TAMPA — For several weeks during the Persian Gulf War, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf emerged from obscurity to inform and reassure a nation. The man colleagues affectionately called the Bear, who died Thursday at 78, kept Americans up to date after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Amid live shots of missiles fired from aircraft carriers and talk of bunker-busting bombs, he provided us with something we hadn't had for a long time: a hero.
As the war concluded with relatively few American combat deaths and much fanfare, Gen. Schwarzkopf already knew he was about to retire. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, courted for political office by both parties and even urged to seek the presidency.
Instead he declared himself "apolitical," stayed in Tampa and resumed the private life he had enjoyed before the war. His only ambitions, he said in 1991, the year he retired, were to become the "world's greatest salmon fisherman," a champion skeet shooter and to continue hunting.
"I think he made a very conscious decision when he left the military to be in private life," said Peter Petre, who helped write Gen. Schwarzkopf's autobiography, It Doesn't Take a Hero. "He didn't do it because he was shy. I think he did it because he felt he had completed his public service."
But when duty called, Gen. Schwarzkopf stepped forward. He spoke out against defense spending cuts that could have crippled MacDill Air Force Base, and worked to help chronically ill children and to prevent prostate cancer.
"He left a giant footprint," said former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez. Although CentCom had been at MacDill for a while before Gen. Schwarzkopf took command, it was probably best known to people who were military history buffs or had some direct connection to the base.
"He put Tampa on the map in terms of Central Command being here," Martinez said. "He gave it national and international status."
The man some would compare to Dwight D. Eisenhower grew up in Trenton, N.J., the son of an Army major general who was often gone and an alcoholic mother. He disliked confrontation and escaped through books or hunting. After Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, Gen. Schwarzkopf's command jumped from several hundred at MacDill to more than 500,000 American troops, plus shared command over 200,000 allied forces.
His televised briefings as the face of the coalition made a deep impression.
"It had to do with our disenchantment after Vietnam and sense of American defeat and humiliation," said Carolyn Johnston, an American studies professor at Eckerd College. "Norman Schwarzkopf captured the imaginations of Americans because of his leadership against Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator, and the successful six-week war in defense of Kuwait's sovereignty."
He was also "kind of a Renaissance man. He was fluent in a couple of languages. He was educated, down to earth and a very successful military strategist. He was also a reluctant hero. I think that's part of his appeal, too."
The war also elevated Tampa and CentCom to the country, and helped locals understand the resource in their back yard.
"Most folks in Tampa weren't aware of what existed at MacDill," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who was City Hall's liaison to the base during the late 1980s and early 1990s. "They knew it had been an Air Force base, but they didn't know much about Central Command and very little about Special Operations command. I think once they saw the capacity of those two commands and the way the war was prosecuted they really stood up and said, 'Wow, this is Tampa.' "
After the war, MacDill faced dramatic cutbacks as a bipartisan commission on base closures and realignments considered ways to reduce defense spending. While Central Command was penciled in to stay, MacDill's runway faced closure — a step that local officials feared would lead to the loss of the whole base.
Gen. Schwarzkopf, one of several key military leaders who spoke out on behalf of the base, told the House Defense appropriations subcommittee that CentCom and Special Operations Command needed the aviation facilities at MacDill.
More personally, he paid the area a compliment by sticking around after he retired.
"Tampa is lucky to have Schwarzkopf live here, and it was kind of interesting that he was willing to stay because he had the whole world to choose from," said developer Dick Beard, who was on the local task force that worked to save MacDill.
His life could have ended much earlier had it not been for a routine medical physical at MacDill. Doctors diagnosed prostate cancer in 1994. He underwent surgery a month later, and became an advocate for early detection.
He served as the national spokesman for Prostate Cancer Awareness Week, a public service campaign, and also turned out for the National Prostate Cancer Coalition.
His name recognition and credibility helped get other men to face a disease they don't like to talk about and often prompted them to get tested, said Lillie Samuels, whose husband, the late Bob Samuels, founded the organization.
Men figured if a four-star general could talk openly about prostate cancer, so could they.
"It made a great impact . . . because it came from such a strong man," Samuels said.
He also was well known to the children at Camp Boggy Creek in Eustis, which serves children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses. Gen. Schwarzkopf, who founded the camp with the late actor Paul Newman, "enjoyed interacting with the campers and seeing our mission in action," said camp chief executive officer June Clark.
Gen. Schwarzkopf also founded the Norman Schwarzkopf Sporting Clays Classic, which draws world-class skeet shooters to Lakeland every year. The tournament raises money for the Children's Home, a shelter for children who have been abused or neglected.
On Friday, flags at MacDill Air Force Base had been lowered to half-staff. Tampa officials were waiting to hear what, if any, arrangements the military or family will make for a local remembrance of Gen. Schwarzkopf.
"We will accommodate them in whatever way we can," Buckhorn said.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403.