independent Insurance Agents Association.
"He was very active in civic affairs," Salario said. "There were so many things he did for people that no one ever knew about. He was very, very conscious of what his responsibilities were to the community."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.