Epilogue: Don Spicer, St. Pete mayor who crossed the political aisle, dies at 91

Don Spicer served the Sunshine City from 1969 to 1971. He died in January but his family will remember him at a service this summer.
Published April 15

As his memory began to fade, Don Spicer always recalled two things: playing with his childhood friend and being the mayor of St. Petersburg.

Mr. Spicer entered office in 1969 as a conservative Republican who allied himself with Democrats to advocate for unions, racial equality and other progressive causes.

The former mayor of St. Petersburg died peacefully in his sleep Jan. 29 at his home in Charleston, S.C., at the age of 91. His family plans to hold a celebration of life this summer in his hometown of Jefferson, Mo.

Mr. Spicer’s politics were confusing to many, remembers Virginia Ellis, the former reporter who covered the mayor for the then-St. Petersburg Times, which changed its name to the Tampa Bay Times in 2012.

The mayor was a conservative Republican who voted for Barry Goldwater. But in City Hall, Mr. Spicer governed much differently — though the powers of the office were much different then, two decades before the strong-mayor era started in 1993.

“He very much believed in the government in the sunshine,” Ellis said. “He was open to dialogue from anyone. People that didn’t get the attention they felt like they deserved before, got it when he was there.”

EPILOGUE: Read notable obituaries from the staff of the Tampa Bay Times.

After graduating from the University of Missouri in 1950 he was ready for something new. He’d vacationed in St. Petersburg once and the construction business was booming. So in 1951 he moved to Florida with his wife, Dorothy “Dottie” Spicer.

There he worked for a construction and a development company before opening his own construction business with two other men in 1955.

Shortly before Mr. Spicer was elected as mayor, the city’s sanitation workers — all but one was black — all went on strike. They had to work six day weeks just to make a mere $101.40 per week, said University of South Florida professor emeritus Darryl Paulson, who studied the history of Southern politics. But the workers wanted to work five days a week — the city said if they did, their pay would get cut by $30.

In May of 1968, 211 of the 235 sanitation workers were fired, but the strike continued and cost the city.

Eight months later the first black woman, C. Bette Wimbish, was elected to the city council — and so was Mr. Spicer.

Mr. Spicer was an introvert and never had his eyes set on being in politics. But his wife pushed him to get out of his comfort zone, because she felt like he had great potential, said his son Don Spicer Jr., 61.

His father ran for mayor and, to everyone’s surprise, he won in 1969.

Nobody expected Mr. Spicer to do much. He was an active member within the business community, and those within the “establishment” were known to align with pro-business values.

“He was a businessman and it was assumed that he would look after business interests,” Ellis said. “Nobody thought about him being a reformer when he was elected.”

During Mr. Spicer’s tenure, Paulson said the city manager held most of the power. It made it difficult to make significant changes in the city because the mayor was just simply a voting member of the council.

But the mayor aligned himself with Wimbish and the other woman on the city council, quickly forming a three a three-member minority.

In between his political duties, Mr. Spicer enjoyed hosting parties with his wife for friends and family. Don Spicer Jr. said he always knew it was a good party if the night ended with guests skinny dipping in the pool. Though, his father usually didn’t make it that far into the night.

“When he got tired he would just want to go to bed,” his son said. “And the way he would try to empty out the party was he’d pull out the clarient and just start playing it.”

In 1971 the father’s tenure as mayor ended. His family moved to Georgia, where Mr. Spicer studied to get his masters in urban administration from the state school and worked as the director of the Atlanta Urban Observatory. It only took a year before Mr. Spicer was recruited by former Gov. Reubin Askew to return to politics in Florida — this time in Tallahassee.

The choice to have him head the State Bureau of Intergovernmental Relations in 1972 caused a surprise in Tallahassee. Mr. Spicer was a former supporter of Republican Claude Kirk, who lost the governor’s race to Askew just two years prior.

In 1973, amid a scandal over the way Lt. Gov. Tom Adams had been running the Commerce Department, the governor promoted Mr. Spicer to succeed Adams. But 22 months later, Askew fired him. The former mayor had irritated one too many powerful leaders with his bipartisan politics, according to archived Times articles.

In 1975 Mr. Spicer’s interests had shifted from politics to urban development. He moved north to Maryland where he served in various positions throughout Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. He held 12 different jobs in the state and finally retired in 2002.

Even as Mr. Spicer got older, his passion for politics didn’t wane. He was always watching the news, his daughter said, and he was always listening to both sides.

Daughter Ann Spicer O'Day, 63, said her father couldn’t understand why Democrats and Republicans had become so seemingly divided. And he wanted to figure out a way to bring them together:

“He told me, ‘We should all get together and line up, stick together and solve this.’”

Contact McKenna Oxenden at moxenden@tampabay.com. Follow @mack_oxenden.

• • •

BIOGRAPHY

Born: Jan. 3, 1928

Died: Jan. 29, 2019

Survivors: Daughter Ann Spicer O’Day, her husband David Hearst O’Day and their children Emily Hirst and Christopher Spicer O’Day. Son Don Lee Spicer Jr. and children Logan and Avery. Brother David Spicer, wife Sue Spicer and sons Brad and Bret. Brother Paul Spicer, wife Darla and son Eric.

Service: A celebration of life will be held this summer in Jefferson, Mo.

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