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Ralph Wimbish: My mom was more than a civil rights trailblazer

A lawyer, a politician, a trailblazer. C. Bette Wimbish, who died last week at the age of 85, was all that and more. She was my mom. Looking back, it amazes me how well she succeeded with such grace and class in such a hostile environment, in such hostile times. The long, hard road of her career had its share of potholes, twisting turns and untimely detours.

In St. Petersburg, starting in the late 1950s, she and my dad, the late Dr. Ralph Wimbish, were on the front lines in the fight for civil rights. She was right there when my dad slammed Major League Baseball for hotel discrimination. She was there when he sued to improve black schools and integrate golf courses. And she was there when my dad led the Webb's City boycott and picketed movie theaters, the Maas Brothers lunch counter and the whites-only Spa Beach.

In fact, my mom was always right where she needed to be, preparing family meals three times a day and driving me and my older sister, Barbara, and baby brother, Terry, to and from school every day. At nights, she attended assorted civic meetings and sometimes even found time to play bridge.

And she was always there when it came to education, pulling my sister and me out of black schools to integrate white ones. Barbara went to high school at St. Paul's; I went to St. Joseph's. In 1964, when I got to be the Jackie Robinson of the Lake Maggiore Little League, she was in the bleachers, leading the cheers.

Yes, the times were turbulent. In 1961, a cross was burned on our front yard on 15th Avenue S. And whenever the phone rang, there was always the possibility of the caller issuing a death threat. And there were some near-tragedies. When I was 3, I nearly drowned during a picnic in Tampa, but my mom was there to save me. A few years later, when my brother, then 2, fell into the family swimming pool, she was there again.

But, basically, Bette Wimbish was a fearless political animal who never really got to fulfill her ambition: simply improve the quality of life for the disadvantaged, senior citizens and people of color.

In 1960, while pregnant, she ran for Pinellas County School Board. Although she lost that race, her career was far from over.

She went to her alma mater, Florida A&M, in 1965 and earned her law degree in 2½ years. Unfortunately, two weeks before her final exams, my dad died of a heart attack at 45.

Heartbroken but determined, she passed her final exams and began studying for the bar exam just as St. Petersburg became engulfed in a strike by sanitation workers. Of course, she got involved, and though the strike didn't succeed, it gave her a platform for a run for City Council in the spring of 1969. Calling for "responsive government" and equal-opportunity hiring practices for minorities, she made history, defeating the incumbent, Martin Murray, for the District 6 seat.

But City Council was tough on her. For the first two years, she was frustrated by the old guard, which blocked just about every initiative she made.

Things got better in 1971 when some of those seats changed hands. Her peers made her vice mayor and she got a few things done, like overhauling the city's water system and instituting one of the nation's first mandatory seat belt laws. She also fought unsuccessfully to have black real-estate owners compensated for past discrimination.

In 1972, at the Democratic Convention, ironically, she had to support George Wallace. As an at-large delegate, state law mandated she vote for the segregationist Alabama governor on the first ballot because he had won the Florida primary.

Later that year, she ran for the state Senate and lost. Back on City Council, she still felt the urge to leave St. Petersburg, primarily because our home had become a prime target for break-ins. One morning, while getting dressed for a City Council meeting, she found an intruder lurking outside the bathroom and banged him over the head with a hand mirror before he ran off.

So, it was no surprise to me when Gov. Reubin Askew got her to join the Commerce Department and she packed up and moved to Tallahassee, where she eventually became deputy secretary of commerce, and, later, head of the state's newly formed crime compensation committee.

In 1982 she ran for the state Legislature in a Tallahassee district. In a primary field of five, she surprised everyone with a second-place finish that put her into a runoff with another black candidate, a former FAMU basketball player named Al Lawson, who won the runoff.

Eventually, after her name surfaced as a candidate for the Florida Supreme Court, she moved back to St. Petersburg to take on Bill Young for Congress in 1988. She got 65,000 votes, but that wasn't enough.

In the early 1990s, my mother was planning on making a run at her old City Council seat before our family suffered a double whammy. My grandmother, the woman who raised Bette, died in 1991 and my brother died 14 months later at the age of 33. That took all the steam out of her, so she settled down, taking a job as local counsel for the Florida Department of Social Services and arbitrating labor law cases for the federal government before retiring in 2003.

But there was more to her than politics. A devout Catholic who never swore, her great loves were fishing, tennis, gumbo, Dr Pepper, Franco Harris and TV shows like Green Acres and Northern Exposure. Above all, she loved her family.

An exceptional woman? You Bette!

A funeral Mass will be celebrated for Mrs. Wimbish at 11 a.m. Thursday at Blessed Trinity Catholic Church, 1600 54th Ave. S, St. Petersburg.

fast facts

About the author

Ralph Wimbish, a 1974 graduate of the University of South Florida, is an assistant sports editor at the New York Post. In 2001, he was co-author of Arlene Howard's memoir of her husband, Elston and Me: The Story of the First Black Yankee.

Ralph Wimbish: My mom was more than a civil rights trailblazer 12/08/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 8, 2009 5:33pm]
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