ST. PETERSBURG — The concrete bust appeared Wednesday morning on Interstate 275, perched on an abutment just before the north tollbooths of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
A driver called police because he thought it was the bronze bust of Adela Gonzmart, the matriarch of the Columbia restaurant in Ybor City. That was stolen from outside the Columbia last month.
Reporters swarmed to the scene. Helicopters buzzed overhead. One camera operator who tried to playfully interview the statue was nearly hit by a passing car.
The concrete bust actually depicted a man with broad shoulders, a bald head and thick beard. He looked nothing like a woman, let alone the graceful Gonzmart.
The bust was of another deceased local icon: Richard H. Misener, founder of one of the country's largest marine construction firms and former mayor of what is now St. Pete Beach. The small bridge where his bust was placed is named after him.
How it got there is a mystery. Misener's widow doesn't know. Neither does the artist who made the original mold. And all authorities know is that the statue was put on the bridge recently; the epoxy glue holding it in place was still wet.
So who put the bust of Misener on the bridge?
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Misener once said he came to Florida in 1939 with "less than $100 in my pocket" and towing an 18-foot sailboat, the Tonga. Forty-six years later, he presided over multimillion-dollar Misener Marine Construction Inc. and a 103-foot yacht also called Tonga.
He built numerous bridges around the state and died in 1987.
After Misener's death, his wife asked a local artist to create several bronze busts of her husband. Mary Jane Misener, now 91, said Wednesday that she remembers keeping one bronze bust at home and having another placed at his mausoleum at Woodlawn Memory Gardens.
When authorities examined the concrete bust they saw a name — Joseph Ierna — on the back.
Ierna, who lives in St. Petersburg, said he designed the bronze busts. He created a clay mold that a foundry in Sarasota used to make the bronze busts. Ierna, now 75, said he left the mold at the foundry.
About 10 years ago, someone from the foundry called Ierna and asked if he could pick up the mold. The foundry needed the storage space.
Ierna got the clay mold and gave it to Mrs. Misener, who now lives on Treasure Island.
But when she moved about eight years ago, she got rid of the mold. Someone, said Mrs. Misener, came to take it away, perhaps even throw it away. She doesn't remember who.
The bronze and concrete busts are very similar, and police believe they may have come from the same mold.
But who made and installed the concrete bust?
Ierna said he never made one. "They were all bronze," he said.
Mrs. Misener said she never had a concrete one made, either.
"I just can't imagine how it appeared after all this time," she said. "Maybe someone came up with the idea to put it up because he'd been good to them or something."
Police can't find any record that the state or any other government body authorized or paid for a bust of Misener to be put up, said St. Petersburg police spokesman Bill Proffitt.
For now, the bust sits in the Police Department's property section. Police are still trying to learn more about the bust on the side of the highway.
"It is a big mystery," Proffitt said.
Times staff writer Casey Cora and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8472.