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Historian Gary Mormino receives lifetime achievement award

Author and historian Gary Mormino, pictured in his office in 2012, is the co-founder of the Florida studies program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and the Frank E. Duckwall Florida professor of history emeritus. The St. Petersburg resident still teaches one class a year (on the history of food).
Author and historian Gary Mormino, pictured in his office in 2012, is the co-founder of the Florida studies program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and the Frank E. Duckwall Florida professor of history emeritus. The St. Petersburg resident still teaches one class a year (on the history of food).
Published Jan. 30, 2015

For Gary Mormino, winning the Florida Humanities Council's 2015 Florida Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing "came out of the blue sky."

"I'm grateful, I'm shocked, I'm excited," he said. "I've stood on the shoulders of giants."

Mormino, 68, was chosen by a five-person panel (including myself) from a field of 15 nominees. He is the sixth writer to receive the award, which will be presented April 10 at the Florida Book Awards at the Governor's Mansion in Tallahassee.

Mormino is the co-founder of the Florida studies program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and the Frank E. Duckwall Florida professor of history emeritus. The St. Petersburg resident still teaches one class a year (on the history of food) in retirement and is a scholar in residence for FHC. Mormino has not only written a number of books and monographs but, as a professor in the Florida studies program, influenced many other writers.

Although he spent his career in academia, Mormino says he always wanted to write for "a broader audience." He has done so in a number of books; his best known is Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida. He has also written extensively about immigrants in Florida and about the impact of World War II on the state — the latter being the subject of his current book project.

Mormino's writing is also familiar to readers of the Tampa Bay Times. He is a frequent contributor to the Times and other Florida newspapers as well as to the New Yorker and the New York Times.

While he was growing up in the Midwest, Mormino says, "Florida could not have been more removed from my experience. It was a fantasy. I was a St. Louis Cardinals fan as a child, and so I knew the places where they had spring training. Clearwater, Winter Haven — just the names were magical."

He earned his doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Their specialty was the South, but I don't remember anybody studying Florida." Before he came to USF's Tampa campus as a new faculty member in 1977, he says, he didn't know whether Tampa was on the state's east or west coast. He even made the rookie mistake of asking about "Why-Bore City."

"Once I got here, though, I realized this was the great story of my life," he says. In 1980-81, he spent a year in Rome as a Fulbright scholar. He would read the news from Florida in those years — the Mariel boat lift, the Miami race riots, the Haitian boat people, the English-only campaign — and think, "I'm missing everything!" He has since devoted himself to writing about "the Florida dream — and the Florida nightmare."

Mormino notes that the state teems with talented writers, mentioning novelists Robert Olen Butler and Carl Hiaasen, poet David Kirby, nonfiction writer Diane Roberts and former Times Real Florida columnist Jeff Klinkenberg.

Among the biggest influences on his writing, Mormino says, are other historians. Florida historian Michael Gannon, the first winner of FHC's ward, "was a great role model." He also cites his USF colleagues Ray Arsenault, John Belohlavek and Michael Francis. What the best contemporary writers of history are doing, Mormino says, is "perfecting the art of narrative writing, telling a great story with a social purpose."

His favorite Florida writer, though, is novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. "I used The Yearling for 35 years in my Florida history classes. I think it's a book you can read as a kid and read again as an adult and always find something new."

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Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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