Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

JOHN CHESNUT JR.: 1925-1996 // "There was no finer statesman'

John Chesnut Jr., a 16-year veteran of the Pinellas County Commission and a retired insurance executive, died Monday (Jan. 8, 1996) at home. He was 70.

During his tenure on the commission, the county acquired a new jail, a $160-million garbage disposal plant, a countywide emergency medical service and a growth management plan. He often said that the solution to the county's problems was planning for growth.

Mr. Chesnut served on the commission from 1976 until 1992, when political newcomer Sallie Parks unseated him. It was Parks who called for a moment of silence during Tuesday's commission meeting in Clearwater.

Joyce Chesnut said Tuesday that her husband had been treated successfully in 1993 for lung cancer but had become increasingly incapacitated by emphysema-type lung disease.

She described her husband as a "tall (6-foot-2), handsome Southern gentleman with this most wonderful integrity." It was this integrity that his friends and former commission associates most remembered about him.

"There was no finer statesman that served on this board; we could all emulate his style and his class," Commissioner Steve Seibert said Tuesday during the commission meeting.

Charles Rainey, a Pinellas County commissioner since 1967, said, "His word was his bond. That's something you don't see too often in today's political arena."

Commissioner Bruce Tyndall, who served 15 years with Chesnut, said, "I don't think I ever saw John bend to political pressure. If he'd tell you something, you could count on it."

County Administrator Fred Marquis said Chesnut "was famous for doing what was morally right from an integrity issue, as opposed to what was politically right. If Abe Lincoln was ever reincarnated, it was John Chesnut."

Mr. Chesnut was born in Clearwater and graduated from Clearwater High School. He attended Butler University in Indianapolis, where he played basketball. He played shortstop on the Clearwater Bombers softball team with a skill that landed him a spot on the All-World team.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George W. Greer, who served with Chesnut on the commission from 1984-1992, said Tuesday that his first memories are of the Bombers games when Chesnut was playing.

"I've known John for 30-plus years and observed him for longer," Greer said. "When I started practicing law in 1966, he and his dad had an insurance agency around the corner. That's when I really got to know him.

"He was a good man, a hard-working man _ a chip off the old block, so to speak."

Mr. Chesnut "was a very good county commissioner," Greer said.

"He worked hard and brought a sense of history to the proceeding and a sense of stability as well. He seldom went off tangents. He was kind of straight arrow and down the middle."

Barbara Sheen Todd, who also served on the County Commission with Chesnut, was on a business trip to Houston. In a telephone interview, she said she remembers most his "sense of fairness and equity on every major issue."

"He had a sense of time and the future as to what would be best for Pinellas County," she said. "It was always what was best for Pinellas County, not what was best for John Chesnut, the commission or the staff."

Mr. Chesnut first was elected on a reform platform in the wake of a County Commission zoning scandal. But as the only commission incumbent running in 1992, he received criticism that county government had lost touch with constituents.

Mr. Chesnut was a real estate broker and part-owner of Chesnut and Chesnut Inc., one of Clearwater's oldest insurance and real estate firms.

It was founded by his late father, John Chesnut Sr., a Pinellas County commissioner during the 1940s and 1950s. The elder Chesnut played a key role in developing county parks, and a park in East Lake bears his name.

When the younger Mr. Chesnut became commission chairman in January 1980, the gavel passing became a family affair. He got the gavel that his father had wielded as chairman 40 years earlier.

Beaming, the elder Mr. Chesnut expressed pride in his son's selection as chairman even though the younger man was a Republican and the father a Democrat.

The lanky Republican was commission chairman in 1980 when the commission approved the biggest project in the county's history, a massive garbage processing plant in mid-Pinellas near the Toytown landfill.

Sometimes considered the most conservative member of the commission, Mr. Chesnut, an original member of the Pinellas Sports Authority, opposed public spending for the ThunderDome.

At one point in the debate over building the stadium, he appealed individually to St. Petersburg City Council members to hold a public hearing, saying, "Somebody along the line ought to slow this greased pig down."

By the time he sought re-election to a third term in 1984, however, he had drawn the opposition of some, including editorial writers at the old St. Petersburg Evening Independent. They accused him of favoring developers, trying to weaken the county water supply system and taking an "anti-Pinellas stand" on such issues as the stadium.

He served in the Korean War with the 82nd Airborne Division as a paratrooper and was awarded the Silver and Bronze stars. He also served in the Navy and the Merchant Marine.

He was a member of the Clearwater Rotary Club, the Greater Clearwater Chamber of Commerce, and the American Legion and a lifetime member of Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Clearwater.

In addition to his wife, survivors include brothers Arthur of Tampa and Tom of Clearwater; nephews Artie Chesnut of Tampa and Stanley Chesnut of Belleview; nieces Cindy Hart of Seminole, Ellen Ayo of Germantown, Tenn., and Terri Keever of Valrico; and 12 grandnieces and grandnephews.

A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, 701 Orange St. in Clearwater. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Church of the Ascension, Lykes Cancer Center, Upper Pinellas Youth Sports Center or Hospice of the Florida Suncoast. Moss-Feaster Funeral Homes, Fort Harrison Chapel, is handing arrangements.

_ Some information in this obituary came from staffer Ned Seaton and stories by Wayne Garcia and Paul Tash in the Times and from stories in the St. Petersburg Evening Independent.