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Former Tarpon mayor Craig dies

Former Mayor Thomas M. Craig, the city's beloved patriarch and the namesake of its most cherished park, died Thursday at his home. He was 92.

Mr. Craig had returned home last week after spending almost a month at Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital battling an upper respiratory infection. In the end, Mr. Craig had been unable to speak.

"He just wore out," said his son Thomas Craig, Jr. "It happens to all of us."

Mr. Craig's good friend Henry McKie Salley, the father of City Commissioner Dudley Salley, died last month at the age of 93.

Through the years, Mr. Craig had become known as a walking history book of Tarpon Springs.

Everyone from city officials to reporters turned to him when they needed a nugget of information about Tarpon Springs' past. His death, some said Thursday, robs the city of history that can't be found anywhere else.

"We have lost the knowledge, history and stories that have gone up to heaven," Mayor Anita Protos said. "Everything that's there we'll never be able to capture now."

Mr. Craig had lived in Tarpon Springs since 1907, two years after the city's famous influx of Greek sponge divers began. He moved here as a child with his family from Micanopy.

He grew up in Tarpon Springs' rough-and-tumble frontier days, when Florida crackers brawled with Greeks and Confederate veterans were community heroes. He watched Dodecanese Boulevard, now the heart of the Sponge Docks, emerge from a marsh, helped partly by the dumping of sawdust from a nearby lumber mill.

Like his father, Mr. Craig eventually became mayor, serving before that as a city commissioner.

During his time as mayor from 1960 to 1964, Mr. Craig's administration was credited with projects such as building a new public library, putting up a seawall around Spring Bayou and starting construction on what is now Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital.

Besides being a politician, his professional career included running a dry cleaning business and managing an appliance store before opening his own with his son in 1969.

Now, as people reflect on Mr. Craig's life, a variety of images emerge.

Some remember him with cane in hand, walking with his poodle, Craigie, through Craig Park, the pastoral spot overlooking Spring Bayou. The park was named for him in 1978.

Others still talk about the stogies he smoked, and the suits he always wore.

"I never saw Mr. Craig out of dress," said John Tarapani, a former Tarpon Springs commissioner who has known Mr. Craig since he was a child.

Everyone though, seems to remember his willingness to help.

"If you needed a friend, he was always around," said Tarapani's father, Abe Tarapani of Tarapani's Department Store.

Mr. Craig remained active in city life until a few months ago. Last year, he passionately urged the City Commission to move the city library rather than expand it in Craig Park.

As recently as this year, Mr. Craig served on a committee that reviewed the city's charter. He was active in several clubs, including the Lions Club and the Old Timers Club. He was an honorary member of the Tarpon Springs Rotary Club and the Tarpon Springs Historical Society. He was a member of the First Baptist Church of Tarpon Springs.

But it was Mr. Craig's almost endless knowledge of Tarpon Springs that made him into a sort of teacher for some of the city's leaders.

Former City Commissioner Herman Burruss remembers spending evenings at the fire station chatting politics with Mr. Craig, who used to fill in one night each week for the fire chief.

"I learned from Tom," Burruss said. "It was like going to school again."

It was because Mr. Craig led such a full and varied life in Tarpon Springs that his son, Tom Craig Jr., said no two memories of his father are likely to be the same.

His, however, will be a simple one. "He's my father."

Mr. Craig is survived by two sons, Thomas Craig Jr. of Tarpon Springs and Robert M. Craig of Gainesville, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. His wife, Frances, died in 1989.

Visitation will be Sunday from 7 to 9 p.m. at Vinson Funeral Home, 456 E Tarpon Ave. Services are scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday at the First Baptist Church of Tarpon Springs, 1021 Gulf Road, with burial at Cycadia Cemetery.

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