A conversation with Tampa's Alan Donn, top national award winner from Keep America Beautiful

Alan Donn, shown here along the Hillsborough River, won the top national award from Keep America Beautiful for his volunteer cleanup efforts. [LENORA LAKE | Special to the Times]
Alan Donn, shown here along the Hillsborough River, won the top national award from Keep America Beautiful for his volunteer cleanup efforts. [LENORA LAKE | Special to the Times]
Published April 24, 2019

It was his upbringing that gave Alan Donn a desire to keep the environment clean and beautiful.

The volunteer's efforts over more than 25 years with his wife, Dorothy Holle, co-workers and other community members have resulted in the removal of almost 190,000 pounds of litter and debris from entering local waterways.

His dedication also resulted in the top national award from Keep America Beautiful — the 2018 Iron Eyes Cody Award, presented in February at the Keep America Beautiful National Conference in Baltimore. It is named after the actor who portrayed a Native American in an iconic 1971 public service announcement who shed a tear over America's rampant littering.

Donn was nominated by Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful, an affiliate of the national organization, for his work in turning an illegal waterfront dumping site into Cypress Point Park, a city-owned park at 5620 W. Cypress St. with a boardwalk, hiking trails, dunes, picnic shelters and a canoe dock.

He grew up in small township in Michigan, "where I got into environmental stuff," said Donn, who turns 70 in June. "It was instilled in me by my mom and dad." His family camped across Michigan, where they would "pick up all the trash and be sure it was cleaner than when we got there. "

Donn, who came to Florida in 1985, recently talked with Times correspondent Lenora Lake about his involvement and the award.

How did you get involved in Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful?

I was chairperson of the Sierra Club and got invited to be on the board of Keep Hillsborough County Beautiful, which merged later with the Mayor's Beautification Program.

We had a record of doing cleanups, a great number of volunteers and system of communications. But we did not have a good financial plan. Mayor's Beautification had support financially from the mayor and had the government connections. When we merged, we got the best organization.

How did you learn about the need to clean up the land that is now Cypress Point Park?

Dorothy and I were over in St. Pete and on the way back, we saw this spit of white sand. We didn't realize it was a beach then, so we set out to find it. We went down a dusty two-lane path in a field that went out there. It was a very pretty beach, but a party beach — not fenced — with bottles, tires, washing machines, and we wanted to clean it up. We found out it was privately owned.

What did you do after that?

Through the Sierra Club we worked with Jan Platt (the late Hillsborough County Commissioner) to get it on the ELAPP (Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program ) list. When we got it purchased by ELAPP, we could clean it up. Since then, it has been transferred to the city of Tampa as a natural park, beach, sand dune, two tidal basins, natural upland area and hammock.

Tell me about the first cleanup at the area.

It was in 1998 and we had 48 people. There was a lot of big manual stuff to do and remove invasive plants. We created paths, mulched the paths, planted sea grass. A Boy Scout troop participated and built a latrine. Now we are cleaning up the mangroves and the rest of the park. In 2008, they opened the restrooms.

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Were you surprised when you won the award?

When Debbie (Everson, the executive director of Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful) called me, I was flabbergasted and quite honored. Then she told me that she would send me — and my wife, Dorothy, up to accept the award. Dorothy has been with me at every cleanup and is always behind the scenes helping.

I remember I was going to college in Michigan when that public service announcement was playing on TV.

I understand you have a big cleanup April 27. Why is the Great American Cleanup so important?

It is primarily to remove trash from the environment so birds, fish and animals aren't impacted by it. It makes places look nice for the residents and tourists who come to the area and we are making sure families get involved — which instills a sense of community service.

How can people help?

They can go to the Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful website and there are 60 sites people can sign up for until that site is full.

We like people to sign up so we know how much water, how many trash bags, how many grabbers and such we need. One year we had 350 show up for one site and we found a brand-new tackle box. It belonged to a fisherman who had hid it in the mangroves while fishing and came asking us about it. Sure enough, we had it — and gave it back to him.

Do you have any other stories?

One year we had these men in their 80s show up for a cleanup and one said they had leave around 11 a.m. He said, "I'm getting married this afternoon and these gentlemen are in my wedding. And we have to get ready."

Are there other opportunities to help?

Yes. We have a cleanup every year on July 5 and in September is the International Coastal Cleanup. At that one we record everything, ID the source of the litter. It is amazing how much stuff ends up in the ocean.

What should our elected leaders — locally, statewide or nationally — be doing in this arena?

Hillsborough County has a program of lobbying businesses to help. They don't need to give a straw with every drink. We want them to minimize packaging for carry outs. We are trying to get other governments, counties, cities behind this.

It would be nice to be out of the litter pickup business.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.