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Crusader is battling urban decay

The year is 1979. The Reagan revolution is brewing. My Sharona is cranking from stereos along the University of Florida's Fraternity Row. And, curiously, this Gainesville campus is suddenly looking like the hotbed of political activism it had been at the start of the decade.

A shaggy-haired 23-year-old education major from St. Petersburg, Doug Tuthill, has been elected student body president as part of an anti-establishment coalition of black students, campus radicals and environmentalists. The traditional fraternity power structure is out, and, under the Tuthill regime, protest marches for social justice are in.

"Among all the student body presidents I remember over 24 years, he was probably the most idealistic," recalled Art Sandeen, the university's vice president for student affairs. "He had a very strong social conscience and was always trying to get people involved and working together."

His hair is a little shorter 18 years later, but Tuthill is still throwing his ebullient energy into subverting the establishment to change the world. The former president of Pinellas County's teachers union has turned his attention to reversing the grim statistics that define St. Petersburg's poorest neighborhoods.

On sabbatical from teaching at St. Petersburg High School, Tuthill was tapped by the University of South Florida to help coordinate urban renewal efforts under way since a police shooting last year provoked violent racial unrest in the city. He has emerged, behind the scenes, as a key player in coordinating ambitious urban redevelopment strategies.

Stephanie Owens, who coordinates federal efforts aimed at St. Petersburg's poorest neighborhoods, shares an office with Tuthill. "He's an excellent strategist and can take all this activity and flesh it out into a process we can work through," Owens said, then paused. "He's just a really good guy."

Tuthill on any given day can be found brokering a meeting between the leader of the police union and the leader of the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement. Or distributing to city administrators flow charts showing how they could carry out their revitalization plans for poor neighborhoods. Or pulling together bankers, business leaders and black entrepreneurs to talk about economic development. Or telling reporters and editors why such and such an initiative or meeting shows "fundamental change" for the city.

Ever enthusiastic and often firing out idea after idea, Tuthill has quietly helped focus the wide-ranging plans and ideas for turning around economic hopelessness in St. Petersburg's predominantly black neighborhoods.

When Mayor David Fischer unveiled his Challenge 2001 goals for the area most touched by last fall's disturbances, it was Tuthill who set to work coming up with a way to meet those goals _ pulling in education and business representatives.

"He's one of the brightest individuals I've ever run across," said City Administrator Darrel Stephens, who eats breakfast with Tuthill every couple of weeks.

One year after the disturbances, political leaders can point to many signs of hope but to few examples of tangible change. Tuthill contends that fundamental change is in the works.

"We're changing institutions permanently. We're changing how we do economic development in this community. We're changing public education forever. We're changing how we provide public support to the poor," he said. "I do think in five years St. Petersburg will be a model for the country. We're putting together the most sophisticated community development initiative anywhere in the country."

Part meeting facilitator, part political maneuverer and part social policy theoretician, Tuthill is working under the USF St. Petersburg campus' evolving Urban Institute, a community-based assistance and research effort aimed at improving life in St. Petersburg's poor neighborhoods.

The School Board and USF are splitting his $61,600 salary for the year so he can serve as an independent aide for those efforts.

"I needed someone who was bright and could work very well within the system," said Bill Heller, dean of the USF St. Petersburg campus. "Doug knows the community and can bridge across a lot of different points of view. He brings people together, and I don't think he is someone who runs around with a lot of agendas."

The son of a St. Petersburg firefighter, Tuthill is a third-generation St. Petersburg native with contacts throughout the state and beyond.

He served as president of the United States Student Association in Washington for a year and was on the Florida Commission on Education Reform and Accountability.

As a frequent guest columnist for the Times and one of the most outspoken presidents the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association has had, Tuthill has kept a high public profile.

But he balked at the prospect of a Times story about his work with USF's Urban Institute, saying he preferred to stay in the background.

Gently pressed, though, Tuthill has loads on his mind.

This is Tuthill on the city's efforts since the disturbances: "Darrel Stephens (being promoted from police chief to city administrator) was the best decision ever made. City Hall has really changed since he came on board, because Darrel has committed himself to radically changing how city government operates. . . . Six months ago, we would be in meetings with the city saying, "You need to include this person or that person.' Now, they're the ones saying, "Well, we'll need to make sure this person is involved or that person is.' "

This is Tuthill on Stephanie Owens: "She was sent down as a political operative to make sure the people in Washington got good press. Somewhere in the middle of that she decided, "My job is to help this community grow and become healthy.' She became less interested in superficial public relations events. . . . I've seen her take a lot of heat from Washington. She's fearless, she has a strong value system, and she's going to do this right even if she gets fired in the process."

He describes himself as "an organizational engineer," aiming to improve public institutions. His philosophy, whether as student body president or teachers union president, has always been to help people have more control overtheir lives.

"It's the concentration of power that corrupts," Tuthill said. "I'm driven by a very idealistic notion of democracy. I believe that we ought to be open, we ought to be inclusive and that everybody's voice should count equally."