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The Cuban Club’s eldest elder, Raul Lavin, helped save it from ruin

Lifelong member worked to make sure that history was not forgotten in Ybor City
Raul Lavin and the Cuban Club building were linked for more than 100 years. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times 2017]
Raul Lavin and the Cuban Club building were linked for more than 100 years. [CHRIS URSO | Times 2017]
Published Jun. 10, 2019
Updated Jun. 10, 2019

In Ybor City, El Circulo Cubano de Tampa looks much as it did more than 100 years ago – yellow brick, white columns, stained-glass window with Cuba’s coat of arms.

Around it, so much has changed.

The cigar factories that employed Cuban immigrants are mostly gone. The González Clinic is now renovated office space. Brick streets have been covered with asphalt.

But the Cuban Club is still there, and Raul Lavin had a lot to do with that.

Mr. Lavin died June 2 of injuries from a fall. He was 102.

Raul Lavin was the president and CEO of Cosmo Truck Equipment, a Ybor City business that he opened in 1947. He started Cosmo across from Broadway Ice Co. as it moved from horse and buggy to automobile and needed a way to transport goods. He was proud of giving many young men a start in their careers. (Courtesy Larry Lavin)

Mr. Lavin was a member of the Cuban Club before he was born. At 19, he became its youngest board member, the Tampa Bay Times’ Paul Guzzo reported in 2017.

He and his wife, Dora Lavin, had two sons. Larry Lavin remembers the two-block walk from home to visit his aunt, who worked as a nurse at the club. It served as health clinic, pharmacy, library, gym, community center and hub of social life.

During the day, crowds gathered in the street-level basement to play dominoes. The echoes of tiles clicking on tables grew louder as Larry Lavin got closer.

For 52 years, Mr. Lavin ran Cosmo Truck Equipment, which built truck bodies in Ybor City. And every morning on his way to work, he stopped by the Columbia for a cup of coffee and a slice of toasted Cuban bread.

Raul and Dora Lavin, left, in a 1959 photo. (Courtesy Larry Lavin)

His father had two loves, Larry Lavin said – Cosmo and the Cuban Club.

So Mr. Lavin stepped in when the club’s membership dwindled, as children and grandchildren moved away, the building began to crumble and it faced foreclosure due to a past president’s mismanagement. He started working to protect the future of Ybor City’s past.

“We don’t want it to become another boarded up building,” he told the Tampa Tribune in 1992. “There’s enough of those in Tampa already.”

Rolando Perez-Pedrero, a past president of the club, said Mr. Lavin brought the whole community together, not just people with Cuban heritage or ties to Ybor City.

By October 1992, enough money had been raised to save the Cuban Club from going to auction. In December, the Cuban Club Foundation, a nonprofit created to protect the club and its property, elected Mr. Lavin as its president.

In 1992, Raul Lavin founded the Cuban Club Foundation to save the landmark from foreclosure. It's now on the National Register of Historic Places. (Clipping from a story in the St. Petersburg Times)

In his later years, Mr. Lavin kept the histories of Ybor City and the Cuban Club alive by telling stories.

People called often, Larry Lavin said, and, with a sharp memory for dates, places and names, his dad spent hours sharing the history of Tampa.

Rhonda Villamia got to know Mr. Lavin in the early 2000s as she worked to preserve her own father’s Cuban history. They became friends, celebrating many recent milestone birthdays.

At his 102nd, at Arco Iris Cafe, Villamia shot a video of her friend.

“Are there any secrets to your health and longevity, any words of wisdom to us younger people?” she asked.

Light streamed in through a window onto Mr. Lavin’s white hair and pale blue guayabera.

“Truthfully, I don’t think there is a formula for that,” he said in a soft voice. “You try to live a good life. You always try to do somebody some good every day that you can...”

The Cuban Club isn’t fully restored or out of debt. But it’s close.

Structural repairs that cost $3 million are nearly complete, said Patrick Manteiga, editor and publisher of La Gaceta weekly newspaper and president of the Cuban Club Foundation. The mortgage taken out to preserve the building has been paid down by half. By the end of this year, it should get paid off in full.

The Sunday matinee dances Mr. Lavin and so many others attended on the top floor, with the windows open and the grandmas watching in chairs around the room as young men and women met and fell in love, don’t happen anymore.

But they’re easily recalled, Manteiga said.

“You can hear the wood creak under your feet," he said, "and you can see the sunlight come through and you can imagine it.”

Unlike much of Ybor’s old buildings, where the ghosts have all fled, he said, the Cuban Club wasn’t torn up or torn down.

“I think they’re all still at the Cuban Club.”

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Want to know more about Raul Lavin? Head over to Instagram and @werememberthem and see one way his community will remember him. Know someone who has recently died whom we should write about? Send suggestions to Kristen Hare at epilogue@tampabay.com.

A celebration of life will be held for Raul Lavin at the Cuban Club at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, June 22. RSVP to larlavin@msn.com.

Read recent Epilogues:

For more than 30 years, when Donatello opened at Thanksgiving, Guido Tiozzo was there

Gymnast Shelby Hilton’s ‘uncommon determination’ showed on the mat and off

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