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Activist ‘housewife’ was a champion of St. Pete’s airport

Ruth Varn was the face of the long fight to save Albert Whitted Airport.
Camera crews sent by the Federal Aviation Administration visited St. Petersburg in 1989 to film segments for a documentary on airport action groups, including spokesperson Ruth Varn.
Camera crews sent by the Federal Aviation Administration visited St. Petersburg in 1989 to film segments for a documentary on airport action groups, including spokesperson Ruth Varn. [ LOPEZ, TONY | St. Petersburg Times ]
Published Sep. 7, 2020
Updated Sep. 21, 2020

Ruth Varn spent more than 20 years fighting to save St. Petersburg’s general aviation airport. She took on this newspaper, whose editorial board pushed for the bayfront land to be available for wider use. She took on developers. She took on City Hall.

And she hated to fly.

“She could get seasick looking at a picture of waves,” said Mrs. Varn’s youngest, Theresa Cansler.

“But I think this is important,” Cansler remembers her mom saying, “and you know, I’m just a housewife.”

Some people were taken in by that, “but she was more than that,” Cansler said. “She wasn’t just a housewife.”

Mrs. Varn died Aug. 23 of natural causes. She had just turned 94.

Mrs. Varn and four of her five children in her passport photo in a time when children were pictured with a parent.
Mrs. Varn and four of her five children in her passport photo in a time when children were pictured with a parent. [ Courtesy Theresa Cansler ]

Mrs. Varn and the Albert Whitted Airport were nearly the same age. For their first 60 years, though, the two rarely intersected.

She earned a degree in social work from the University of Alabama, met and married Fred Varn, a well-mannered Army Air Corp pilot, and the two started their family of five, moving to 12 different duty stations along the way. Mrs. Varn, who grew up in Bradenton, often packed her children in the station wagon and hauled a pop-up camper home for Florida summers.

Meanwhile, early supporters of the St. Petersburg airport envisioned adding a proper terminal. Then, in 1929, the stock market crashed. Over the next four decades, the St. Petersburg Times’ editorial page argued regularly that the land could be put to better use.

Mrs. Varn and her family moved to St. Pete in 1968. In the 1980s, when the kids were all out of the house, the airport and the housewife’s story really took off.

National Airlines, one of the first airlines in the U.S., began service at Albert Whitted Airport in 1938. This map was published in the Tampa Bay Times on July 18, 1984.
National Airlines, one of the first airlines in the U.S., began service at Albert Whitted Airport in 1938. This map was published in the Tampa Bay Times on July 18, 1984. [ Times file ]

Doug Varn was living in Washington, D.C., when his mom asked if he could join her for lunch. She was in town to meet with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Mrs. Varn’s volunteer work, her children had begun to realize, was more than a hobby. She volunteered with the Sun ’n’ Fun Fly event in Lakeland, and Mr. Varn owned a small plane he kept at Whitted. But she’d also grown tired of attempts to replace the airport.

By 1982, her name started appearing in stories of City Council meetings and at the bottom of paid ads from Citizens for the Preservation of the Waterfront/Airport.

The back and forth continued for years. The 117-acre airport, some argued, could be a waterfront park, a convention and visitor’s center, an urban village, an expansion of the University of South Florida.

Mrs. Varn, always composed and polite but unrattled by men in authority, pushed back.

“That airport is a valuable asset to St. Petersburg,” she told the Times in 1984 after receiving an award for her work. “I felt that by getting involved in it, I was protecting the public interest.”

But the fight was far from over.

Mrs. Varn and her children watched her husband in an air show. She was a no-sniveling allowed kind of parent, her daughter said.
Mrs. Varn and her children watched her husband in an air show. She was a no-sniveling allowed kind of parent, her daughter said. [ Courtesy Theresa Cansler ]

On Nov. 4, 2003, St. Pete voters would finally decide the future of the airport.

“I want this thing settled once and for all,” Mrs. Varn told the Times that September.

Jack Tunstill worked with Mrs. Varn and the groups working to protect the airport.

“‘I’ll make my speeches,’” she told him, “‘but I want you to hammer them with facts.’ And that’s what we did.”

The airport wasn’t just for the elite, they argued. It employed people, supported small businesses that used it for shipping, hosted flights in and out of the children’s hospital, was a Coast Guard station and a place where people could learn to fly.

After the vote, the Times reported the results: “Voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a plan to keep the airport open and resoundingly rejected a proposal to replace it with a waterfront park.”

St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker, left, hugs Ruth Varn, right, after presenting her with a section of ribbon used for the Albert Whitted terminal dedication in 2007.
St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker, left, hugs Ruth Varn, right, after presenting her with a section of ribbon used for the Albert Whitted terminal dedication in 2007. [ BORCHUCK, JAMES | St. Petersburg Times ]

Mrs. Varn and her peers managed to enlist powerful sentiment from the community on behalf of the airport, said Times chairman and CEO Paul Tash.

After her husband died in 2013, Mrs. Varn moved to Newport News, Va., to be close to her daughters and their children. She and Tash stayed in touch.

He remembers Mrs. Varn as tenacious in protecting the airport but always cordial. A lot could be learned by her example, he said.

She leaves behind her five children and their spouses, 13 grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and a municipal airport that isn’t going anywhere.

“Personally, I still think that’s an awful lot of land for a general aviation airport,” Tash said, “but I think, Ruth, you won.”

Mrs. Varn and her husband enjoyed canal boat travel in their later years. They're pictured here on the Erie Canal in 2010. Though Mrs. Varn had motion sickness, the water was smooth enough, her daughter said.
Mrs. Varn and her husband enjoyed canal boat travel in their later years. They're pictured here on the Erie Canal in 2010. Though Mrs. Varn had motion sickness, the water was smooth enough, her daughter said. [ Courtesy Theresa Cansler ]

Those we’ve lost:

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