CLEARWATER — When Howard Hamilton bought the iconic Palm Pavilion in 1964, there was little else on Clearwater Beach besides a mobile home park. Beachgoers rented towels and changed in bathhouses at the pavilion.
He opened the South Beach Pavilion five years later, and spent the next two decades renting beach umbrellas and selling sunscreen and corn dogs to vacationers. He often worked every day of the week before he eventually handed the businesses down to his four sons.
Mr. Hamilton died Friday at age 79, leaving behind a large family and a legacy on Clearwater Beach.
"His entrepreneurial spirit was what drove him. He was a ceramic engineer from Georgia Tech by trade, but he didn't want an office," said his oldest son Ken Hamilton, president of what is now the Palm Pavilion Beachside Grill & Bar. "He had two artificial knees and two artificial hips from walking around on concrete floors seven days a week."
Built in 1926, the Palm is the oldest operating beach pavilion in Florida. In its early days, beachgoers would come directly from church in their Sunday best, and they'd rent wool bathing suits to go in the water.
Two generations of Hamiltons have updated the business — expanding it into a full-service restaurant, razing the bathhouses, adding an outdoor deck, and opening the Palm Pavilion Inn.
As for the South Beach Pavilion off S Gulfview Boulevard, it's a city-owned concession. But it was Howard Hamilton's idea, and he helped design it, his family says. After it opened in 1969, the Hamiltons leased and operated it for 35 years, renting umbrellas and cabanas and selling food and beach sundries.
"We all worked there. All of us grew up cooking cheeseburgers and hot dogs," said Mr. Hamilton's son Hoyt, a former Clearwater city commissioner.
Howard Hamilton grew up in a house off Drew Street during the Great Depression. He milked the family's cow in a vacant lot next door. His older brother would skip dinner so young Howard would have enough to eat.
He met his future wife at what was then Clearwater Junior High when he was in the ninth grade and she was in the seventh. For their first date, he invited her to a youth group's hayride at the same United Methodist church where his funeral will be held tomorrow.
"He never drank a drop in his life. He never smoked," said Jean Hamilton, his wife of 58 years.
"Work was his hobby," said his son Wade Hamilton.
He was commodore of the Carlouel Yacht Club at the north end of Clearwater Beach. In the early 1970s, he chaired a fundraising campaign to build Clearwater's original YMCA building at 1100 S Highland Ave., where the Y is still located. In his later years, he watched every Tampa Bay Rays game on television and ate breakfast with family or friends every morning at Georgie Boy Restaurant on Missouri Avenue.
"He was so involved in the beach. He knew everyone," Ken Hamilton said. "He loved his family, and he loved Clearwater Beach."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.