MADEIRA BEACH — Tom Huff, the first mayor of Madeira Beach, liked his cars bold and brash. His favorite: a brand new pink Lincoln Continental convertible. In the early 1950s, you couldn't miss the car — or the man.
He never backed away from the political fights that came his way. His alleged support for legalized gambling made him an easy target for campaign opponents in 1951, the election that unified North and South Madeira Beach.
Mr. Huff won that race easily. Two years later he won re-election.
He devoted the rest of his years to his real estate business, developing sites that later became the Wine Cellar and the Holiday Inn Madeira Beach.
In later years he retired from real estate but made money in the stock market, his family said. Mr. Huff died Saturday in an assisted living facility. He was 93.
"He was one of the old pioneers of this town," said Madeira Beach's current mayor, Pat Shontz. "He had a real fire set under him to develop this beach."
A native of Danielsville, Ga., Mr. Huff emerged from the Navy in 1945 with $5,000 in his pocket — the proceeds of poker and dice games.
He asked hometown sweetheart Beth Coker to wait for him.
"He told her he'd take that $5,000 and go to Florida to see what he could rustle up," said Lynda Rushing, Mr. Huff's niece. "If he could sink his teeth into something, he'd send for her."
He bought waterfront real estate in Clearwater. Soon they were married and living there.
Mr. Huff was elected to the town councils of North and South Madeira Beach. When the cities merged in 1951, he ran successfully for mayor.
By December of that year, Mr. Huff was fending off allegations, previously used by campaign opponents, that he wanted to bring gambling to the beaches. Police chief Carl Schneider resigned, claiming that Mr. Huff had reprimanded him for raiding an illegal gambling operation.
"I am being directed to look the other way at infractions of laws," Schneider wrote in his resignation letter.
Mr. Huff denied the charges, saying that he did not condone gambling and that any reference to "looking the other way" had to do with police who ticket tourist drivers too strictly.
"If (tourists) overlook a stop sign they have never seen before, they should not be summarily dealt with and chastised," wrote Mr. Huff, who referred to tourists as "the lifeblood of the beaches."
The extent to which Mr. Huff may have advocated legalized gambling is unclear.
"He saw money in it," Rushing admits. "This area here was like the Wild West."
As the police chief controversy boiled over, the Greater Gulf Beaches Good Government League quoted Mr. Huff as saying in an open meeting that if Schneider would just back off, "I will have slot machines hanging from every tree and there will be plenty for all."
Mr. Huff called the quote absurd.
His two terms as mayor saw the city's first post office, completion of a sewer system and re-organization of the city's fire and police departments. Mr. Huff withdrew from politics after losing a county commissioner's race in 1954.
From then on, it was real estate. Mr. Huff bought property on North Redington Beach and built a bar. The Zebra Lounge featured zebra skin chairs and a rustic, African look.
After several years, he sold the property, which is now the Wine Cellar. While there, he successfully pushed for widening along Gulf Boulevard, one of the first areas to approve expansion.
"My uncle was one of those flamboyant characters," Rushing said. "A lot of people got a kick out of that, and some people found him to be disagreeable."
But some of his visions have come to fruition. The building boom he foresaw came and stayed for decades. The widening of Gulf Boulevard, a project he helped start, is now mostly finished.
And in 1987, the first gambling boat pulled into John's Pass Marina.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]