TAMPA — Dick Greco has always been proud of his charm offensive. He can use casual affection and off-the-cuff storytelling to captivate an audience with remarks that he didn’t prepare in advance.
That’s why it was so strange that Greco, the four-term Tampa mayor who served from 1967 to 1973 and then from 1995 to 2003, arrived with notes to talk about his life in public service. He turns 90 on Sept. 14 and had scribbled talking points so that he wouldn’t miss anything in a conversation about his legacy.
Born and raised in Tampa, Greco is a graduate of Hillsborough High School and University of Tampa and raised two daughters and a son in the city.
His political career spanned the Civil Rights era and the city’s mob war, and he witnessed Ybor City’s heyday as the international hub of the cigar industry and its rebirth as an entertainment district. He also witnessed Fidel Castro’s rise to power 90 miles from the shores of Florida and later sought to bring the United States and Cuba together.
There are signs of his age. Greco wears a hearing aid and, at times, needs a cane due to complications from a hernia in 2016.
But he doesn’t look 90, due in large part to his third and current wife of 28 years, Linda McClintock, an anti-aging doctor who monitors his skin care, supplements, vitamins, exercise and diet.
And when he is talking, Greco is as energetic as a young man.
The Tampa Bay Times asked him to come prepared to tell stories, so he made his list. We came with one, too.
Once the conversation started, Greco put down his list and spoke from the heart. He detailed about two dozen of his favorite stories.
Here are the nine that best define Greco.
Need a hug?
Even if a man’s arm is devoid of muscle, Greco will likely squeeze it and ask if he has been working out.
Women get a hug and a compliment on their beauty.
And when deep in conversation, even with a stranger, he clasps their hand between his for the duration.
It’s a style of affectionate, touchy-feely politicking that might not be acceptable today but defined his political career.
“After 30 minutes of working the room, Greco looks like a ladies’ man at the end of a long night — his hair is mussed and there is lipstick on his cheeks,” the Times wrote of his 1995 campaign stop at a high school uniform factory. “‘Don’t leave yet,’ he shouts over applause. ‘I’m going to stand at the door and hug everybody in the place.’ And he does.”
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As Greco tells it, that warmth dates to his childhood.
His Italian immigrant father had one leg shorter than the other, and his left hand was permanently curled. Greco’s father didn’t see these physical differences as limitations, but society at the time did.
“He was worried I would be born the same,” Greco said of his father, also named Dick. “When I wasn’t, he thought I was perfect. They treated me like I was perfect.”
His father and mother, Evelyn, decided on the day he was born that he would be an only child, Greco said. “They spoiled me with love, and so did my grandparents and aunts and uncles and everyone in my family. I don’t remember ever coming or going without a hug. Hugging became as natural to me as breathing. It’s who I am.”
The nail keg
Greco was only 30 when he was elected mayor. His first administration was referred to as Tampa’s Camelot, a nod to the similarly nicknamed John F. Kennedy’s presidential administration.
And when he served two more terms decades later, Greco was called “Tampa’s once and future mayor,” a reference to “The Once and Future King” novel that tells the story of King Arthur and Camelot.
So, it’s appropriate that Greco’s story has its own version of Excalibur: a wooden keg that contained nails at his parents’ Ybor City hardware store. Politicians were guaranteed victory if they sat on the keg while on the campaign trail.
News archives say the folklore began with Spessard Holland’s 1941 gubernatorial campaign. Holland won and spoke of the keg’s magical ability. The following election season, more candidates visited the hardware store, sat on it, and each supposedly won.
As the years went on, it became a necessity for candidates visiting Ybor to stop by the hardware store. If Greco’s father found them to be worthy candidates, he allowed them to sit on the keg.
While the keg’s power may have been a myth, his father’s influence was real.
The senior Greco was known to sell items on whatever payment plan worked best for a customer, even willing to take a few pennies a month. In turn, customers trusted and supported him and whomever he endorsed. While that alone wasn’t enough to swing an election, it helped a candidate to win the Ybor vote.
Then again, maybe the keg was magical, Greco joked.
He won a City Council election and four mayoral elections after sitting on it.
Decades after the hardware store closed, Greco lost the nail keg and then, in 2011, lost his fifth attempt at becoming mayor.
The water jugs
Most of Greco’s list was made up of typical political policy and growth accomplishments, but not all. We peeked over his hands, always active as he spoke, for a glimpse of his list.
Near the top, he wrote, “Put water jugs on every garbage truck” in the late 1960s.
What? Why would something that seems so small mean so much to him?
Greco recalled visiting the Florida Sentinel Bulletin in 1963 to thank publisher Blythe Andrews for supporting his winning campaign for City Council that year.
“He typed a few words, handed me a piece of paper, and told me to never forget this,” Greco said. “It read, ‘Never become a prisoner to the boundaries of your own ego.’”
To Greco, those words meant that he could not forget those he represented, to always put them above him.
“Those sanitation workers used to have to drink from yard hoses,” Greco said. “That is dehumanizing. We changed that.”
Pressed if that approach to politics is his legacy, Greco denied caring about legacy at all, and said, “That’s how I approached everything. It was about people. I think we are losing that. I think we need to be reminded of that.”
In 1950, the federal Kefauver Commission charged with exposing organized crime throughout the nation reported that Tampa, with elected officials and law enforcement allegedly on the take, was among the most corrupt cities.
It remained a hub for organized crime when Greco was elected mayor for the first time. So, at the FBI’s suggestion, Greco hired James “Babe” Littleton as police chief and tasked him to crack down on illegal gambling.
“It was a game changer in the respect that it brought integrity to the police department,” said Ken Larsen, who worked for Littleton’s vice squad. “We knew that Littleton was honest and would do what was necessary.”
Said Greco, “Littleton was so honest that he would probably have arrested his own mother if she stole a dime.”
Greco received pushback from those who worked in the numbers racket, some of whom he’d known since childhood or were longtime hardware store customers.
A group of gangsters met with Greco at one of their homes, hoping to sway him to their side.
They never threatened him. Rather, they begged him to have the police back off.
Illegal gambling “was bringing down the city,” Greco said. “It made us look bad and was hurting people. It had to end.”
At the meeting, Greco appealed to a friend whose son was murdered years earlier as part of an ongoing gangland war. Did he want other fathers to experience that same loss?
No one’s mind was changed, and Littleton’s police department aggressively went after the gangsters.
A few months after the meeting, that same friend was walking toward Greco on an Ybor sidewalk. The friend crossed the street and continued on the other side of the road. They never spoke again.
“It hurt,” said Greco. “But I understood. And I had to do what was right.”
Man of the people
Parts of the city burned in June 1967 during riots after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed Black teenager accused of robbing a photo store. Greco was on the City Council at that time.
In March of the following year, he was mayor when the city faced a similar incident.
A Black woman was arrested for being drunk in public. Onlookers thought the police were too aggressive. Tension mounted.
Greco recalled that Littleton wanted to send the police to clear the area. But Greco and Sheriff Malcolm Beard instead walked into the crowd and promised to listen to complaints if they went home peacefully.
Everyone lived up to their promise.
“His action should show the determination of Tampa to deal fairly with anyone protesting an inequality,” the Tampa Tribune editorialized later that week.
“The bubble gum-chewing mayor, Dick Greco, said he ‘walks in and out of bars’ on Main Street and Central Avenue a couple of times a week to talk over problems,” the then-St. Petersburg Times reported months later. “‘We had a problem of communication in the past,’ said Greco, who is called ‘Dick’ by the bar patrons.”
Meetings in the community and City Hall led to results, said Greco. His administration helped further desegregate the city by hiring Black residents for some positions for the first time — firefighters, assistant city attorney, secretary in the mayor’s office, head of the Tampa Housing Authority, and dozens more in administrative jobs.
“His administration helped Tampa turn the corner in race relations,” said Fred Hearns, the Tampa Bay History Center’s curator of Black history.
“All we had to do was listen,” Greco said.
To Greco, the most important campaign contribution he ever received was a tool.
During his City Council election in 1963, a carpenter approached Greco. He said Greco’s father gave him a hammer a few years earlier when he could not afford the tools that were needed to start a carpentry business.
“That business supported his family, and he was so grateful to my father,” Greco said.
The carpenter could not make a monetary donation but used that hammer to build campaign signs.
Fast-forward to 1990 when Greco’s son, also named Dick, was running for judge. That same carpenter again volunteered to build signs, using the same hammer.
“Life was like that,” Greco said. “We all wanted to help someone to achieve something.”
When Greco was elected mayor in 1995, Ybor City residents and businesspeople joked that the Latin District was so devoid of business that, during the day, they could take a nap in the middle of Seventh Avenue, its main thoroughfare.
Greco and Fernando Noriega, the city’s administrator of development, toured Ybor to determine what needed to be done to restore it.
They stopped by the vacant Perfecto Garcia Cigar Factory.
Noriega grew up in the surrounding neighborhood and his mother once worked at the factory. After school, Noriega told Greco, he would throw pebbles at the window closest to his mother and she would then toss down the house keys.
Then they stopped by the former headquarters for the Centro Espanol social club. Greco recalls how Noriega wiped tears, pointed to the corner where he proposed to his wife decades earlier and said that they had to restore the building.
“Everything was personal to us,” Greco said. “Politics can’t be a job. It has to be personal. You have to love the city. You have to consider it your home. For everyone in our administration, what we did for Tampa was personal.”
Centro Espanol became Centro Ybor under Greco. But the developer of the retail and office complex failed to pay the $9 million loan that was backed by the city. The city had to take on the debt, a move for which Greco is still criticized. Perfecto Garcia is just now being developed into apartments.
Overall, during Greco’s second two terms as mayor, a total of $245 million in public and private developments occurred in Ybor, according to a 2002 city report.
In 2002, Greco led a Tampa delegation to Havana in hopes of paving the way to friendlier relations, long before former President Barack Obama traveled there in 2016.
Greco tried to appeal to Fidel Castro’s ego.
“I told him that he could win a Nobel Peace Prize,” Greco said. “And that he could decide, not the United States, that communism is dead. I told him that he could be a hero.”
Castro replied, according to Greco, “I didn’t know mayors could be philosophers” and asked that he return at another time for a further discussion.
But that Cuba trip was privately planned. Greco wanted to return as part of a delegation officially endorsed by the United States. He was rejected by the federal government and hasn’t been back.
“That’s a regret,” Greco said. “I think we could have made some change.”
Meeting with Castro was controversial in Tampa.
Patrick Manteiga, the publisher of La Gaceta newspaper, was part of the delegation. He editorialized that “this was the finest moment in Greco’s long career as a politician ... I saw a fine diplomat and a passionate humanitarian.”
But in 2003, while at a West Tampa restaurant during the final months of his administration, a man who fled Cuba as a child refused to shake Greco’s hand because it once touched “the devil,” Castro.
“But I’d go back to Cuba tomorrow if I could make a difference,” Greco said.
Greco said he’s not comfortable with the current norms in politics, where he believes mudslinging is a campaign tool. “I would never do that. Ever.”
That philosophy dates to when he first ran for City Council.
A campaign staffer wanted Greco to be more aggressive in asking for money and attacking opponents. Greco refused.
“He told me, ‘Well what good can you do for the city if you lose,’” Greco said. “I wondered if he was right.”
Seeking advice from his minister, Greco was told to read the Bible.
“I opened a random page,” he said. “It was the Book of Proverbs 16:8 and the first sentence I saw was ‘Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues without right.’ There was my answer. I wouldn’t do it.”
He stuck to it when running for mayor in 1967 against incumbent Nick Nuccio, who referred to Greco as a “paint salesman” with a family hardware store that only survived because of political favors, according to Tampa Tribune coverage of the race.
Some campaign staffers wanted Greco to retaliate with insults.
“It will be to the everlasting credit of the maturity and intelligence of Mr. Greco that although many men would have fallen for this old trick, he maintained his pledge to the people that the campaign for mayor of the City of Tampa would not be turned into a ‘political circus,’” the Tampa Tribune editorialized.
During the 2011 mayoral election, supporters approached Greco about starting a political action committee to anonymously take shots at the other candidates.
Greco wouldn’t do it and failed to make the runoff between Rose Ferlita and winner Bob Buckhorn.
He has no regrets.
“I couldn’t have respected myself,” he said. “And then, what would I really have?”