Iconic mayor returns to his hometown

Dick Greco, 87, four-time mayor of Tampa, talks with the Tampa Bay Times about his life and career. It’s a two-part Weekly Conversation appearing in Sunday’s Community Spot.
Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco poses for a portrait at his balcony in Tampa on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020.
Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco poses for a portrait at his balcony in Tampa on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 13, 2020

Times Correspondent

Dick Greco, grandson of cigar makers and four-term mayor of Tampa, is back home. He and his wife, South Tampa physician Linda McClintock, moved within the last few weeks from their condo in St. Petersburg, where they had lived for nearly five years, to a condo in the Virage high-rise on Bayshore Boulevard. Greco said they were making so many trips to Tampa they decided it was time to move back.

Tampa’s skyline is the view from his balcony. Greco remembers the city’s first skyscraper. “And here we are, 50 some years later. All you see is cranes and new buildings going up everywhere you look.’'

Greco, now 87, was vice-president of the King-Greco Hardware Company in Ybor City when he beat the popular Nick Nuccio in 1967 to become mayor at age 34. He said the need to put three children through college led him to resign from office in 1974 to go to work as an executive with the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. After 20 years with the company, Greco was elected mayor for two more terms, serving from 1995 to 2003.

Greco talked with the Tampa Bay Times about his life and career. The conversation is presented in two parts. Part Two appears next Sunday.

Where in Tampa were you born?

I grew up in Seminole Heights, on Shadowlawn Avenue. Born in the house. An aunt of mine was a midwife that delivered about 1,200 babies in Tampa. (She) delivered me. …

My dad had a little defect. He had one hand that was paralyzed a little bit and one leg about an inch shorter. He had a little limp. ...He never wanted to have children because he felt I was going to have the same thing. … When I started to cry in the back room when I was born, my aunt said, “You can come, the baby’s born.’' And he walked in and looked at my mom and wouldn’t look at me. And she said, “You can look at him. He’s perfect.” And that night my mother and dad decided to never have any more children, ‘cause I was “perfect.” And that’s the way they treated me all my life.

Your maternal grandfather was Spaniard and everyone else in the household Italian. Did you learn both languages at a young age?

We had no choice if you wanted to understand. My grandparents lived in the house with us for a long time. And of course, we spoke Spanish to him and Italian to everybody else.

Mayor Dick Greco surrenders keys to Pirate Gasper the Parade Marshall at Gasparilla in 1968.
Mayor Dick Greco surrenders keys to Pirate Gasper the Parade Marshall at Gasparilla in 1968. [ Times (1968) ]

And you say your grandparents contributed hundreds for your qualifying fee to run in 1967.

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My grandfather, before I ran for mayor, called me to the house. ... He said, “Your grandmother and me want to pay for that.” I said, “Well, that’s great,’' gave them a hug, and left …

My dad called me after two or three days. … He said, “Come get that money.’' I said, “Dad, I can’t take that money.’' … He said, “You don’t understand. They don’t have anything to worry about. They live with us. It means a lot to them. Please.’' So (my grandfather) gave me the check and he said, “Do me a favor’' -- in broken English; he didn’t speak English really well – “If you win, I want to be there.’'

The night that I won I sent somebody to get him. And before I started to say thank you at campaign headquarters, we had on Platt street... I heard him walk up to (a minister friend) … and he said, “I don’t care if I die now. I’ve seen everything I want to see.’'

How did you decide to run against Nick Nuccio, who seemed like a legend even then?

He was a legend to everybody, including me. I liked him so much. …

There were so many things that I noticed that were not what they should be back then, but it was a way of life. If you wanted streetlights on a street, for instance, you got everybody on the street to sign and all of a sudden you got a streetlight. Or a hole in the road, or anything that was done individually. It felt like that’s the way you operated… but it didn’t make any sense. They’d go pave one street one day and then go to Seminole Heights the next day from South Tampa. I saw that wasn’t the right way to go.

Why was bolita, an illegal gambling game similar to today’s state lottery, an early target of yours?

It was a blight on our community. And when I first got elected mayor I knew I had to have a police chief that would take care of that and any other problem that needed to be done that wasn’t done on a “my friend’' basis. So I went to the FBI and I asked for names of who they thought would be a good police chief. And asked a lot of police officers. And they came up with the name of (James) “Babe” Littleton, who I didn’t know. ...

I remember calling him to the office ... I remember saying to him, “If I asked you to do something every once in a while, that wasn’t just so but not real bad, would you take care of it for me?” He said, “Nope. You’ve got the wrong guy.’' And I said, “Good.’'

What was the push-back from the people who ran bolita?

I had a meeting with many of the head people. One of the guys, a good friend, good family, came into my hardware store all the time. Used to bring me gifts from Spain, when I was a kid. ... His son was killed in the business. Somebody blew his head off. And we had this meeting and Babe knew about it. ... I’m sure he had someone watching. It was in someone’s home (near) Cuscaden Park. Many of the top folks were there. And I remember one of them saying, “Why are you doing this to us? We love you; we love your family. We’ve never (done) anything against you.”

I said, “It’s not that. All of you have got kids. ... I said do you realize that people with (Latin) names like we have will never amount to anything, their children won’t either (if bolita continues)?’' ... They certainly wanted their families to excel and do various things, and it’s something that they understood immediately when I said that.