CLEARWATER — Over the last several decades, there was one person more than any other whose phone would ring when local reporters, city officials or curious minds had a question about Clearwater history.
Mike Sanders spent his life chronicling the people and events of Tampa Bay’s third largest city, in several books and countless public speeches, but also in living rooms and conversations with anyone interested in learning.
Mr. Sanders, who was named Clearwater’s honorary historian in 1988 by the then-City Commission, died of natural causes on Dec. 14 following an eight-year struggle with depression, according to his wife, Sara Sanders. He was 74.
“He really was the keeper of history,” Mayor Frank Hibbard said. “You may know the surface story on stuff, but you wouldn’t know the backstory. Mike did because he knew all the people that really cared about the backstory.”
Mr. Sanders’ curiosity for the past was sparked by the story of his family’s arrival in Clearwater in the 1920s amid the land boom sweeping the state, according to Mr. Sanders’ cousin, Lawrence Dimmitt III. Their grandfather, Lawrence Dimmitt Sr., left Savannah as a car salesman in 1924 and bought a Ford dealership on Drew Street that would evolve into today’s Dimmitt Automotive Group.
“He found it all fascinating, and he used that as a springboard of inquiry,” Dimmitt said.
The boys grew up together playing in the woods and citrus groves around the Sanders home in Belleair, just south of downtown Clearwater. It’s where he’d become fascinated with the Belleview Biltmore Hotel, built by railroad tycoon Henry Plant in 1896. Beginning in the early 2000s, Mr. Sanders would be part of the unsuccessful fight to save it from redevelopment.
Mr. Sanders was a high school sports star, earning varsity letters in football, basketball and baseball at Berkeley Preparatory School and throwing legendary parties in his parents’ Belleair basement, said lifelong friend Jimmy Stem.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of South Florida in 1970, Mr. Sanders worked a few years selling cars with his family’s Sanders-Dimmitt Cadillac and more time as a realtor, specializing in historic homes.
His passion for local history was his real life’s work, and he’d go on to write three books. His first was Clearwater: A Pictorial History in 1983. His next work, in 1991, focused on the church where he worshiped: A History of Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church. And in 2012, he co-authored Florida’s Historic Places.
“No one knew more about Clearwater history than Mike, he just knew it front and backwards,” said Tim Ohr, who co-authored Florida’s Historic Places with Sanders.
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Mr. Sanders was known to leave people with touches of his creativity. He stopped by Hibbard’s home in the historic Harbor Oaks neighborhood in the late 1990s to tell him more about the doctor who built the historic structure. He later gifted Hibbard a hand-drawn sketch of the house.
Inside birthday cards for friends and family, he’d write poems and rhymes.
Sara Sanders met her future husband in 1983 at a chamber of commerce event she attended while she owned a downtown gift shop named Crackers and Mr. Sanders had just published his first book. They married four years later in 1987 at the gothic-style Andrews Memorial Chapel in Dunedin, which Mr. Sanders chose for its historic significance.
Mr. Sanders became a stepfather to Sara Sanders’ son, Tandy Little, and by then was deep in his work chronicling local history. He initiated an oral history program for the City of Largo in 1980 and spearheaded the successful 1983 effort to save the Plumb House from demolition, which would become the home of the Clearwater Historical Society.
He served years on the board of directors for Clearwater Historical Society and was the infallible go-to expert for local reporters. He is quoted in stories talking about everything from the Tocobaga Native Americans who were here before the colonists arrived to the history of the city’s roads and bridges.
“Lots of people, they don’t even know we have a history here, they think history is what happened up north. I love making them open up their eyes to what’s here,” Mr. Sanders told the Tampa Bay Times in a 2005 article.
He had a passion for blues and beach music and had probably one of the best days of his life, said his cousin Dimmitt, at his 60th birthday party at Carlouel Yacht & Beach Club, where his all-time favorite band, The Tams, played just for them.
But family and friends noticed a shift about eight years ago. The always joking and cheerful Mr. Sanders had turned inward. Calls from friends went unanswered. He stopped smiling and had no interest in reading. Years of intensive therapies had no effect, Sara Sanders said.
“I kept having hope he would get better but I really think that’s why he died, he was just tired of the struggle,” she said.
It was a painful transition for someone who had shown such a joy for life, said longtime friend and city council member David Allbritton. But his death is a reminder of the need for someone to step up and record the past, he said.
“History fades away if you don’t record it, and Mike at least said ‘I’m going to document this so people can read it,’” Allbritton said. “That was the most impressive thing, his genuine interest in the history of our city.”