Margaret Harkey was doing what she loved most on her last productive day of life: working on behalf of the city of Safety Harbor. She was in Tallahassee last week along with many other local government officials for a Florida League of Cities conference. "I'm going to lobby those legislators," she said with obvious glee before she left, and "see if we can get some things done around here."
She didn't get time to complete her Tallahassee agenda. Thursday night Mrs. Harkey collapsed in front of a Tallahassee restaurant.
Twenty-four hours later she was dead from a ruptured blood vessel in her brain. She was only 53.
But what full years they were. Born in Jacksonville, she was raised by religious parents who instilled in her the desire to do the right thing. She married while still in her teens, worked for her father's construction company and raised three children.
After she and her husband, Jerry, moved to Safety Harbor 14 years ago, Mrs. Harkey took an interest in city government. She didn't like much of what she saw.
She became a vociferous critic of city government. Mrs. Harkey believed Safety Harbor government was afflicted not just with poor management but with apathy and possibly corruption as well. She didn't hesitate to say what she thought. When she was elected to the City Commission in 1979, it was by a substantial margin. Her name was practically a household word.
She charged that the city had not taken a professional approach to
planning, leading to drainage problems, bad streets and other inadequacies that plagued the city during a period of rapid growth.
She called for investigations of the city building department and the city manager, Ellsworth Hoppe. She wanted both the building director and the city manager out. She got her wish on both counts.
But her time on the commission was hard on her. She had many critics. She was threatened and harassed. Frustrated and fed up, she resigned after serving only a year.
"I've gone from miserable to devastated trying to clean up Safety
Harbor," she said then. "They've taken what I tried to do and turned it all around, and I've ended up the villain of Safety Harbor."
As a private citizen, she continued working to right the wrongs she saw in local government. But she also had time to become active in local organizations. People discovered she was not at all villainous, but instead was a tireless worker and a loyal friend, and someone absolutely devoted to the city she had adopted as home.
Mrs. Harkey couldn't stay away from local government for long. She won another term in 1988, but government-watchers found her changed.
While she was just as dedicated to good government, professional planning and preservation of the environment, the sharp edge was gone.
Rather than yelling, she wheedled, nudged and nagged to accomplish her goals. Some people said she had lost her backbone. Others felt she had learned a valuable lesson about how to get along in political circles.
She worked in her second term to bring about a more open government in Safety Harbor. Thin, bespectacled and with a headful of unruly curls, she was an unlikely figure for the role she played. But in the end, she was a part of reshaping Safety Harbor government, not once, but twice.
She was dedicated to the city's senior citizens. She worked to improve the lives of poor children as a member of the board of the Lincoln Learning Center. She became known as the commissioner who would take an interest in even minor issues. She brought a woman's touch to City Hall, decorating a live Christmas tree in the lobby and leaving potpourri baskets on the desks of city employees.
Both tough and soft, she won the respect of family, friends, other local politicians and the residents she served.
We think Margaret Eleanor Harkey will be remembered just as she would have wished to be: as a Southern lady who accomplished much for the city she loved.